The Scramble To Find Refugee Housing
Tens of thousands of asylum seekers have made their way into Germany in recent weeks. For those who reach Berlin, one of the first stops is the Office for Health and Social Affairs.
There, on a recent afternoon, I meet a 22 year old Syrian named Ahmed. He is squatting in the shade of a tree while his brother stands in a line of hundreds to apply for lodging. The two fled Damascus after an unknown group threatened to kidnap them, according to Ahmed . He thinks probably because his father works for the government of Bashar al Assad. He speaks of an arduous journey to Berlin, via Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, where they escaped detention and ran to hide in the forest as police helicopters searched overhead.
"Nowhere to sleep. Nothing to eat. It's very difficult, dangerous,” Ahmed says, describing his time spent in hiding.
Ahmed is grateful for the considerably warmer welcome he's found in Germany, where officials plan to consider more than 800 thousand asylum applications this year.
But the scale of that undertaking has left local authorities scrambling to administer its rollout.
On his cell phone Ahmed shows me photos of where he found refuge the last few nights - pictures of children sleeping slumped over desks in a classroom. Or packed like sardines side by side along the length of a hotel hallway. When I ask where he’ll sleep that night, he says he has no idea.
In Berlin, the task of accommodating people in Ahmed’s situation often falls to Manfred Nowak, the chairman of AWO Berlin-Mitte. The organization oversees dozens of the city's shelters where asylum seekers spend their first three months while their cases are considered.
Nowak says that Berlin will receive about 5% of the total number of asylum seekers distributed around the country, which could mean at least 40,000 people, more than twice what had been expected.
Local authorities are doing what they can to accommodate them, but have had to turn to less than ideal solutions, putting people in tents even as winter approaches.
Nowak explains, “We need places for them to stay. We need places to be built for them to live... the problem is, at the moment, that we're having to even build tents. That something we really didn't want to do. We were even at the point where we were using sports halls from schools and everything like that, and even that we didn't want to do. Just because of the numbers of people we're getting we have to build up tents."
Ahmed does not think that will dissuade more Syrians from coming. Everyday they have more reasons to come, believes Issam, a new Syrian friend sitting beside him. Things were simpler when the fight was only between the Free Syrian Army and forces loyal to the government, says Issam.
“But now, so much. Free army, government army, Islam. So much. 6 or 7 fight together," he continues.
That’s why he left. And why more will follow.
Issaam goes on to say, “Because Germany, on the TV, welcome to Germany. And the people is very fantastic. I need to thank the people of Germany and to thank the government of Germany. Because they say welcome to Germany."