A Christmas market changed my life as an Afghan refugee living in Germany. My friend’s article sets the stage about what happened

Two refugees decide to help us at the yearly Christmas market

Every year around December we participate in a Christmas market to use the proceeds of our sale there to support micro-finance and education projects of an NGO called Unlimited Partnership, which we founded six years ago, in Sierra Leone and Uganda. Due to the influx of many refugees to Germany throughout 2015 and all the public talk about the need for integration, we decided that year to offer refugees to join us for the Christmas market.

As a result my dad and I drove to the refugee home in my parents municipality a few days before the market to introduce your NGO and work to them. Among the roughly 50 refugees that used to live there at the time, two decided to join us for the three days sale — Hvras from the North of Iraq and Qais from Afghanistan. It is fair to say that Qais’s decision that day to join us and subsequently become a member of our NGO probably changed his life as much as it did ours. I remember well the first day I saw him when we went to pick him up for the market. He was already standing outside the home waiting for us. There he stood punctual as always as we later on learnt, tall, proud, almost a big graceful and yet marked by what he had gone through in life so far. At the beginning he used to be a bit shy not talking too much, but very observant of his surrounding and people around him.

Learning a bit of German

As it turned out Hvras was already enrolled in an official German language course for a few months. While he could write and read fairly well, he was struggling to speak. Meanwhile Qais, being from Afghanistan, had not received permission to attend an official language learning course. Till that day he had received lessons twice a week for two hours each time from a retired primary school teacher that did now teach refugees on a voluntary basis. It was primarily a literacy class considering that upon his arrival in Germany he could neither read nor write in our handwriting. The same day we also learnt that apart from two months in Pakistan where his family used to live for a few years as refugees, he had never attended school throughout his life. Some time into the day I realized that you could well read and write in his own language. “Where did you learn this if you never attended school,” I asked him buffled. “Every evening after work or during night I sat with my siblings and copied what they were doing for homework and study with them a little bit. They all went to school,” he explained. The fact that he did speak English fairly well though made it easy to communicate with him. “Where did you learn to speak English,” we asked him. “I used to run a small cosmetic shop in Kabul and for some time I used to have a lot of international customers, mostly Americans,” he told us. We were impressed.

Not to long afterwards we learnt that he was able to speak several languages including Dari, Farsi, Urdu, Paschtu, Hindi and English. Hindi because he loves Bollywood movies, Urdu due to a childhood spent in Pakistan and Paschtu from Paschtun friends. Throughout the Christmas market and especially during breaks we taught both Qais and Hvras basic communication with customers in German and various words. We for the most part would just point at products at the Christmas market or things at the Christmas market, tell them the German word, write it down on a piece of paper and ask them to repeat it. Over the course we would repeat the vocabularly with them and also ask them to entertain very basic conversations with customers. At times we would also ask some of the customers to try to have a simple chat, mostly centered around questions such as ‘What is your name/ Where are you from/ How is Germany’ and the like, with them to get them used to talking. Even though he was very shy throughout those few days, Qais absorbed new words and basic sentences like a sponge.

He seemed natural in learning languages in an interactive setting. Soon we noticed that even though he could not speak a lot, he understood a lot of sentences and words out of the context and situations: At some point Christl’s (our project manager for Uganda) husband paid us a visit. “Max would you mind taking a few pictures of us for the NGO’s newsletter”, she asked him. “Hand me the camera please,” he replied without pointing it. Before anyone of us could turn Qais had already picked it up and handed it to him. I thanked him and asked him something in English. “No, don’t do this. Qais needs to learn German. Why do you speak in English to the guy? This way he will never learn. You all have to speak German with them,” Max said in a firm manner. Easier said than done if someone does speak hardly a few words yet I thought to myself. Thinking about it now Max obviously was right about it. Qais would also down the line help out Hvras communicating with us. Kurdish must be somewhat similar to Dari and Farsi, so whenever Hvras would not understand us or we didn’t understand him, Qais would try to translate. During one of those days when we dropped them back home Qais laughingly said: “I will end up learn Kurdish through Hvras if the Christmas market continues for longer.” During those early days Qais was convinced that learning German would take him at least three years: “It needs a long time and it is not easy and I lack the opportunities to learn it. But hopefully in three years I can talk a bit well,” he used to say several times. “You are living in Germany now so you will learn much faster than you think cause many people don’t speak English,” my dad tried to reassure him. I could see the doubts written in Qais’s face back then.

Since at our NGO all members and helpers are doing the work on a voluntary basis and since per the law we were not allowed to pay Qais and Hvras for their work anyway, during those days we tried to compensate by inviting them for lunches and dinners. “They are shockingly and embarrassingly modest and more often than not reject my offers,” dad said the other day. “Maybe we can invite we can do a daytrip with them together some day after the Christmas market and that way also show them some place in the region they live at now,” I suggested. At the same time during one of the car rides back home from the market we explained to them why we are not in a position to pay them money for their help. “Don’t think about this,” Qais said. “In my country if someone asks you for help and you take money in return for helping him that is a big shame,” he explained to us. “We enjoy being with all of you at the Christmas market. It is so much better than staying at the home in Brünning,” Hvras added.

On the second day of the Christmas market Heidi, a close friend since primary school, came by with her husband, her mom and her daughters. She was highly pregnant at the time. I introduced Qais and Hvras to her. “Why are you not like her”, Qais asked me once they had left. “What do you mean?”, I replied. “Why are you not married yet having children like your friend“, he responded. I was suprised at his very straightforward and direct question. “Well it just did not happen yet and I am unsure where my current relationship is headed”, I explained. “In my country people think life is not complete unless you have children and are married”, he informed us. “In Europe it is different. Many people get married and than a lot of marriages end up in divorce. Unlike in your country divorce is really easy here. Many people here also dont get married at an early age but often in their late 20s and early 30s,” I explained to him.

Integration made simple?!

Meanwhile, after a few hours into the first day of the Christmas market my dad called me: “I received a call from a lady from the ‘Helferkreis’ (group of volunteers in the municipality taking care of refugees’ needs). She told me that you need to notify the authorities that Hvras and Qais are working with us at the Christmas market. “Why, they are doing it as volunteers like us and aren’t paid,” I replied. “Well seems like if we don’t notify them they can get in troubles and it can have negative effects for their asylum cases,” he said and passed on the number of the woman in charge. Little did I know that it would be the beginning of the typical madness with the authorities concerning refugee affairs. At the Helferkreis I was told there was only a form that needs to be filled out and then faxed to the authorities, but as it turned out the only person at the Helferkreis that had the document was on holiday in the US at the time. “You can call the authority for social affairs, they can send you the document”, someone else told me. The next morning I gave them a call and explained: “No that is not our responsibility. We are just taking care of shelter and other social affairs. You probably wan to talk to the job center”, I was told during the call. “Is this person already registered at the job center”, was the first question a man at the job center asked me. “No I said, one of them is attending the integration course and the other one did not even have his first interview in Munich yet,” I said. “Oh no then you are wrong here, we just handle matters related to them finding proper work. I don’t think you have to notify anyone if we are talking about unpaid or volunteer work. But just check with the authorities for social affairs.”Those are the people that told me to talk to you”, I replied amused kind of sensing where this would be going. I tried the authority for social affairs again, obviously with the same result. “But there is this organization assisting with refugee affairs, they might know,” he said before we hang up the phone. But they didn’t know either and referred me again to someone else. In the end I spoke with a man who told me the following: “Well you know I once heard from someone else about a similar case and a lawyer back then advised to handle it like a case of neighborly help. Just hope that nothing happens and in case something does happens you say he was doing you a favor like a good friend or neighbor would do.” An hour and a half after the phone call I knew as much about the matter as I had known before. Could efforts for integration really be made that difficult? If this is how it works with something as simple as volunteer work, what is it like for more complicated affairs?

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