Tim Farron writes: the local community comes together in Cologne

Part 1 – Thursday 18th February

Part 2 – Friday 19th February

Friday began with a short taxi journey to the headquarters of Islamic Relief, the charity who would be showing us around.

Tim Farron and Catherine Bearder

Over breakfast, Islamic Relief discussed their work in helping refugees who had arrived in the area, especially in the provision of sanitary kits as well as a series of ‘shops’ that allowed refugees to come and select items that they needed at no cost- basic essentials in the main but being in a manner aimed at preserving choice and dignity for people.

They shared stories of the harsh conditions that many of the people they were working with had endured to reach Germany which were only tempered upon hearing descriptions of how most of the local community had come together to welcome them and make sure they were settled.

We then met the Deputy Mayor of Cologne and a number of people from local government who were able to give an insight into how the city’s politicians were playing their part. The city had offered haven to 10,000 refugees last year alone, part of the 800,000 people who arrived across Germany as a whole.

The number dwarfs the UK’s own efforts which is currently woefully inadequate. It angers and disappoints me that the Prime Minister is continuing to fail so many people and families in this regard.

The local politicians were candid: there were pressures on local resources – for example some school sports halls were used as temporary accommodation over the winter months – but did not seem to have caused any great animosity with many parents seeing the benefit of their own children talking and learning together with refugees of the same age.

But many of these challenges were temporary in nature, there were moves to provide better and alternative accommodation

Cologne was not typical of all of Germany in this regard, there was discussion about tensions that were arising mainly in the Eastern part of the country and what could be done

One idea in particular that I found interesting was the position on Cologne’s local council of a Minister for Integration, who had the specific responsibility of advocating for minority groups in the area. It seemed to be a model that had had a large degree of success and in part explained how the city’s approach to the refugee crisis had developed. By having a specific committee dedicated to considering how the existing community and new arrivals could live and work together, problems could be identified early on and steps taken to alleviate them.

Following this, Islamic Relief took us to a local centre run by Muslim women who were providing education to those arriving in Germany. The centre offered more than just a core education function – with elements of childcare and meal facilities on site too.

The centre had grown hugely since it was established in and now has 100 full time staff. They had noted a rise in the number of Syrian people using their services, and had large numbers from Afghanistan and Iraq too.

The centre ran education programmes that mirrored the German education system; refugees would take the same courses as German students which they said was important so they were not seen to be being given an ‘easy route’.

I met with a group of young people who were taking German classes and was struck by how quickly they had learned the language; there were students who had been in the country for as little as 6 months speaking and singing in German, with a confidence that I never achieved in my years of studying German at school.

German Class Photo

It emphasised to me too the situation they were in. These were young people with individual hopes, aspirations and dreams who had been forced to leave their home, work and education behind.

Plans that had seemed so defined for them had been shattered by the conflict in their towns and cities. These hopes and dreams are of the sort that would be shared by young people across the UK; the plan to study, go to university or into work and start a family – all of which had been taken away from them by the circumstances they had been placed in.

It was impossible not to admire the resolve they had. Having been forced to leave all of that behind, they were redoubling their efforts to continue their education, learn a new language and settle in a new community. And in Cologne I saw a community who were determined to help them succeed- it truly was something everyone involved could be proud of.

Just before I left, two of the young adults in the class asked if they could sing for us. They sang to us in German and then Arabic, both songs focussed on the notion of home and their longing for it. At the heart of a crisis defined by its scale are individuals whose entire future depends on political resolve to help them. It is not enough to hope this crisis goes away – it won’t. We have to play our part and help rebuild a future for a generation of displaced people.

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3 Comments

  • “The city had offered haven to 10,000 refugees last year alone, part of the 800,000 people who arrived across Germany as a whole.”

    800,000 is a very old estimate. This was revised to well over the million mark several months ago.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/11911291/Germany-expects-up-to-1.5-million-migrants-in-2015.html

  • Peter Hayes 2nd Mar '16 - 4:24pm

    Unfortunately there seems to be no attempt to stop the flow of refugees. Russian bombing and ISIS actions drive people out. Turkey and Lebanon have millions of refugees stuck in tents in winter. The U.K. is trying with lots of money to the refugee support organisations on the borders but what is needed is homes, education and work. Even work is a problem if it takes jobs from locals as UKIP campaigns here.

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