Text and Photos: Léonard Palm studies journalism and art history at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.
Across the country, Germany’s “social cohesion” has suddenly come under threat by hate and hostility. The Minister of the Interior even saw himself as compelled to make this a personal issue. This strife is not surprising: how can people stand together when they do not even know each other? How lonely it must be at first for refugees who are thrown, unprepared, into a foreign country with a foreign language? It is a lonely life in Germany. Integration, whether for German nationals or foreigners, is not a given: it is something that requires conscious action. But even energetic newcomers to Germany often do not know how and where contacts and friendships can be made.
One answer to this question: clubs and organizations. With volunteer work, people work for the benefit of fellow human beings. If the Minister of the Interior is looking for social cohesion, he will surely find it among volunteers. With the Technisches Hilfswerk (THW, German Federal Agency for Technical Relief), he is the head of an entire federal agency, consisting almost exclusively of volunteers who are there to help others in crisis.
The Technische Hilfswerk in Mainz has always considered it its duty to actively approach refugees and let them know about volunteer opportunities. Many volunteer positions in Mainz are staffed many times over, but things are not going so well everywhere. It may be that things are not as open and warm, engaged and committed elsewhere as they are at the THW Mainz, where everyone shines.
This is how we, a handful of students from JGU Mainz who were testing the new Q+ study program, got to know the THW. Q+ is also a program that brings together people who do not know each other: with Q+, students from all disciplinary backgrounds can study in any academic field they want. At Q+, practical experience beyond the university campus is not overlooked. When Dr. Ralf Eßmann, the local representative of the THW Mainz, and his colleagues found out about Q+, they again worked for integration – by “integrating” into a single project a meeting with refugees together with the social engagement of Q+ students. Anyone who wants to help make sure that refugees get to know the THW and learn about volunteer opportunities there must first learn about these themselves.
Dr. Eßmann thus invited us to a personal meeting, during which he explained the mission, activities, and contributions of the THW. Other helpers from the THW toured us through the different departments, from the communications hub to the vehicle and equipment garage, to the cafeteria. This allowed us to get to know the local Mainz chapter of the THW and its members. Later, as the project was ramping up, the students were able to learn how projects are organized based on the example set by Dr. Eßmann: organization without hierarchies, based instead on coordination, with more of a moderator than a project leader. We considered how to present the THW as an organization and community to those unfamiliar with it, and how to give them access to something that they were previously unaware of. We found out about the living conditions under which refugees are currently living in here in Germany to figure out how to best gain access to them. In doing so, we determined which organizations are working with and providing support to refugees, and sought contact with these organizations to coordinate the next steps. We drafted flyers, posters, and Facebook postings, and actively sought out refugees in order to show them the opportunities for social engagement available at the THW.
On March 19, 2018, all of these efforts were channeled into an informational open house meeting for refugees at the THW Mainz. 20 refugees and their mentors got acquainted with the THW: they got to speak with different task force personnel, toured the accommodations, and had a look at the vehicles. Long discussions and shared curiosity put strangers into conversation with one other, and together they got to find a new home.