Some 2500 asylum seekers and refugees with indeterminate status currently live in Munich. They are required by law to live in camps or what the Germans call Gemeinschafts-unterkünfte. Mostly built from construction containers or barracks, they can house from 60 to 400 persons.
Munich’s largest refugee camp with beds for up to 400 residents stands on a large car park near the International Congress Centre (ICM) in Riem and is presently “home” to about 360 single men and women, elderly people, babies, children and parents from over 30 countries and four continents. In rows of old barracks that once served the former Munich airport as temporary housing for its staff, residents pass most days in inactivity, hoping they will be allowed to remain in Germany, land of human rights. Some are newly arrived from Iraq, Afghanistan or Columbia; others left their homeland six, ten or even fifteen years ago. Their children were born here. They came from Kosova, Russia, Chechenia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, China, India, Iran, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Somalia, from all the troubled regions of the globe where war, political or religious oppression, ethnic cleansing or genital mutilation and poverty drive people to seek safety and freedom for themselves or their children.
These refugees have left family and culture behind, risked their lives and often spent the entire savings of family, friends or village to cross borders and oceans and start a new life in Europe, hoping to escape police harassment, to earn a living and perhaps send money home for those who could not get out. They hope their children will get the education that was often denied their parents. Many dream of returning home. Others see no chance that their land will find peace in the near future.
In the first year after they arrive in Germany asylum seekers are not allowed to work and must live from welfare. Asylum seekers receive subsistence below the legally recognised “existence minimum”. The expressed intention is to minimize the possibility of integration. Camp residents receive food packages twice a week. Adults are allowed 41 euros a month and children 20. With this pocket money they pay to ride public transportation to and from the public offices they must visit to get their papers renewed or - irony of all ironies - to apply for and receive those very welfare payments. Doctors may be visited after refugees have picked up a voucher from the welfare office. Major or chronic ailments can only be treated after the Health Department has determined that the operation or care is necessary. Even new glasses must be applied for through the Health Department.
These restrictive measures affect children drastically. For instance, school is expensive: Not only are children required to have a school bag, a pencil case, sport shoes and house shoes, they must purchase yearly a list of specific folders, notebooks, drawing blocks, coloured pencils and so forth as well as pay for photocopying, school outings, art materials and a host of other “small” costs. To cover these costs Caritas workers and concerned volunteers work all year to organize donations so that these children can participate as equals in school life.
Moreover, schools expect parents to review homework. But how do parents help with homework when they don’t speak or read German, maybe never attended school themselves? Volunteers organized by Caritas work daily in the camp in Riem answering children’s questions and translating notes from teachers for parents.
But no one can change the isolation these children endure. Ashamed to invite school friends home, they seldom develop friendships outside the camp. Camp friendships dissolve frequently when the state administration arbitrarily decides a family must move to another camp or that a camp be closed. (Between August and November 2007 three camps closed, forcibly removing some 500 men, women and children out of what community they had managed to create and changing the children’s schools after the new school year had started.)
Even the smallest forms of social participation are not open to these children: Their parents cannot send a birthday cake to school, because there are no ovens in the camp kitchen. Letters from teaching staff or parent councils are for them indecipherable missives whose official letterhead can appear threatening. School summer parties are mysterious events and require families to contribute food that frequently cannot be produced from the food packages. This segregation is detrimental to the children’s social development and language skills. That’s why enhancing the children’s chances is one of the main concerns of Caritas in the camp.
Despite the bleak aspect that greets visitors to the camp in Riem you will find children playing football and riding their bikes inside the high fence separating the camp from the outside world, romping through the corridors or peacefully doing their homework in the “learning room” run by Caritas and staffed by volunteers. Some corridors and outside walls have been gaily painted by children and a few corners of the car park asphalt removed and grass planted by social work students and residents. In the weekly Art Workshop therapists from Refugio (a therapy centre for torture and trauma victims) help children express their fears and hopes. In front of the door to the Caritas counselling offices residents wait to have letters translated, forms filled out, questions about their asylum case answered, to get help for a sick relative, to inquire about German or computer courses and myriad other concerns. In the afternoon you might see a volunteer starting off with a group of children for an excursion, or with their mums to learn swimming. Many days cars or bicycles pull onto the lot with donations of clothing, pampers or school materials.
Sound busy and effective, colourful and even cheery? It’s amazing how much life and energy you’ll find in the camp! Organized and run by one full time and one part time social worker with the help of one part time childcare worker the camp is bursting with activities. These wonderful programs that provide the children with a social life and a modicum of normalcy despite the meagre rations of their parents are financed exclusively through the generosity of concerned individual “friends of the camp”, a number or parishes and a few companies. Absolutely no money is provided by the state for these social programs. In addition about 45 volunteers come weekly or for special events.
Nevertheless, the situation is precarious. There is almost no political support for the work. Public funds subsidize between 30 and 35 % of staff time, Caritas finances 45 - 50 % of salaries and donations the remaining 20 %. Cutbacks in the last few years have reduced staff size from two full time social workers to 1 ½ and from one full time childcare worker to a half time worker in the Riem camp. New cutbacks loom every year in all of the seven camps connected to the Riem camp where Caritas workers have launched projects for children and their families. Donations and many caring people have kept the work alive and available in the camps where it reaches all and not just those able to get out and seek help. Here in the camps themselves it is possible and necessary to offer programs to enhance community life, to enable children to grow socially and intellectually, to support their parents in dealing with schools, doctors and officials. Projects like Homework Help, various playgroups for kids of all ages or the children’s percussion group, taktvoll, and the Big Brother / Big Sister program, nesola, for minor age refugees without families operate on low budgets with many volunteers but they are only successful, because they are accompanied and organized by professional staff who provide continuity and advice.
You can help keep these vital programs stay alive! Find out how: Get in touch through www.munichbloomsday.de ! Or come to David Norris’ One Man Show! Hope to see you there on May 31st. If you wish to donate to keep these childcare projects running and staff employed, be assured that all donations with the following code go directly to the projects to enable the Riem camp or others like it to keep staff and fund programs.
Donations to FD Asyl, Caritas Zentrum München Ost with the code PK ASYL Projekte 08, Hypovereinsbank, BLZ: 700 202 70, Kto. Nr. 341 496 66 are tax deductible. Questions: Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org .