Antonia Zimmermann recounts her experience volunteering at a refugee camp in Berlin. 

His glance is louder than his voice. Depth so profound, I could never locate the source. They’ve seen too much. His overpowering gaze lends to an appearance of seeming lost, his voice only a confusing murmur: “one, two, three”.

It was when my summer plans fell through that the number of populist and crude newspaper articles about refugees in the EU exploded. Every word I read about the current crisis made me restless – I knew I had to help those fleeing war zones. I couldn’t spend my summer sun-bathing on a balcony.

I made my way to one of the several emergency accommodations in my hometown of Berlin. It was a huge, air-inflated tent. There was no air-conditioning and every time I left the kitchens after a couple of hours volunteering, I wiped sweat from my forehead, relieved to be out of the hellish heat. As I walked away, I had to accept the sickening truth that the 179 residents, sleeping, eating and living in this loud, stuffy greenhouse, could not.


Photo by Antonia Zimmermann

Later on, I had the opportunity to teach German. Most of the residents are staying for one or two weeks until they are shuttled off to another temporary home. Therefore, my aim was to give them a first impression of the German language. Them. A group of around forty men, women and children eager to communicate. Eager to rebuild their lives. Eager to live in safety.

There were trying times. Times where I contemplated throwing in the towel. Some words came naturally to them; their natives countries: Syria, Iraq, Palestine. However, they struggled with the words for numbers and greetings.

With big fluctuations of departures and arrivals, I had to start all over at the beginning of every session. Continuing was necessary. I felt it was my duty to not abandon those who risked their lives crossing expanses of destruction, only to be greeted with hostility.

Through becoming involved in these humanitarian efforts, I believe that a new, welcoming attitude towards refugees – an attitude that reflects the values of solidarity and humanism that are central to a civilized society — can be achieved in the EU. Tolerance seems like a basic human concept, yet refugee accommodations are being attacked daily. By becoming volunteers or activists, Europeans can be louder than racism. Loud enough to pave the way for refugees into the EU.

Things are changing, especially in Berlin, where hundreds of volunteers have started helping. However, there is still a long way to go – as  I write this in Saxony, right-wing extremists are demonstrating in front of a refugee camp.

I do not think that I will ever forget the haunting eyes of the Syrian refugee I met this summer.

We do not share a language, but his eyes said enough.


Antonia Zimmermann