Christine Simon-Noll is actively involved in helping refugees in Hamburg’s HafenCity neighborhood. Despite a massive wave of goodwill to assist refugees at the peak of the crisis in 2015, she says it has become harder to find volunteers to help out lately. One of the most important challenges faced by the refugees is integration into German life, work and culture. In an interview, Simon-Noll outlines the criteria that are key to successful integration.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Two years ago, you co-founded the organization HafenCity Refugee Aid in Hamburg. How is that project going today?
Simon-Noll: It has become a lot more difficult to find volunteers. We receive very few responses to our searches for helpers. I really wish not only that more people would get involved in refugee work again, but also that younger people would be more ready to lend a helping hand. We tried, for example, to get students from the local HafenCity University to help out. They did one time, but that was it.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What’s the average age of volunteers?
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Was it difficult to find volunteers at the beginning as well?
Simon-Noll: No, not at all. Around 100 neighborhood residents turned up at the event when we launched the organization and signed up for various working groups — things like child care, German courses, visits to the authorities, for example. The mood was very positive. People also wanted to show that in a neighborhood that has a reputation for being rich, there are also very normal people who like helping others.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Which working group did you sign up for?
Simon-Noll: I wanted to do something for children. I used to work in early childhood education. We founded Kinderhafen-AG (Childrens’ Port) and play, do handicrafts and sing with the children in the local refugee shelter every Monday and Friday while their mothers learn German at the “Deutsch-Café.” On Wednesdays, employees from a company located in HafenCity help by playing with the children and assisting them with their homework. The company has also provided rooms for a mother-child education center.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did the 700 refugees who moved into the container buildings on the edge of HafenCity in October 2016 react to the offers of refugee aid?
Simon-Noll: At the time, the refugees arrived in buses from emergency shelters and we greeted them with tea and pastries. That’s how we got to know each other, and the offers we made after that were very well received. At times, we would take care of as many as 30 children at the same time in the common room of the refugee shelter.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And what does the situation look like today?
Hamburg refugee helper Christine Simon-Noll
Simon-Noll: These days, residents are moving in and out continuously, and we are no longer able to welcome them individually. I think that’s why there are greater inhibitions about coming to us. The influx has slowed. Students still often approach us because they need help looking for internship placements. But we lack volunteers to help them with that. For example, we’re only able to keep operating the “Children’s Harbor” day care facility on Fridays because we receive federal volunteers from our cooperation partner KidsWelcome for support. Without this help, we are sometimes unable to provide care because not a single other volunteer is available.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: If the demand among refugees for the programs you offer has fallen, perhaps the need is no longer as great as it was two or three years ago.
Simon-Noll: The opposite is true. I believe many of the refugees actually need much more intensive support and assistance in order, for example, to obtain a high school diploma or to navigate the arduous and complicated path to vocational training and the labor market — or even to find a place to live. That’s why we’ve set up a program that allows refugees and residents of the area to get matched up and meet each other.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How many people has the program brought together?
Simon-Noll: Not a single one.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why is that? Are people too busy or too stressed?
Simon-Noll: Everyone has a lot to do, but they always have a little free time at their disposal. Even full-time employees can find an hour a week or two hours a month to spare. There’s always a bit of free time somewhere. I think the mood toward refugees has changed in Germany. A lot of people feel that the refugees are being given everything and are able to live for free. But their housing costs are actually deducted from their social welfare payments, just as they are for all forms of public housing.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why are you so committed to the refugee cause?
Simon-Noll: I’ve been volunteering since my youth. Getting involved and doing meaningful things just makes me happy — and you usually get direct feedback. The children trust me, they tell me about their journey here as refugees, they hug me, they show me their affection. It’s very nice. I have, however, noted with concern that they haven’t found any German friends yet in HafenCity.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you have an explanation for why?
Simon-Noll: Almost all the school-age children from the refugee shelter go to a school outside HafenCity because the primary school here is full and there is no secondary school in the district. An 18-year-old girl from the shelter told me she would love to have a German friend of her age, but she can’t find any. I keep hearing that the children from the shelter don’t get invited to birthday parties by their German classmates. That depresses me. There are simply too few opportunities for meeting. Indeed, there is still a lot to be done, because integration cannot succeed like this, despite the great commitment of our volunteers.
It’s exactly this kind of idea that the Social Design Award, which SPIEGEL WISSEN and SPIEGEL ONLINE are awarding this year for the fifth time in cooperation with BAUHAUS, is all about. We are seeking proposals, projects, initiatives and ideas that help make neighborhoods livelier. Anyone can participate, and the deadline for submissions is August 31, 2018.
Two prizes will be awarded, each with a purse of 2,500 euros. The jury will select the winner of the first prize, and the readers of SPIEGEL ONLINE will also select a winner from a shortlist that is to be announced at the beginning of October.
You can find the conditions for participation here.