Helping the refugees: A day of volunteer work and an insight into the refugee crisis in Germany

German student Laura Csapó talks about her time helping the refugees at Munich train station.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace prize winner.

In the last couple of weeks Germany formed a new movement – a “welcoming culture”.  Refugees are greeted happily. Helping – the new favourite topic. Of course these are the nicer reports in contrast to burning refugee hostels, radical right-wing demonstrations and discriminating facebook comments.

It’s quite obvious that clapping your hands to welcome these people and handing out a cuddly toy to a refugee child, just to give yourself a pat on the back, is simply not enough in the long haul. Still – it is something, it is important. What is necessary to achieve for the integration of refugees, socially and economically, that is something we’ll have to be concerned with for the next years. The decisive factor is that volunteer workers relieve the government but can’t fix the problems themselves.

Still solidarity and support is important. A lot of people would like to help, but can’t procure neither time nor courage to take these steps. Why fears of contacts are misguided and how helping feels: A report.

Helping the refugees

We don’t know a thing about it. We don’t know how hunger really feels. Hunger that is so ravenous, that a plate of stew is emptied by the minute. Replenishment demanded, now, please. We had to walk over to the lawn at “Richelstraße” in teams of two, where hundreds of refugees are sitting on the ground waiting. In teams of two, because food has to be handed out controlled so there is no chance in hell for a mob to occur, no chance for hundreds of hands to just grab a meal from the huge trays by themselves.

The empty hall which is the actual building, predestined as a transit spot for refugees, is just a couple of metres next to the lawn. But that hall is just not enough anymore.

It’s ten o’clock in the morning, still calm. A couple of helpers get their instructions, waiting to lend a hand. A short rest. The day before, 13 000 refugees have arrived in Munich. A lot of them had to sleep in shakedowns. And that has only worked because Munich flipped the switch. The welcoming culture won through. The completely exhausted people seeking help in Munich have been welcomed with donations and clapping. And they were given aid, thanks to the huge number of volunteer workers who sacrifice their vacations and their free time. Saturday was tough though. An endurance test.

Still, helpers are well positioned. The head of the volunteer team at “Richelstraße” has spent the night on the grounds. And then he starts coaching us about what to expect. What to expect in about half an hour, when the next train arrives.

How is volunteering exactly? What happens? We don’t have a clue, yet. We are seven in my group, arranged for one shift. Five and a half hours helping, but that won’t suffice today. All of us are students, having a loft of spare free time, the will to do something. What’ll happen when all the students continue studying, all the workers end their holidays, no one knows about that.

Our head of volunteering (The names of the volunteer workers can’t be mentioned due to privacy. The team of “Richelstraße” set great value on holding the press back from the grounds, especially to avoid photos and letting refugees arrive peacefully.) claps his hands, “you go, guys”. He’s glad we’re here, praising his team. The “Volksküche” Munich – the kitchen – has been providing food for the refugees for about a week now. No meat, vegan and especially: their national cuisine. Hummus, soups, spices like a home from home. Eventually he gets down to business. Few of the refugees are medically screened. They can only start grabbing a bite to eat after a team of doctors have seen them. So much for theory. A green wristband means healthy, a red one sick, the yellow one: “suitable for mass accommodation”. A hideous term.

Off we go. The first refugees arrive, everyone claps, smiles, waves. Later there won’t be time left to do that. Bananas, apples, sweets are handed out. Easy work at first. After an hour, distributing the food turns into a constant sprint. Three hundred new arrivals find themselves on the lawn next to the hall. The ways extend. Ten to twenty serves fit on a tray, not enough to provide for everyone equally. On the way back to the kitchen we face the next group of refugees – about fifty, and again and again and again. It happens so quickly, we break the rule to run in teams of two. A small boy is approaching me and points at the soups in my hands. I stop and try to quickly hand him a serve of soup. Turning back to my tray, dozens of hands grab the plates, surrounding me, asking for more. A family is sitting on a table asking for seven serves of soup for their kids – “I’ll come back” – my regular answer. Coming back, there is still one serve of soup missing, a little girl grabs my leg, “please” she says. I try to explain that I’ll hurry up. “I’ll come back”. She starts crying. It’s hard to maintain composure.

After three hours we finally made it. Everyone on the grounds has something to eat in their hands. “You guys rock”, the chef is happy. The first couple of people shake their heads when being asked if they need something more to eat. But a couple of them are simply too exhausted to eat.


And finally there’s some time left to actually take a glance at the people we’ve been serving food to for the last couple of hours. A short glance at them to finally see, how these people actually feel. There is a pregnant lady at the area of medical help. She’s skin and bones, her ankles swollen to tennis balls. A young guy catches me eyeing his legs, they are covered with bruises. Quickly he rolls down his trouser pants. When walking through the hall, a volunteer storms over to us. “We need an Arabic translator, two little boys can’t find their mom.” She takes care of it. We walk over to the boys, all in tears, no chance to calm them down. There is pure panic in our faces. What will happen if we can’t find the mom? Something like that is no isolated incident. I stroke the boy’s back, he has stopped sobbing. Staring straight ahead, silent tears are running down his cheeks. After a while the unbearable situation solves itself – the mum comes running, shakes her head, laughs and grabs her son. She just quickly went away. She completely underestimated the fear of her child.

Give yourself a rest, drink a glass of water, don’t underrate your burden – we get to hear these sentences repeatedly. But it’s not only sickening at “Richelstraße”. Yes, these people suffer. They suffer so badly, helpers from Munich’s middle class can’t even imagine. They starve, they are in pain, they cry. It smells like sanitizers, like dirt, like urine. It’s a transit spot with only the bare necessities: portable toilets, a couple of tables and benches, that’s it. We can only vaguely guess the stories behind their journey. A young mother from Syria can’t even believe us helping her carry four of her six bags. She says she loves Germany, Hungary not so much though. What she went through on her life threatening way to Germany, we don’t know anything about it.

And something particularly aches, the helplessness during helping. There is one single bus fetching some refugees during the whole of six hours our shift takes. The bus sits a number of 67 people. The rest has to wait. For a long time. How long – that’s a question the volunteers can’t even answer.  Where do they go? How long will the ride to the next city take? What happens then? We don’t have any idea about that. The volunteers who’ve been working here for a week agree on one thing: They feel abandoned by the government. There’s a lack of buses, a lack of support and especially: a lack of information.

Yet they invented a system: clothing stores, medical help, a kitchen, teams – they are perfectly coordinated. Helpers know how to help themselves.

After hours hundreds are sated, have been medicated and there’s finally some time left to actually take care of these people. And that’s when the little wonders begin to happen. A mother approaches me desperately, her pram is broken, her three-year-old daughter becomes heavier and heavier in her arm. She needs a new one. “I’ll ask.” Without raising hopes I’ll walk over to the donation store and ask. And indeed – there’s a pram. It’s an amazing feeling, almost triumphant to walk back to her with a positive answer. And there it is again – pure joy. Hands are shaken, thanks and smiles are given from all sides. We get more out of it than we actually gave. Feels a little bit like Mary Poppins, handing out a bucket packed with sweets – the kids are making a dive for the lollies, beaming. A father starts scolding them, talking to us in Arabic. Pretending he’s sorry about how his children behave. We start laughing, it’s unexpected politeness, unnecessary.

In the evening we start giving up, our legs and arms way too heavy – we are lazy students not used to working physically. We feel ashamed to even complain about exhaustion. Helping these people is worth every struggle, and there is a need for more help. It’s urgent at focal points like Munich, but especially in communities – the final destination for the many people entering the country. Help is needed for the long term. Those are people who experienced incredible harm, who live in war zones, in fear, in poverty. They risk everything to come here. Those are people in distress who need help. Letting them in is the only human decision. They are a chance for our society, socially as well as economically. A chance for humanity, which lacks so often. They are worth it.


No one really knows how to solve the asylum crisis in Germany. To get down to the root of the trouble, that is possibly the wisest idea. But for the moment, it’s all about help. Help that needs to be provided from the government, the states and Europe. From a European Union that carries the Nobel prize of peace. Still hundreds of people die in boats on the sea right before European borders. Those are people taking on a life-threatening escape. Someone fleeing like this to live in this country in containers and tents, who escapes war zones, has a right to be granted asylum. To even make it harder for them to get here is plain inhumane. Encountering refugees on Facebook and in everyday life with comments full of hatred and uneducated prejudices, is unacceptable.

To clear up some prejudices, here come the facts:

1.       “Refugees get more money from the government than the unemployed and pensioners”: Not true, they actually get a little less than unemployed, part of it is non-cash benefits.

2.       “Refugees don’t want to learn the language”: They do not have the right to visit German lessons during the first 9 months, after that the offer given is not always sufficient.

3.       “Refugees don’t want to work”: They do not have the permission to work in the first three months, after that they are subordinated for 15 months (if there is a German/European available to work, they do not get the job).

4.       “Refugees commit more crimes”: Not true, according to statistics from the police there is no significant increase of crime.

5.       “Refugees don’t want to integrate themselves”: Integration can only function on both sides and has to be enforced from day 1. If people are excluded from society over months/years, a real integration is hardly possible.

*The information is supplied by a brochure of AK ASYL Pfaffenhofen.


That is what a refugee has to expect under the current law of asylum:

At the moment the rate of acceptance for asylum seekers is about 30 percent!

–          The acceptance of the politically persecuted as well as other refugees is controlled by Article 16a of the German constitution, by §60 of the law of asylum and the Asylum Procedure Act.

–          The Geneva Convention on Refugees includes the protection of refugees according to Article 16a of the German constitution and §60 of the law of asylum

–          The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Nuremberg) decides about asylum applications.

–          On average the process of an asylum application takes between three and eight months.

–          The residence of asylum seekers during and after the decision of the asylum procedure is controlled by the migration authority of the federal states.

–          The Dublin Regulation determines, that every application in the area of states that signed the Dublin regulation has to be examined by a participating EU Member State. Thus secondary migration is supposed to be limited. To put it simply, the Dublin Regulation determines which country is responsible for the asylum seeker. And that is the one, where the refugee sets his foot in first. 

–          A safe country of origin is a country, which neither enforces political persecution nor encourages humiliating treatment or punishment.

*The information is taken out of a brochure of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.


Laura’s article can be found on her blog here.

All Images by Laura Csapó



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