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Germans Open Their Homes To Refugee Roommates

Mar 6, 2015
Originally published on March 7, 2015 8:47 pm

Asylum-seekers are flooding into Germany in record numbers, with more than 200,000 applying for that status last year, many from Muslim countries, according to the government.

This is fueling tensions on several fronts. Overwhelmed local officials often house the new arrivals in old schools and re-purposed shipping containers in neighborhoods where they aren't always welcome. The western German city of Schwerte even proposed placing 21 refugees in a barracks on the grounds of a Nazi-era concentration camp.

Berlin residents Mareike Geiling and her boyfriend, Jonas Kakoschke, have a different approach.

"We don't like the idea of putting these people into one place where many, many" people live, says Geiling, who is 28.

Kakoschke, a 31-year-old graphic designer, adds: "Many asylum-seekers have to stay there for years ... doing nothing, because they are not allowed to do anything.

"They are not allowed to work, they are not allowed to have German classes sometimes and sometimes it's not a city, it's a village and there's nothing to do and so you get depressed after years and stuff like this," he adds.

So the couple decided to launch Refugees Welcome, a website in English and German that matches asylum-seekers with people willing to share their homes with them. They have more than 400 applications in the works — in Germany as well as Austria.

Refugees "don't know each other, they are far from the city and so we like the idea that they are really living with us, like in our homes," Geiling explains.

She and Kakoschke were the first Germans to open their doors. Geiling is away most of this year on a teaching job in Cairo, so last December the couple sublet her room in their fourth-floor, walk-up apartment in the diverse, working-class neighborhood of Wedding to a Muslim man from Mali.

The 39-year-old, who is afraid of giving his name for safety reasons, has applied for asylum and is awaiting a work permit. In the meantime, Kakoschke and Geiling (who happened to be back in Berlin when NPR visited to the apartment) say they rely on donations to cover the new roommate's $430 share of rent and utilities.

Just like in any apartment shared by multiple people, compromise is key, the roommates say. They cook meals jointly and split up housework. Kakoschke jokes that the apartment has never been cleaner.

The roommate says he still can't believe Germans would open their apartment to asylum-seekers.

"It surprised me a lot because ... the people here don't want to see people like us in their land," he says.

Before his current arrangement, the roommate says, he had more or less been living on the streets since arriving from Italy a year ago.

"Sometimes I'd take the bus from different sector to different sector at nighttime until, you know, 2:30" in the morning, he says. Then he'd "get out and sleep for 20 minutes and go back on the train again sometimes and go back in the mosque and pray there for 30 minutes and sleep there for one hour."

He says it was his German teacher who found out about the roommate program and put him in touch with the couple.

It's easy to see that he and the couple get along well, and they say they have learned a lot about each other's cultures.

"I think I just asked when we met the first time if it's OK for him that I drink alcohol," Kakoschke says with a laugh. "He said, 'Yes, of course, it's your life, do what you want with it.'"

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We're going to learn now about a new website being used in Germany. It matches people willing to share their homes with those fleeing conflict and oppression. Germany took in more than 200,000 asylum-seekers last year. The government expects even more this year. And housing the refugees, many of them Muslims, is a huge challenge. Large groups are being housed in repurposed schools or shipping containers. Their sudden arrival has created tensions with Germans who live near the makeshift shelters. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson says the website offers a less divisive approach. She sent this report from the Berlin neighborhood of Wedding.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: It's a tight squeeze in this fourth-floor kitchen where Mareike Geiling, Jonas Kakoschke and their new roommate talk about preparing lunch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So what can you cook?

MAREIKE GEILING: (Speaking German) Heute kochen wir nicht.

NELSON: That's the roommate, who says he's afraid of giving his name because he fears for his safety. He's a Senegalese Muslim from Mali, and offers the German couple suggestions for the meal.

JONAS KAKOSCHKE: (Speaking German) Oh, Joghurt mit...

GEILING: No. No. Nein (Laughter).

NELSON: They decide to skip lunch and the three brew tea instead. Just like in any apartment shared by multiple people, compromise is key. But the new roommate isn't typical. The 39-year-old came to Germany illegally in search of work, one of many thousand arrivals applying here each month for asylum. He's the first to be paired with Germans opening their homes to asylum-seekers through a new website called Refugees Welcome. Co-founders Geiling and Kakoschke explain why they created the program as an alternative to official centers.

GEILING: We don't like the idea of putting these people into one place where many, many other peoples live. They don't know each other. They are far from the city. And so, we like the idea that they're really living with us, like, in our homes.

KAKOSCHKE: And in these, like, I don't know how to call it exactly, maybe refugee camps or something out of the city, many asylum-seekers have to stay there for years without doing nothing because they're not allowed to do anything. They're not allowed to work. They're not allowed to have German classes sometimes. And sometimes it's not a city, it's a village. And there's nothing to do. And so you get depressed after years and stuff like this.

NELSON: The roommate nods in agreement. He avoided the camps and instead lived on the streets when he first arrived in Berlin a year ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sometimes I'd take the bus from different sector to different sector at nighttime until, you know, 2:30 and get out and sleep for 20 minutes, and go back in the train again sometimes, and go back in the mosque and pray there for 30 minutes and sleep there for one hour.

NELSON: It was his German teacher who found out about the roommate program and put him in touch with the couple. Geiling says she wanted to sublet her share of the apartment because she's working in Cairo this year and is gone much of the time. So the roommate moved in three months ago. Since he legally isn't allowed to work yet, private donations are covering his $430 monthly share of the rent and utilities. The roommate says he still can't believe Germans would open their home to him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Laughter) It surprised me a lot because when I came in Berlin here, the people every day, like, they don't want to see people like us in their land.

NELSON: It's easy to see that he and the couple get along well. Geiling and Kakoschke joke the apartment has never been cleaner. The three say they've also learned a lot about each other's cultures.

GEILING: It's a good opportunity to live with a Muslim.

KAKOSCHKE: It is. It is.

GEILING: Maybe sometimes it's easier.

KAKOSCHKE: I just asked when we met the first time if it's OK for him that I drink alcohol. (Laughter). So...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

KAKOSCHKE: But just for fun. And he said yes, of course, it's your life. Do what you want.

NELSON: The couple says so far, they have about 400 applications from across Germany to their apartment sharing program. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.