How a German project uses shared interests to bring refugees and locals together

Volunteers found that common interests and social events were key to fostering friendships between old and new residents of the German city of Wuppertal. Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, they're having to find new ways to help.

How a German project uses shared interests to bring refugees and locals together
Hand in Hand volunteer Wael Kayyali leads a drawing workshop. Photo: Wael Kayyali

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

When Wael Kayyali arrived in Wuppertal, Germany, from Syria in 2016, he had no trouble finding friends. However, these friends were all Syrians.

“It might not sound great to say this, but a lot of Syrians came to Germany back then, so I didn’t have to get in touch with Germans to have a life here,” he says.

It was difficult for him to find German friends as he is “from a different culture and a bit older”. Kayyali is 29 years old. It's not an age that most people would consider old, but he says that most people his age have their friend circle and are not looking for new contacts.

The second big hurdle was the language: “I didn’t dare speak German because I was scared that I would be judged,” he says.

All of this changed when Kayyali found out about Hand in Hand – Contact People for Refugees, a local initiative that aims to bring refugees and locals together.

READ ALSO: The public potluck bringing newcomers and locals together in Amsterdam

Hand in Hand was founded in 2017 by two students from Wuppertal, a city close to Cologne in western Germany. They felt that existing support for refugees was too much focused on legal counselling, interpretation of documents and language courses. What was missing was the personal touch and a relationship between refugees and locals at eye level.

“We wanted to create a meeting place where people could get together, find social contacts, and just meet people who want to do something together,” says Matilda Flasche, a volunteer turned project manager at Hand in Hand.

Initially, the organisation offered to pair up refugees with locals. A refugee could get a single contact person, a couple, or even a small group of people. Over two years more than 30 contacts were established and over 60 people brought together.

However, it soon became clear that there were quite different expectations on either side. “The problem was that many locals couldn’t commit to meeting three times a week, for example,” says Flasche. “Many refugees wanted to meet more often and that eventually led to an imbalance – we had more and more refugees and fewer locals.”

She and the other Hand in Hand volunteers sat down together and figured out a new plan. Since the beginning they had offered events alongside the contact person matching – city walks, bike tours, movie nights. They decided to focus entirely on events rather than matching people.

“The idea was that it might be better to get people together who are interested in the same topic. That way, relationships can develop more naturally,” says Flasche.

It seems to have worked for Hand in Hand and certainly for Kayyali. While Hand in Hand could not find a contact person for him before it switched its approach, he quickly built up a network after he went to his first event, a drawing workshop: “At the workshop I mentioned that I am quite good at calligraphy,” he says. “The other participants were really interested and asked me to organise a workshop myself which I really enjoyed.”

He even decided to join the team as a volunteer – a big step for someone who had no real contacts with locals before. In Flasche’s opinion, this is the best way to ensure that refugees actually make friends: “We have some 10 or 15 team members who came here as refugees,” she says, “and with them I really feel like a group of people has emerged who now have a good social network.”

A Hand in Hand event. Photo: Wael Kayyali

Since their new approach was implemented, Hand in Hand has organised ten different types of events, some weekly, some monthly, and two annual ones, with participant numbers ranging from as few as a handful of refugees at language meetings to 150 people at the annual summer party.

According to Flasche, refugees like Kayyali who are part of the team have played an essential role in the transformation process. So has striving to improve. “When an event doesn’t work out the way we wanted it to, it’s really important for us to reflect and ask what we could do better,” says Flasche.

Especially in the last months before the first coronavirus lockdown came to effect in Germany, attendance at Hand in Hand events decreased a little. So Flasche and the rest of the team talked to participants and asked them what they would like to get out of the events, and what Hand in Hand could improve.

The response they usually get is flattering and frustrating at the same time: “We usually hear from people that everything is great and that they will come back next time,” says Flasche. She suspects that the circumstances and different culture prevent people from uttering real criticism: “They are all incredibly nice, affectionate and grateful. But there is a lack of understanding of the fact that we would really like to hear criticism in order to improve.” Of course, the volunteers appreciate the praise, “but sometimes it’s better to know what is really needed”.

Unlike the event attendees, the team members with refugee backgrounds are more direct in their feedback. “They often say that the event itself is great, but that people have other problems that prevent them from attending,” says Flasche. For example, personal issues ranging from childcare to job search keep refugees from coming to social events, which might be lower down in their priority order. “Whether we can help someone really depends on each person’s situation and if we offer the right thing for them,” she says.

For Kayyali, Hand in Hand certainly had the right thing to offer. “I had no issues, finding friends via Hand in Hand,” he says. “But I am also a bit fearless, so it was easier for me than for others.”

He thinks that one of the main issues that keeps refugees from attending Hand in Hand events is that “people don’t want to be treated like victims”.

“We really don’t do that at Hand in Hand,” he says, “but when a refugee hears that there is an event specifically for refugees, they might feel like they’re being treated like a victim and wouldn’t go to the event.”

This is why the best way to reach new participants is by word of mouth. Here again, the refugee team members are invaluable to the initiative as they can spread the word and encourage other people to come to Hand in Hand events.

Considering that Hand in Hand is a fairly small and young initiative, it has undergone substantial changes. “We often get praise for our motivation and perseverance – for not giving up,” says Flasche, who initiated the transformation process in 2018. “I think what makes our initiative work is the willingness to change,” she explains. “Nobody ever said, ‘well, this didn’t work, so I’m gonna leave’. Instead, we are all open to adaptation.”


Their efforts have earned Hand in Hand the support of a funding programme from the state of North Rhein-Westphalia. KOMM-AN NRW (‘Arrive in NRW’) supports Hand in Hand with rent subsidies and money for the organisation of events. In addition to that, team members have the opportunity to attend workshops and events at the integration centre.

“The city of Wuppertal really appreciates the committed work of this young association,” says Ulrike Kusak from the communal centre for integration. “Through their work, encounters and exchange between ‘old and new’ Wuppertalers are promoted.”

For Hand in Hand this is a “great opportunity”, according to Flasche. However, the money from the state programme has to be spent directly in connection with one specific event. This leads to the problem that the organisation is usually short on money even though it gets government funding.

“It might happen that we need €50 for an event, but the lump sum from the funding is €250,” explains Flasche. As Hand in Hand tries to be sustainable, they do not want to spend the money on just anything to use up the money. “At the end of the month we have €100 to spare which we can’t spend on anything else we need.”

That is why Hand in Hand also relies on donations. They can be used for anything, but are not as reliable as state funding. “It would be ideal if we could finance everything with donations, but that is not possible. It’s just too little,” Flasche says.

While money is a constant struggle, the coronavirus crisis added another issue. At the beginning of the pandemic, Hand in Hand needed to change their approach again. While they were able to do some meetings outdoors, their regular events were disrupted. That is why the team decided to offer individual support for refugees. They help in writing applications, translations, tutoring, learning German, and offering access to computers in their office space. 

All their other plans had to be put on hold: “To reach out to more people we wanted to go to a second neighbourhood where the percentage of refugees is higher,” says Flasche. They had contacted a different organisation already but were interrupted by the pandemic. Kayyali says that another idea was to shift the image away from being an organisation for refugees only to a place for all people who newly arrive in Wuppertal. “But because of corona, we couldn’t test this,” he says.

A pre-coronavirus event. Photo: Wael Kayyali

From his first attendance at a Hand in Hand event to today, Kayyali has seen multiple changes in his life: he speaks German fluently, has a German friend circle and found a job at the university of Wuppertal. He is part of another programme called In Touch which helps refugees who want to enrol in studies in Germany.

“Without Hand in Hand I would have never gotten this job,” he says. A friend from the organisation even helped him write the cover letter.

While he loves the volunteer work at Hand in Hand, he is planning to step back a little in the coming months. In addition to his job, in October he started studying for a bachelor’s degree in media design and design technology, which will require more of his time.

He feels confident about his future: “Because of Hand in Hand I feel strong, and strong enough to help others. And I do exactly that with my volunteer work and the programme at the university.”

Originally from Germany, Valerie Krall is a journalist based in the UK.

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A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’

The people from Western Sahara have been fighting for their independence for decades. Under the control of Spain for over a century until 1974, Western Sahrawis were able to have a Spanish National ID and passport, to serve as public servants and in the army, with the western Sahara declared by fascist dictator Francisco Franco as the 53rd province of Spain.

A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’
Some of the children participating in the programme experience health conditions caused by the tough life in the refugee camps. Photo: Sonia Clemente
This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

In 1974, after pressure from the UN, Spain agreed to a referendum to accept the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. But when Morocco, supported by France and the U.S., invaded the country, Spain abandoned the Sahrawis. Nowadays, 80 percent of their country is occupied by Morocco, and hundreds of thousands of its citizens are stranded in refugee camps in Algeria. The result is that people living in this region are denied the same rights given to other former colonies, such as the ability to claim Spanish citizenship.

Today, the fifth of the country that is not controlled by Morocco is known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and it is governed by the Polisario Front, recognised by 46 governments around the world, although none in the EU. In Spain, some local organisations and public figures campaign for their government to support the Sahrawi people.

“Spanish citizens have stood next to the Sahrawi people for 45 years because they understand that Spain has a political and legal responsibility with the Sahrawi people, but they see their political leaders incapable of amending this error. It is the great divorce in Spain,” Abdulah Arabi, the Polisario Front Delegate in Spain said, “Spaniards are holding a responsibility that belongs to their government.”

At the time of the interview with the Sahrawi Delegate, Abdulah Arabi expressed concern that they were closer than ever to a break of the truce. Two weeks later the truce broke. “We have generations that have been born in refugee camps waiting for the UN to apply their peace plan so their parents and grandparents can decide what they want to be.”

Photo: Sonia Clemente

Holidays in Peace

One of the most successful programmes trying to both improve the conditions of the Sahrawis in refugee camps and to bring awareness to the conflict is Holidays in Peace. It allows Sahrawi children living in Algerian refugee camps, in one of the roughest deserts in the world, to live in Spain for the summers with host families.

This programme allows kids to avoid the desert heat, and access medical treatment and check-ups. It also helps them to learn Spanish, the second official language of the SADR. 

The programme began in 1976 with just a handful of children, and only three years later, 100 children spent their summers in Spain. In the 1980s the initiative gathered institutional support from the SADR government and several Spanish civil associations under the umbrella of “Friends of the Saharawi People.”

By the early 2000s, thousands of kids would travel every summer.

“In the good year before the 2008 crisis when the [Spanish] government donations were larger, we were able to bring up to 10,000 children every summer,” Arabi said.

Many of these children come back for several summers and stay with the same families again. When the children return to the camps, the host families often visit and send care packages. The associations also send vans full of supplies a few times a year to the camps.

Raúl Bedrina, who joined one of the associations in Madrid, and later helped to create the Gdeim Izik association in the south of the Spanish capital, hosted a child for the first time eight years ago.

“It is not charity, it is solidarity. These children are the best ambassadors of the Sahrawi people, who share a common history with us,” he said.

Western Sahara is the only Arab country with Spanish as a co-official language. However, the language barrier is still a challenge for the children, as they only began studying Spanish around the same time that they travel for the first time.

“At that age, kids are like sponges, in two months they are fluent,” Bedrina said, “but we put in the effort, too. Every day for one or two hours before going out or to the pool, we would sit with a picture dictionary and helped him.”

Bedrina talks about the cultural shock the children suffer when they arrive. The first thing they want to do is call home.

“Our kid went to bed crying for days because he missed his family. It’s also very odd for them to see things like a refrigerator, and they keep checking to see if things are still cold,” he said. They are also used to much more independence, to just go out a run around without supervision “but if only because of traffic, that is not possible here.”

“The ties you, as a host family, establish with the family are very strong. They are sending their children to a house they don’t know, so they want to know you.” Many of the host families visit the camps to meet the Sahrawi family, and the families want to send their other children to the same host family. “Our kid was the one who sold us the idea to host his younger sister. He took us for a ride,” Bedrina remembers, laughing.

Each host family is assigned a Sahrawi family, and they get to know each other as part of the process.

These children are not orphans, they have families who love and care for them, and it has to be made clear to the host families that the children will come back to their families after the summer. There are other programmes for teenagers who come to study in high schools during the school year and who go back home for the summer, but it is a much smaller programme.

The 2008 economic crash affected the programme a lot. Local governments cut the funding given to each association and they found it harder to fundraise money during the year. Many families who had hosted kids in the past couldn’t host those years because they were suffering from unemployment or financial troubles.

Most host families are middle class and the weight of an added member in the household was too much for many of them. “Kids come with nothing,” Bedrina said, “you have to give them clothes, food, et cetera…”

Because of this, the number of years the children would travel was reduced from five to three, so more children could continue to travel. However, it still cut the number of children able to travel by more than half for some years. Things had started to improve in this respect, but then Covid-19 hit.

An outdoor prison

The conditions in the desert are very dire. “There is no vegetation, no water, and temperatures go higher than 50 degrees,” Arabi said.

Before Covid-19, there were two times a year where host families could travel to the camps, around Easter around Christmas. For Bedrina, and many families, although hosting a child has been quite an experience, nothing compares to visiting the camps, and seeing the conditions.

“All Westerners should go and see a refugee camp to open their minds about what is going on in the world. I have seen colleagues go there and feel completely overtaken by the injustice and the world would fall on them. It was too much for them,” he said. Bedrina has been three times to the camps, not only meeting the families but also interviewing women about their vision on the conflict for a documentary and bringing humanitarian aid collected in Spain.

Photo: Sonia Clemente

Bedrina described the camps where Sahrawis have been living for 45 years as “a giant outdoor prison. It is difficult to describe with words.”

“The first days there I thought I had a cold because I was having trouble breathing, but then I realized it was the sand dust I had been swallowing all day,” he said

David Pobes, another volunteer in an association also travelled by car to the camps to take donations gathered in Madrid. He lived with the family he had been in contact with. “You live with them, and you can see they have nothing. The homes usually have two rooms. Not two bedrooms, two rooms. There is no furniture and they sleep on the floor. While you are there you eat with them, cook with them, and clean with them,” Pobes said.

'Saved many lives'

While the main objectives of Holidays in Peace are building awareness of the Sahrawis’ situation, and to take the children away from the camps during the hot summers, one of the key aspects that have helped save lives is the access to better medical care and nutrition during the summer.

Healthcare is a scarce resource in the camps. “We have a Ministry of Health that guarantees health in all the towns in the camps. But the dispensaries are indeed basic,” Arabi said. When David Pobes visited one of the clinics in the camps, he was surprised by it: “in one room, they had an old gas refrigerator for insulin. That was the best technology I saw.”

The clinics are meant mostly for first aid. If it is more serious, the patient must go to the province hospital or the national hospital. If it is even more serious, they must be transported abroad. However, access to specialized medicine is rare.

During the summers in Spain, the children get a full check-up with a blood test and access to specialists. “Thanks to these check-ups we have been able to save many lives of children who are now living a normal life, thanks to this programme,” Arabi said.

Spain has universal healthcare, meaning that the children can access the Spanish healthcare system upon arrival. Children in the camps suffer from hearing and sight problems because of the sandstorms. “You wouldn’t believe the stones that I have seen taken out of these children’s ears. Stones!” Pobes said.

When it comes to sight problems, the associations run fundraisers the entire year not only to cover the €600 flight but also glasses these kids might need. Some optometrists provide the glasses for free for these kids, but unfortunately, there are not enough.

Adapting to the pandemic

Due to Covid-19, the programme was cancelled for the first time since it began decades ago.

To alleviate the effects of not running the programme, the Polisario Front came up with an alternative list of events in the camps. During July and the first half of August children in the refugee camps have taken part in cultural and sports activities.

“We have done practically everything they would do here, such as medical check-ups, but, of course, conditions are not the same, as structures are fragile there.” Arabi said.

They took part in poetry and music workshops, football, cross country, and a programme of exchanges with older people who told them their life stories. They have been able to offer this version of the programme to all the children in the camps, around 9,000.

In August a group was taken to the liberated territories. It was the first time they could see them. Arabi said the programme was a bit rush, as they couldn’t be sure what the Covid conditions were going to be or if they would be able to do it at all, “but the results have been good.”

The plans for next summer remain uncertain, but the hope is that it will be able to return to its usual format, providing many children with a connection to a Spanish host family, language lessons, medical care and a break from life in the camps.

Thess Mostoles is a Spanish journalist currently living in the UK and reporting on international politics, war and conflict.