how berlin's creative community are responding to the refugee crisis

From AirBnb for refugees to education programmes and work schemes, Berlin's start ups and creatives are finding new ways to help those in need.

by Will Coldwell
07 December 2015, 1:25pm

On the top floor of a building on Potsdamer Strasse, up several flights of stairs and past the office of the Somali Embassy, you'll reach the home of Migration Hub. A dressed-down room consisting of scattered office furniture, laptops and pieces of paper stuck to the wall covered with scribbled ideas. It's not exactly the chic, minimalist workplace you'd expect for a forward thinking Berlin start up, but Migration Hub is one of the latest of a new wave of initiatives emerging from the German capital's creative community focussing on ways to improve the situation of the millions of refugees arriving in the city from the Middle East and North Africa. They were offered the space for free and, well, there are more important things to worry about.

"We have a lot of newcomers here," co-founder Katharina Dermühl tells me, using the preferred term adopted by refugees in Berlin to describe themselves. "We were seeing that the existing structures don't work, but we also saw a lot of disconnect in initiatives trying to solve this. We thought if we created a space for people to join forces that would be a great help."

Founded in mid-September, Migration Hub aims to provide a physical space for people who want to use their skills to support the growing number of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe. As well as being a meeting, event and community space that has led to new platforms being developed, Migration Hub, which is run completely by volunteers, is also the base for the ambitious education initiative Kiron University; a free, online, open university for refugees.

Germany expects up to 1.5 million asylum seekers to arrive in the country this year, and in Berlin, where a significant number end up, there has been a notable effort from the city's booming creative and start-up scene to support the new arrivals. These range from projects to teach newcomers to code, such as Refugees on Rails, to Refugees Welcome, dubbed "AirBnb for refugees", a website that matches new arrivals with spare rooms. The city is setting a strong example with regards to how people working in these fields can support Europe's refugee "crisis" - whichever city they are based in. Helping those in need, as Dermühl explains, does not necessarily mean working in a soup kitchen.

Spending time in the city it's impossible not to notice the passionate and diverse response, be it a new app or a solidarity club night. For a visitor at least, that mix of creativity and activism all feels distinctly "Berlin", but I wanted to speak to some of the people behind the projects to understand better how the city's unique make up helps facilitate creative solutions to global problems when they show up on its doorstep, and what we can learn from their approach.

Migration Hub might be the latest iteration of the trend, but one person I particularly wanted to speak to was Annamaria Olsen, who founded one of the city's leading hubs for grassroots volunteering back in 2013 - Give Something Back to Berlin. The community integration platform brings together everyone from refugees to privileged migrants by creating a one-stop-shop for intercultural activities. The simple website lists a constant stream of help wanted or help offered and the organisation also run their own regular social events - such as its weekly refugee cooking group each Sunday. It's been a welcome alternative to the bureaucratic challenges to getting involved with more official projects. Since launching it has engaged around 700 volunteers from up to 50 different countries.

I ask Olsen - who is originally from Sweden - what drove her to start the project. "When it comes to the whole migrant issue, the creative scene is already extremely cosmopolitan," she explains. "It has migration in its veins, so it felt up to us to give our time to this. Because it's our privilege to be able to move around."

This attitude, she says, permeates throughout the city thanks to its history as a creative and politically aware place. "What's unique with Berlin is that you have this culture of being socially conscious," she says. "Resistance is in the city's blood."

Still, although it's easy to find examples of creative projects focusing on refugees, not all appear particularly feasible. Many are merely repetitions of existing ideas, or well-meaning ideas and projects that seem unlikely - like so many new apps we see created these days - to ever pick up any users. I mention this to Olsen, who explains that since September - when the tragic and disturbing photographs of a dead Syrian child on a Turkish beach were published around the world - there has been a big surge in the desire to help. And though there is a lot of energy, she admits a lot of ideas are still in their early stages.

"There were a lot of projects popping up from people who you could tell had never met a refugee," she says. "Or projects where they came together to "solve the refugee crisis" but there were no refugees there. The engagement was all very theoretical. Of course it's super positive that there are so many people wanting to get involved. You just have to be aware of how to do it. Sometimes there are very simple, down to earth engagements that can be better."

In one way, this is one of the problems that Migration Hub is trying to tackle. During my visit, Dermühl made similar criticisms and she's keen to avoid Migration Hub falling into the same trap. "We want to involve newcomers in the initiative," she says. "I find it problematic if it's just us building stuff for them. I don't want this to just turn into a place where it's just hackers working on things".

One particularly unique (and successful) project to emerge in Berlin, and one that has negotiated its way through all these traps, is CUCULA, the Refugees Company for Craft and Design. The company - founded in late 2013 - considers itself a "corridor" through which new arrivals can establish themselves and develop a future perspective. Currently CUCULA have five refugee trainees building furniture in the workshop and 20 signed up to their education programme. The company provide accommodation for the trainees and supports them in the visa application process. This is funded through sales of the simple contemporary furniture they make, which has huge design appeal; recently Enzo Mari gave CUCULA permission to build and sell furniture based on his classic plans.

I spent some time speaking to Corinna Sy, a designer at CUCULA, who explains how although on one hand CUCULA is focused on supporting a small group of individuals to establish themselves in Berlin, they hope that by piloting a new model for social entrepreneurship it could have a wider impact; they are fighting on a political level for the right for refugees to work or be taken on as apprentices. "Some of these people have amazing skills, they want to work, provide for their lives, we need to open up the work structures," told me.

It's rare to find this attitude from a business, but for Sy Berlin is far more conducive to this kind of thinking than other cities. The concept for CUCULA, for example, came after some of the designers invited refugees at the Oranienplatz occupation to join them in building some furniture at their workshop.

"Berlin is very unconventional," she says. "It's a big power, a big force, people start with lots of passion and idealism. There's still space to experiment, have quick ideas and transform them into a reality. Other cities are more established. It's harder to let go and be experimental and there's not enough space."

And Berlin, with it's cheap space and collaborative spirit has these resources in abundance. As Migration Hub co-founder Dermühl, who happily quit her job to throw herself into her latest project, puts it: "Berlin is a place where you make stuff happen."

Space - cheap, available space - is of course one of the reasons Berlin stands apart as a creative city. The fact that a landlord in the centre of the city was happy to hand over a top floor office to a brand new start up rent free is a tribute to this. And when there's a "problem" that needs solving, having space to let people explore alternative - creative - solutions is an incredibly valuable social asset. "I think the creative industries could be a very important trigger in how we integrate refugees," she says. "We need to create new concepts and models, ways to deal with the problem in a positive way."

Berlin has taken on a big challenge in welcoming so many refugees into the city, but just as the city is able to happily facilitate its newcomers, it is also able to facilitate those trying to improve the situation of those people. The combination of space, solidarity and a sense of shared responsibility - that goes far beyond achieving profits - means people in Berlin are able to work towards solutions for problems that will create benefits far beyond the city itself.


Text Will Coldwell
Photography Miguel Discart

refugee crisis