BERLIN — The former Tempelhof Airport here has quickly become Germany’s biggest center sheltering refugees in the last year. Decades earlier, the site had gained fame for the Luftbrücke — the air-bridge serving Allied transport planes in 1948-1949 to ferry tons of supplies everyday to beleaguered West Berliners isolated by the Soviet Union, which encircled them during the Cold War.
Until this spring, Tempelhof housed up to 3,000 refugees in its long-vacant hangars. The recent shutting of the overland migratory route through the Balkans and the deal that Germany made with Turkey to stop flows from that country have drastically cut the rate of refugees streaming into Germany. The resettlement of many others has also reduced Tempelhof’s population now to about 1,200.
At one time, some hangars contained tents indoors. Others are still partitioned into giant yet cramped, cubicle-like housing. Holding up to six double-bunk beds, a typical roofless cubicle is where refugee families and often-unrelated individuals must live together.
Besides lacking a roof, each cubicle has a doorway but no real door, leaving any semblance of privacy in short supply. The hangars also lack enough indoor bathing and toilet facilities for the inhabitants.
During a week’s visit as a tourist to the German capital in September, I took the S-Bahn, Berlin’s metro, to learn how refugees are faring at Tempelhof. As a member of the United Nations Association of the USA and as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), having served in Peru from 1963-65, I also wanted to share my experience of Tempelhof when I returned to my home in the Washington, D.C., metro area.
Germany, having accepted about one million refugees in 2015, has welcomed the most asylum-seekers in the developed world. The United States, by contrast, increased the number of refugees resettled annually in its borders from 70,000 in 2015 to 85,000 this year. It plans to push the admissions target to 110,000 in 2017, though that is entirely dependent on who is the next president.
As for getting into the Templehof site with no invitation, I reached as far as I could by trying to look as if I belonged and just walk in. I didn’t get much closer than the refugee students entering the compound. Some workers (plus a security person who drove up) turned me away.
I walked half a mile back to an English-speaking information officer posted in a booth at the entrance to the huge park that the old Tempelhof landing fields had become. Although his assignment is to help park visitors, he had a binder of photos of the hangars’ interiors that he chatted about with me.
On the one hand, he thought that people opposed to refugees were wrong, but he also noted that Germany builds tanks and armaments that enrich the country through sales to parties who perpetrate or are involved in wars, so Germany should take in the victims of today’s armed conflicts.
On the other hand, he was emphatically against Hillary Clinton as president of the United States. He said he didn’t trust her and thought that Donald Trump represented the change that was needed in the US.
That afternoon at the Tempelhof compound, I came across, among the many students walking home from school to the shelters, two young schoolgirls. One was from Syria, the other from Iraq. They stopped to pick dandelions sprouting from the soil in a dusty crack between the pavement and the side of a building. Like florists, the girls each fashioned their dandelions into simple bouquets, then smiled for a photo I hastily snapped.
Their picture captured how life could slowly begin to change for refugees who have made it safely to the West compared with the unfortunate many who have met — and continue to meet — disaster and death.
I came away from my surreptitious visit to Tempelhof more convinced than ever that it is left to resettlement agencies and their supporters (like RPCVs) to help refugees.
The next day, I visited the annex to the Deutsches Historisches Museum, which has an exhibition on “Multicultural Germany, a Country of Immigration.” It included a section on the current crisis faced by refugees and what happens when they are admitted into Germany.
My focus on refugees had taken a concerted step last spring in Washington, when other former Peace Corps volunteers and I had begun meeting to find ways of engaging fellow Peace Corps volunteers throughout America in assisting local resettlement agencies in their communities.
After returning from Berlin, I met hundreds of RPCVs in Washington on Sept. 24, as we commemorated the 55th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s founding of the Peace Corps. Sponsored by the National Peace Corps Association, one panel discussion attracted about 150 RPCVs to explore how we can do what a few colleagues in cities like Buffalo, N.Y., and Columbus, Ohio, are doing to help refugees.
Some of the work with newly resettled refugees that has been proposed by Peace Corps volunteers includes one-on-one mentoring, group mentoring, tutoring, transportation and teaching the refugees about American culture and the local community.
Male volunteers of any age could become role models for the large number of families headed by single mothers who arrive with young children. Others could organize a one-time contribution (new or used furniture, kitchenware, electronic appliances and more) for new refugees moving into housing supplied by the local resettlement agency. Others could simply organize a welcoming party or other single event such as at Thanksgiving.
So far, about 350 volunteers have signed up as potential resettlement aides. From coast to coast, 28 area chapters, totaling thousands of members, have also registered support.
About 220,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have completed their service since President Kennedy introduced the program in 1961. To function successfully abroad, they acquired the ability to live among people of diverse cultures. Some worked in education, health and social services and other fields that should now enable them to help refugee families negotiate American school systems, clinics and hospitals and other institutions.
In recent months, a few of us have begun talks with the nine State Department-funded national voluntary agencies (VOLAGs) that support local agencies serving refugees around the US. A major goal is for us and the voluntary agencies to match up their local entities with an eventual network of RPCVs devoted to helping refugee newcomers adapt to life in America.
Of course, what new policy directions will be taken in the White House after November’s presidential election remains to be seen. So, too, does the answer to whether the past bipartisan support for refugee assistance survives into the new Congress. Nonetheless, however many or however few refugees arrive in the coming months and years, more Returned Peace Corps Volunteers will be standing by to help them.
Tino Calabia began his humanitarian work as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s and then ran a Bronx antipoverty agency and wrote numerous federal studies ranging from the rights of female offenders to racial discrimination on college campuses. He has served on national Asian American boards and organized seminars in former Eastern-bloc countries for exchange students he mentored while they lived in the United States.
Calabia has an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, attended the University of Munich on a foreign-exchange fellowship and has a master’s degree in English and American literature from Columbia University. He lives in the Washington area with his wife, Dawn Calabia, who is an honorary adviser to Refugees International.