I live in the center of Berlin in a cozy residential area of mostly row houses with attached narrow gardens. We are just a few blocks from Tempelhofer Park, a former airport of Teutonic proportions that was built in the 1930s and was then the world’s largest and most modern of its kind. Our neighborhood was created around the same time for the people who worked there.
It is a historically significant site—the setting for the Berlin Airlift, a response to Russia’s blockade of Allied-controlled areas of Berlin near the end of World War II. For more than a year, American, British, and French pilots dropped off much-needed supplies of food and fuel to a population of more than 2 million devastated West Berliners.
Since 2008, when the airport closed, it’s become one of Europe’s most unusual urban spaces: vast fields of wild grass, long stretches of beat-up tarmac, and on one side the colossal former airport building. Some of the space is taken up by offices, most of them serving as an administrative hub for the Berlin police and traffic control, but it’s still largely empty.
Late last fall a new kind of airlift began here. The airport’s massive hangars have been repurposed as a supposedly temporary home for thousands of refugees, many of whom escaped the ravages of war in Syria. Hundreds of bunks have been set up inside each of these soaring metal structures, and the company that runs the camp plans to create space for up to 7,000 refugees by this summer. Tempelhof will once again qualify as the largest of its kind in Germany.
Considering how close I live to the field, you’d think I’d have run into dozens of refugees by now. As far as I know, I haven’t seen more than a handful. I think the shy, head-scarved mother and her two children, who I saw at our neighborhood playground at the end of autumn might have been a refugee family. I might have seen a few more on the bus.
“What is Berlin like with all the refugees flooding into the city?” ask curious European and American friends. Honestly, I say, my family’s day-to-day reality has not changed, despite the fact that nearly 80,000 new people took refuge in the city last year. But what I have noticed is that almost everyone I know is involved in helping the refugees in one way or another.
A lot of the mothers at my children’s school, a bicultural German-American institution founded in the 1960s that has enrolled a few dozen refugee children, have been volunteering for aid projects. A woman who was my youngest daughter’s teacher speaks Arabic, German, and English, so almost every day after she finishes teaching she heads to a refugee camp and acts as a translator, often until late at night. The mother of a friend of my eldest daughter had been working for a small project that organizes art projects for teenagers. She wept recently as she recalled how difficult it is to listen to the horrific tales of their escape from Syria and of the hardships of their journeys.
Others I know have taken several asylum-seekers into their homes. Close friends of mine, an actor and a successful entrepreneur, have been trying for months to adopt one of the many displaced and parentless children. (There is tremendous red tape, but they haven’t given up trying.) A neighbor who runs a café near my house has taken in two Syrian sisters, ages 13 and 18, while they wait to be housed with their father, who is being put up by another neighbor. She told me that the girls are involved in so many weekly afternoon activities run by Berlin volunteers—a guitar lesson one day, a drumming session on another, a library workshop—that they are almost overscheduled.
When I meet up with the creative people I know here, I am struck by how many of them speak about the refugee situation the way a Manhattan real estate agent might speak about a gentrifying neighborhood, as if it were an opportunity full of potential. Many of them are working on projects that in some way will help integrate the refugees. An acquaintance of mine, Kavita Goodstar—who helped launch many popular culinary events here, including the much-loved Streetfood Thursdays at the Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg—is applying for grants and looking for investors to help launch a souk where refugee women can set up stalls. The Markthalle Neun has hosted several events that attempt to bridge the cultural gap with food, like inviting the noted chef Roberto Petza from Sardinia to cook with Syrian chefs at its canteen. The group Über den Tellerrand has a program that allows locals and refugees to cook together. It recently launched Kitchen on the Run, a shipping container turned into a mobile kitchen and dining room, that will take the project all around Europe. Mary Scherpe, the writer behind the popular Berlin blog Stil in Berlin, covers a lot of these refugee-related food happenings and organizes events to collect clothing for migrant missions.
Last week I had coffee with Katie Griggs, a British friend of a friend who lives in Berlin and who is a co-founder of #Bikeygees, a group that is teaching refugee women how to ride bikes. “There is nothing in the Koran that forbids women from riding bikes. It’s just not seen as a very cool thing for adults in Syria, either men or women,” she said. But since riding a bike is the best way to get around in Berlin and to feel like a local, Griggs organizes lessons at least once a month and is raising money for bicycles and other gear on the German crowdfunding site betterplace.org.
“It’s made me fall back in love with Germany,” Katie told me. I feel the same way. I left New York for Europe in 2001, but for years I continued to instinctively call myself a New Yorker. It occurred to me, as I walked home that day, that it was at some point over the past year, as Angela Merkel continued to stand strong and welcome refugees to Germany, that I had started to proudly think of myself as a Berliner.