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Civil Society 4.0 Berlin: Conference Reflection

From 3-5 March 2016 my wife and I had the pleasure of attending the Civil Society 4.0 — Refugees and Digital Self Organization conference at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. Two weeks have already passed since the event and I thought it would be useful for me and others to reflect upon my experiences at the conference and to share what I learned.

Expectations for The Event

Leading up to the event, I was looking forward to learning about the communities in Berlin who were responding to the influx of refugees ("newcomers") to their country. I was inspired by the way that Germany opened their borders and fostered a welcoming culture for those arriving in Berlin and other cities[1].

I was expecting to see a community of people who had their act together and were ahead of the game when compared to the responses of the rest of Europe.

The Purpose of The Event

The Civil Society 4.0 event page provided a little bit of context for the event, but not much:

Self-organization has been essential for thousands of refugees arriving in Germany. In the last years, refugee´s organizations have been struggling for their right to stay, to move and to live in dignity. Volunteers and supporters have been engaging to improve the newcomers' living conditions.

Together, refugees, volunteers and supporters build the new civil society of our times.

Meeting Metacollect

One of the main reasons we decided to go to the event was to meet the team at metacollect — an open data service for refugee & civil society projects.

On our RefugeeProjects.com initiative, we had begun gathering large amounts of data on projects that aimed to provide some kind of refuge to asylum seekers in Europe. Metacollect was a grassroots initiative that grew out of the Refugee Hackathon in Berlin.

They were also gathering data around refugee crisis initiatives—in order to provide an overview of 'Who is doing what where' in Berlin, but also to provide project data to other initiatives who were using this data to help refuge seekers and providers along their journey.

We wanted to discuss a potential partnership with metacollect where their database and API could serve as infrastructure for a pan-European application that put all the refugee crisis initiatives in one place.

The Morning of The First Day

The air was cold and the streets were quiet. I remember turning to my wife and remarking how it felt much drier than in Brighton—our newly found home by the sea in the UK.

We walked through the park on the way to the Haus der Kulturen der Welt and reflected on the recent history of the German people. It felt like Germany's response to the refugee crisis was forging another crucial era in Germany's place in history.

The First Workshop

My wife Sophie and I decided to attend the 'Arrival Situation' workshop held in the theatre. A group of 20-some people sat in a circle on a raised stage with a polished wooden floor. A moderator introduced himself and introduced the topic of the discussion, the structure and the reason why we were all gathered here today.

The facilitator of the first workshop

The next two hours that ensued were the beginning of a three-day revelation about the reality of life for many refugees in Europe. We heard first hand accounts from dozens of refugees about what it is like for them here in Berlin—how they left one form of hell (usually war) to arrive in another (endless waiting in camps with no permission to study or work).

Workshop discussion about refugees arrival situation in Berlin

We heard from refugees, accepted asylum applications and a wide range of citizens: government officials, NGO workers, volunteers, students and professionals. With such a diverse sampling of perspectives, it was startling to hear the resounding agreement on the arrival situation in Berlin.

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The Arrival Situation in Berlin

We didn't get into much detail and it was a free-form discussion so there were lots of tangents and personal stories, but here were the snippets that I recall:

  • Men, women and children are waiting in the cold of winter for days in order to submit paperwork outside the state LaGeSo authority [2]
  • Once a refugee has finally applied for asylum at LaGeso, they must wait an indefinite amount of time
  • While waiting, they do not have their passport, ability to work, or study
  • The government gives preference to asylum seekers from four countries: Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Eritrea
  • If you are not a passport holder of one of these four countries, it is almost impossible to gain access to your right work or study
  • If you are not a passport holder of one of these four countries, it is likely you will not be provided with German language education
  • Of the 150 refugee camps in Berlin, a vast majority of these camps do not have access to the internet
  • The refugee camps provide only the bare necessities and mimics an emergency aid unit, but many of the people in the camps have been there for many months, often times several years
  • The camps enforce a strict curfew on residents, some as early as 8pm
  • People who are granted asylum in Berlin are no longer legally permitted to re-unite with their family
  • A group of lawyers have pressed charges against Berlin in response to the conditions caused by the state's failure to provide basic human needs for refugees [3]

I remember hearing the words of a young man who said:

In my country, I was an Engineer. I left because of war, because it was not safe anymore—not because I wanted to live in Europe. Now I have been here almost two years and I still do not have my passport back, I have no right to work, no right to study. All I can do is eat and sleep. Eat and sleep. Everyday...

Our Reaction

Above all, we felt an overwhelming sense of compassion for the people at the workshop, specifically the refugees and accepted asylum applicants. It seemed like Germany positioned itself as a welcoming place for refuge seekers worldwide and then to failed to provide them with basic human needs upon their arrival.

I am so glad that Germany has welcomed as many refugees as it has, I just wish the government would do a better job of coordinating their integration into society. These people are an immense asset to society and it is a shame to see so many in a state of limbo.

Finding Inspiration

While the German / Berlin state was worse off than we imagined, we were incredibly inspired by the passionate group of citizens who self-organized and gathered around refugee seekers to provide basic human needs and to give them a chance at the better life they were promised.

One of the courageous and passionate young Syrians at the group

The breadth and complexity of the issues in Berlin was staggering. Even the list above doesn't begin to scratch the surface—and that is just talking about the arrival situation in Berlin, not even getting into education, health care, legal, etc.

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Refugees & Their Courage

My wife and I were both completely blown away by the courage and determination demonstrated by the refugees who attended the conference. Many of them had made the most tumultuous journeys of their lives, risked everything to be there, and were now facing mind-melting frustration at every step of their 'new life' in Germany.

Each and every newcomer that we met seemed to possess a unique combination of humility and strength. Each and every time they shared their struggles they seemed to do it with respect and appreciation for the German people. They weren't pointing fingers and accusing others, they were simply recounting the difficulties that they faced on a daily basis.

workshop participants discussing the arrival situation in Berlin

It was amazing that this conference provided a platform for refuge seekers and providers to come together and share their struggles, brainstorm ideas and connect with one another. If Civil Society 4.0 did one thing well it was give refuge seekers an opportunity to share and to learn. It embodied the integration is aimed to create.

There was an overwhelming sense of respect at the conference and that was something that I'd hope to see at other conferences in the future.

Looking Back

After two days at the conference, my wife and I had spoken face to face with well over a dozen refugees. We were able to listen to their stories and their circumstances as well as hear about their dreams and aspirations. We were able to learn about amazing projects such as InfoCompass and Afeefa and build relationships with the metacollect community as well.

Both nights we went home feeling quite heavy under the weight of all that we'd seen, but we also felt a strong sense of hope and possibility for the world to come. It seems like this crisis is a strong polarizing force, bringing out the darkness and the light, the best and the worst sides of society.

We heard about right-wing extremists calling to re-open the camps of WWII and we watched volunteers come alongside refugees to help them learn German and begin to integrate into society. There were stark contrasts everywhere we turned...

Attending Civil Society 4.0 was an enlightening experience. It certainly deepened our understanding of the complexity of the crisis and its different faces in each place, and it also strengthened our respect for refugees and citizens alike who are working together to create a better future for us all.

Big Thanks to Lilian

It was a delight to come home to an inbox full of photos from the event thanks to a lovely friend named Lilian Scarlet. All photos of the workshop are thanks to her and her talent for capturing life through a lens.

All photos of the workshop © Lilian Scarlet | Photography

I was delighted to see a photo of me and one of the young Syrian guys who attended the workshop. He was adamant that we took this photo together. I am so glad we did.

me and my Syrian brother

I think this image illustrates my feeling of this crisis: We are all brothers and sisters of the same human family. We need to stick together.

The very least we can do is help one another in times of trouble. It is complicated and difficult, but if we cannot help those in need because we want to protect what we have, is what we have really worth protecting?

John Ellison

Read more posts by this author.

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