Moabit Hilft: A place of arrival for refugees.
As I walk through the labyrinthine, leafy inner courtyard just off of bustling Turmstrasse, I marvel at the peaceful atmosphere that surrounds me. Little gardens pop up here and there between beautiful red-bricked buildings as I meander my way over to Haus R, near the back of the courtyard. After just a few minutes, I finally arrive at my destination: A small, white one-floor standalone building with a lime green sign that reads "Moabit Hilft."
A group of people is sitting jovially together by the front entrance of the refugee association, or Verein, as it's called in German. I hear a number of different languages being spoken, including German. The mere fact that I understand what they're saying in this foreign tongue means that we're on a similar level - we're foreigners who are seeking to live in Germany. We are equally lost in this garbled language and unknown system, but there's one stark difference between us: I chose to move here whereas the majority of them did not. They are Moabit's refugees.
I smile as I walk past the group, step through the open door, and into the room. I quickly notice the flash green words "Moabit Hilft" once again, this time, splashed all along the right-hand wall in big letters. Computers and desks separated by plastic covers line the left-hand side of the room, a red sofa has been placed near them, and at the back wall is another open door where I notice racks upon racks of clothes. As I'll soon find out, the organisation's literal open-door policy is very much enforced.
How did this all come about? And why Moabit, I wondered.
Diana Henniges, that's how. In 2014, Diana noticed more and more refugees where she lived in Moabit. She saw the horrible living conditions they were forced to endure, and as a historian by profession, as well as coming from a politically inclined family, she wasn't going to stand around twiddling her thumbs. She wanted refugees to feel like they were a part of Moabit, and that long-standing Moabiters could stand up and help, too. So she founded Moabit Hilft in 2016.
Starting out surrounded by hundreds of donation boxes in her living room, Diana built Moabit Hilft from the ground up. She describes her organisation as "a place of arrival" that gives people a home. She and the team see themselves more like a migrant organisation, and a large part of the volunteers at the centre come from a refugee background.
But above all, Diana says, Moabit Hilft is a place for helping, for being supported, for becoming independent and confident.
The complex and long asylum system in Germany can be harrowing. Many refugees face deportation, difficulties finding affordable and decent housing, clothing for their kids, a job, and at the everyday level, making friends.
"You don't know your way around a new city, a new system, the papers, the asylum centre, and sometimes you're exposed to racism. All of this can overwhelm you," says Diana. "Some manage well, others don't."
It's hard enough moving to a new city by choice, it's another thing entirely when you know you can't return to your home country. Many refugees feel helpless when they arrive in a new place, and Diana and her team work hard to change that feeling into one of belonging.
As I mentioned earlier, the centre has an open door policy, there are no rules for joining, and the only rule is: No politics and no religion. Only once in six years was that rule broken.
As I wondered how people get to know about Moabit Hilft, Diana simply told me that "word gets around." Refugees hear about the centre within their communities. People come to chat and hang out, others come for help, while other come to help by serving coffee, working in the clothes store, teaching and helping with German if they're already at a higher level than newcomers.
People get to know each other here, they don't come just for the assistance with the paperwork - even though that's a very large part of what Moabit Hilft does. They feel and are respected. They are in Moabit, their new home.
Diana's face lights up as she recounts some of her moments of pure joy, when she and the team know that what they are doing is making a difference. It's the times when someone comes back to visit them after a few years to say they've almost finished their studies and they speak German now. Or it's when someone finds a wife or a husband, or a flat. It doesn't even take big, sweep-you-off-your-feet moments like these for the team to know they're helping. Just knowing there's somewhere safe, welcoming, and helpful for refugees in Moabit is enough.
The team is fighting tooth and nail to get the politics on their and the refugees' side, and it can use all the help it can get. We can all help by giving donations and money, volunteering, and on a local community level, Diana reminds us all that we can help our fellow Moabiters out when they're struggling to understand the cashier at the supermarket, or when they're clearly lost on the streets going between their phone's screen and incomprehensible street signs.
As I walked back out the open doors, past the red-bricked buildings, and through the now-familiar courtyard, a small feeling of pride that such an organisation exists in our Moabit backyard filled my heart.