Integrational projects in Munich and Vienna

(Day 18)

“Integration? It’s a peace of cake for me. I go out, talk to people. And I love Vienna. I have a nice job and made many friends. The most amazing place for me during the day and sometimes during the night – because summer here is not always summer – is Prater. Laying on the grass, enjoying the calm. I like it.”

– Paula worked the past seven years as a manager of a beauty centre in Damascus and is now a waitress at Habibi & Hawara in Vienna

How can Europe integrate the heightened influx of refugees arriving in the long-term? And what actions do we have to take ‘on our part’ to accomodate  successful relations and a growing together? These were questions which were high in the news headlines during the last year. Timo and I spent the last few days exploring how the integration process can be designed from within western societies. We visited people and organizations that symbolize the whole process, from first arrival to a long-term future as an individual person.

Last Tuesday we spoke with Mustafa K. Isik in Munich. He is the head designer of the app ‘Ankommen’. It provides information about the legal asylum process, job procedures and about traditions and customs in German society from a neutral point of view, among many other things. With over 150.000 combined downloads it helps refugees and aid workers alike to ease the struggle of arriving in a new and unknown state on a daily basis for everyone involved. In our interview we also touched upon how important the smartphone is for someone fleeing a country in the digital age and how it simplifies the processes for everyone involved, including the potential host countries. The theme of the interview: Integration 2.0.

Benjamin Fritz, founding member of Train of Hope met up with us at the Vienna central station and informed us about their work during last fall, where at peak times over 5000 refugees passed through the train station daily. Benjamin and his friends started passing out water one day with a few wooden benches. Four weeks later, supported by countless volunteers, they were providing health, legal and psychological advice, fed the hungry and clothed every refugee in need.

We were also invited for a culinary experience of integration at the restaurant Habibi & Hawara in Vienna. Run by former refugees and local chefs in collaboration it showed us how long-term integration can look like.

Happy. Thank you. More please. transitioned from coordinating urgent clothing donations in 2015 into a Happy Market, where refugee families and asylum seekers can now make an appointment. Guided by volunteers they then have an hour to pick and choose from ther warehouse what they really need. It looks like a store, with changing rooms and everything.

Timo and I were impressed by all those volunteers and their engagement with and devotion for the refugee ‘crisis’. We also saw again that integration is a long-term process which requires both the people on any side to overcome differences and undertake the first step towards each others’ culture together.

The Calais ‘Jungle’ is not wild after all

[Day 13]

Last Friday, Timo and I visited the infamous ‘Calais Jungle”, a refugee camp in Northern France where currently between 4000 and 5000 people live in tents, donated camper vans and self-made cabins. Timo wrote an opinion piece on our visit which summarizes our thoughts and discussions that we had after our visit.

The Calais ‘Jungle’ is not wild after all

The French city Calais is host to over five thousand migrants, each of them living either in the infamous Jungle near the Eurotunnel or spread across different squads in the same area. The Jungle exists since early 1999 when migrants from Kosovo arrived to the French city. However, it owes much of its fame to the recent arrival of refugees who come from Afghanistan and Sudan.

Ever since this influx, media has reported on the situation in Calais with daunting stories. Images of violence and burned-down tents have made the headlines. However, the stories of the every-day life in the camp have been rather unheard. I don’t mean to say that violence is not, at least occasionally, part of the life in the Jungle, but these incidences are a few extreme examples of heightened tension in the camp and do not reflect the overall, day-to-day atmosphere. The energy on behalf of migrants who are stuck amidst their pursuit for a better life can transform into frustration and conflict, but it has also generated a near village-like organisation in the camp. Knowing that there is little going back or forth for most inhabitants, they started to create a temporary home for themselves.

During my visit there I received a hair cut in one of the hair salons in the camp, followed by a dinner in the Sunshine Restaurant that serves Afghan national cuisine, before heading over to the Darfur School where refugees can learn English and French. There are also a number of churches and mosques. Some of them are just a few meters away from each other, and people coming from either direction occasionally shake hands and engage in brief conversations. This contradicts a large part of media reports that suggest diversity in the camp has led to nothing but conflict and ethnic tension. No, it has also led to greater tolerance, perhaps even acceptance between the people with various ethnic and religious backgrounds.

If I were in the shoes of any of the people living in the Calais camp, I would sooner or later try to find ways to release my anger. A warm meal and some new clothes could not tame me if I had spent the past few months trying to reach a safer place without any success and any prospect of betterment. Speaking to a number of aid workers and refugees in the camp, I heard the same message again and again: “When frustration reaches its peak, this is when journalist come and take out their cameras. Up to this point, however, where people concentrate their energy and hopes to overcome their struggles against all odds, news often don’t make it passed the Jungle’s fences.”

Reports about conflict and violence in the Jungle point out some of the ongoing problems in the camp. These problems are not generated by the refugees in the camp, but by the circumstances they live in. Facing this reality requires engagement with refugees, recognizing their human dignity and empathizing with their challenges ahead. I feel ashamed… last time I took a pepper spray with me to the Jungle. I prepared for conflict rather than conversation. Next time, surely, I will bring a dictionary instead.

I can only add that I have never had an experience where stereotypes were proven wrong as quickly as during our visit. Everything that I have ever heard about this place was overturned over the course of five hours. From now on I will try to not call it Jungle anymore as this term does not fit the reality that we witnessed there. Yes, it is somewhat of a legal non-place, where people live in unbearable conditions and where violence does occur. But it also is a suitable example that even in the most dire circumstances humans will still be, well, just that. Alive, with dreams and hope and dignity. The most valuable lesson that we took away from this day is best expressed in the words of Samuel Goldwyn:

‘ Go see it and see for yourself why you shouldn’t go see it’ .

 

To be continued…

Cooking in the Grande-Synthe refugee camp

[Day 11]

We spent the past few days with volunteers from the Kesha Niya Kitchen in the Grande-Synthe refugee camp. The kitchen is providing meals for around 700 people three times a day (or rather at night, given it is Ramadan). It is run by VolxKüche München and they rely entirely on volunteers, donations and charity. They are urgently looking for new volunteers (cooks, artists, everyone really). Their work is quite extensive and not just limited to cooking… I realized this at latest when I drove to the Calais train station with a borrowed van, picking up a Kurdish family that was stranded there at 3am. So please get in touch with them if you are willing to lend a helping hand.

As for us, it is difficult to put our experiences into words. Florian and I had a few emotional moments during our visit: this starts with hearing about the individual stories of some people in the camp, such as Hussein who is turning 17 soon and tried to flee to the UK during the night we stayed in Grande-Synthe. He made it passed the first two Eurotunnel checkpoints run by the French but was caught at the third control by the British (a process that is somewhat typical and perhaps an indication for planned illegal migration by France?). On the day we left the camp he was preparing to attempt the same journey again that night. We will never fully understand how much pressure there must be for a 16 year old to undertake such a risky journey again and again. We also saw a lot of talent in the camp, especially among the younger children who spoke to us in fluent English. We also encountered strikingly beautiful art… paintings, poetry and music: Shakar, for instance, showed me his superb guitar skills  (I play guitar since 15 years and couldn’t keep up with his fingerplay!). We talked about Paco de Lucia and he showed me Flamenco rhythms on the guitar. Perhaps the most sobering moment was our visit to the children’s center. Once we arrived we saw the kids playing around with a bike and munching on some free candy lollipops – something rather commonplace at children’s playgrounds. Yet this ordinary playing field soon transformed into an unconventional scene: the kids jumped onto a relatively large carrier, hid in its compartments and then drove it around the room yelling “UK… Britain…UK!!”. Our Kurdish friend explained to us that they were acting out an escape; the carrier being a large truck on its way to the UK, the smuggler – played by a three year old – opening the little compartments for them to hide, you name it. The kids transforming something so serious into a seemingly fun play seems to be their way of processing what happens in the camp. Our Kurdish friend had teary eyes when saying “These are our children… this is how they play.”

Initially, the camp may appear as a misery with its 650-700 people stuck amidst their pursuits for a better live. Nevertheless, once we focused more on the individual stories of people – instead of looking at the collective – we experienced hope, talent and extreme generosity within the community. We sincerely hope that our documentary will ultimately portray these experiences through the various stories and snapshots we captured.

Now off to the Calais ‘Jungle’.

Greetings, Timo & Florian

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Arrived in France!

[Day 6]

After cycling 120km – our longest day tour thus far – we finally made it to France. We still have another 80km to go until we arrive in Calais. We are both excited and slightly anxious about getting there… most organizations we contacted are overwhelmed with their workload so naturally it will be challenging for them to find time for interviews etc. However, we are equipped with a few phone numbers we can call once we arrive in the camp. The ‘Jungle’ will be the first refugee camp we will visit during our project, and probably one of the most discussed by media as well. We look forward to exploring ourselves how well these discussions reflect the situation there. Stay tuned for more.

Lastly, here are two videos we would like to refer you to. One of John Green, who visited Zaatari in June. And the other about refugee/migrant terminology. We hope you find it interesting!

 

Timo & Florian

 

The Hague – Brussels

[Day 4]

Since our start from The Hague we have traveled roughly 190km to Brussels by bike. Throughout the journey we learned a thing or two about sore muscles, sleeping in a forest, fixing bikes, using band-aids, and more… Our latest activity included an interview with Elona Bokshi, Senior Project Manager at the European Council on Refugees in Exiles (ECRE).

“We are not solving the issue if we are closing our borders… or if we are creating this fortress of Europe.”

Elona Bokshi at ECRE
Elona Bokshi at ECRE
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It’s Kick-Off Day!

[Day 1]

Yes, that”s right. the Countdown above is now counting up. That means we have finally started our trip!

After a very busy week full of last-minute tasks and finishing our university essays, we are now officially on the road. This morning we drove our – quite overloaded – bikes to the Peace Palace, where some of our friends were already waiting for us to wish us good luck on the road. From there we put our first destination in our GPS – Rotterdam! And as you can see in the picture, we did make it after a beautiful two-hour cycle along the famous Dutch canals. Here we are staying with our classmate Yora Veerkamp for the night – Thanks Yora!

Besides being warmer than expected we encountered our first companion, which we haven’t planned with. There were many grass pollen flying around and Timo is contrary to the usual quite affected by them. Running nose, constant sneezing and dry eyes, he got it all. We’ll see how it goes during the next couple days and hope that it doesn’t have too big of a impact on his physique over the long run.

To be continued… 🙂

 

Day 1 to Rotterdam

Bike Equipment: Check!

[6 days until departure]

Yes, that is correct. Finally, there is less than a week on the clock. It is very unreal in our minds and sometimes we think that we have not quite yet realized what is about to happen. However, despite a rollercoaster of emotions and a heap of small last-minute things that have to be organized, we are full of anticipation.  The four generous donations which we have received so far did their part to ensure that we put our very best into the planning process. Thanks to Pamela, Annette and Manus!

What really gave us motivation today was the support we received from the amazing staff at a special local bike shop here in Den Haag. Prijssnijder is not only a trusted retailer of Merida but they also manufacture their own brand of bikes. The head mechanic Melvin took five hours to ‘cloth’ our bikes with all necessary equipment. He attached durable locks, mounted rear carriers, ordered saddle bags, gave us water bottles, streamlined saddles and put enough lights and reflectors on the bikes to make us visible from a mile away.  You can expect a video before we leave!

For now, a big shout out to the owners Nick van Rijswijk and his dad, for deciding to sponsor Refugee Roads. We will make good use of their amazing equipment. If you are also looking for excellent service and a fair price/quality ratio, make sure to pay them a visit!

So long,

Florian & Timo

Updating the Countdown

Hey Friends!

Even though we are currently in the middle of our final exam week, we want to take the time to inform you about something, which we were hoping to avoid. Timo and I will need more time to finish our most important essay this semester. Due to us picking up the bikes from Merida on Friday (yup, we’re excited to finally receive them as well!) and moving to our new appartement, we can only start working on it later than initially expected.

We’re thus planning now with starting our journey from the Peace Palace on June 6 at the absolute latest. So here is our new countdown:

[11 days until departure]

Stay tuned, your

Florian & Timo

 

Bikes Are Here!

[12 days until departure]

Exciting news: This morning we received the final OK from our sponsors in regards to the Refugee Roads bikes!

MERIDA Germany is equipping us with two 29er Hardtail MTB’s in the Big Nine Team Issue. Over the course of the past five weeks we worked together with their very helpful staff, namely Thorsten Lewandoski and Mario Meßmer, to organize the logistics. We are overwhelmed with the support and trust that MERIDA is placing in us and are happy that they are enabling us to undertake this journey.

Next week we will drive to Mönchengladbach to pick the bikes up at Georg’s Fahrradladen. The guys there will receive the delivery and assemble them for us. Thanks to you in advance already!

This will be our trusted home for the next two months!
This will be our trusted home for the next two months!

Gadget Shopping

[17 days until departure]

Wow, what a day. 10 hours of watching online reviews, reading technical specifications and comparing prices lie behind us. But we succeeded! We finally have ordered all necessary equipment for our trip. Our empty bank accounts are the proof of that 😉

 

Teasi One³

For our biking GPS, we decided to go with the Teasi One³, as pictured above. It is rather affordable if you consider how value-packed it is. Mounted on our bicycles it will guide us along the Balkan Route as we are able to download all country maps in Europe for free.

 

 

GoPro 4 SilverWe have also settled now on the Videocameras which we’ll use to record the Refugee Roads. We have looked into DSLR’s, Camcorders, and various alternative Actioncams. But in the end, it is hard to beat the GoPro series. We approached several distributors, including GoPro themselves, for possible sponsorship. However, without success. So we went ahead and ordered one GoPro 4 Silver and one used GoPro 4 Black. The Black will be used for slow-motion shots and interviews, whereas the Silver will primarily be used to capture the action along the way.

In addition,we purchased a lot of small but necessary supplementary helpers, which range from a solar charger, a power bank, and multiple mini-SD Cards to an external monitor for the iOgrapher and a variety of mounts for the GoPros.

We are obviously not only spending money but we are working on many other fronts, which we will talk about in due time #bike sponsoring 😉  There are so many puzzle pieces which are needed for our trip and we’ve added a couple more to the picture today. With less than three weeks to go, Refugee Roads is starting to take shape. We’ll keep you updated!

 

Have a great and sunny weekend,

 

Florian & Timo