Volunteering with refugees at Tempelhof Airport

Once dubbed the “mother of all airports”, Tempelhof Airport is now welcoming refugees into its bosom.

Originally envisioned as Hitler’s “world airport”, with plans for a massive rooftop grandstand to hold 100,000 spectators at what he hoped would one day be the Nazi’s victory parade, the airport later became a lifeline for West Berliners in the early days of the Cold War. During the Berlin Airlift, planes landed at Tempelhof every five minutes for months on end, delivering supplies to those living in the city cut off by communist East Germany.

Tempelhofer Feld, the public park born out of the airport’s disused runways and surrounds, has become a beloved symbol of freedom in today’s Berlin. This was backed up by last year’s referendum that saw Berliners vote to preserve the area as a park, blocking the city’s proposal to build expensive apartment blocks and a library in their place.

Now the airport, which closed all operations in 2008, is set to see its humanitarian reprise.

An auspicious choice for a refugee shelter, locals had hoped Tempelhof could be a new beacon of Willkommenskultur, a fitting next step for the politically and emotionally charged space.

But the reality of refuge at Tempelhof Airport is far from idyllic for the people who must make this their temporary home.

Twelve people cram into bunk beds in each makeshift, ceilingless ‘room’ inside the hangar. When the bedding supplier ran out of cheap bunks, the next price-level was offered, meaning some people sleep enveloped by faux-ornate metalwork. But there is no luxury here – in fact, there aren’t even any showers. When people arrive by the busload, they find shelter for the night, but must wait until the next day to be bussed down the road to use some borrowed shower facilities.

Looking around the sparse facilities, it’s easy to wonder, “how did it take two months to set this up?” We had messages from enthusiastic volunteers ready to get to work in this ideal setting back when the idea was first floated in August. So what’s been going on in the meantime?

In order to understand how it could possibly take more than two months to erect temporary shelter for people who are otherwise sleeping in parks in increasingly frosty conditions, it’s important to first look at the vast range of stakeholders who all play a part in the project.

Who’s doing what?

First there are the politicians on national and state level who are attempting to coordinate the flow of refugees across Germany and Berlin. They don’t know how many people will arrive, or when, so they try to make plans in anticipation of some estimates with one hand while putting out political fires with the other. A new report says Germany doesn’t even have the capacity to house 300,000 refugees, let alone the 1 million we have been told to expect this year.

Next there are suppliers who offer food services, resources and utilities, who all want a chance to bid for the business of serving these refugees, while negotiating prices with the politicians.

Then there are the businesses and organisations with events scheduled to take place in the airport that now need to be moved, as well as authorities that want to check the spaces for safety: a lack of fire exits was cited as a reason for the hold up at Tempelhof – the refugees are housed in one of the airport’s hangars, rather than the actual airport building with its far superior insulation, possibly for this reason.

Waiting in the wings are the NGOs and volunteer groups advocating for better living conditions, faster processing, and more than a drop of humanity while preparing to mobilise their teams to work on site. A steering group, which GSBTB has been attending, spent this waiting period meeting regularly to prepare for the work ahead.

Finally, there are individual volunteers like you and me. Until all those other stakeholders are able to get their work done, there’s little we can do. This has bred some impatience among volunteers, but it’s worth remembering there are always plenty of other volunteering opportunities listed on the Give Something Back to Berlin website. You don’t need an auspicious setting to do something good for your city.

All these stakeholders’ efforts hinge on one thing: that refugees arrive in the numbers and manner the state is expecting, and that the right decisions have been made and resources put in place before they arrive. Of course in reality, that is not the case. Our experience has been that after months of waiting, suddenly everything needs to be done right now, within the hour, preferably earlier.

While the situation may appear chaotic and disorganised, it’s more a case of people doing what they can with limited information and resources.

How to excel at volunteering

For the last two months, when people wrote to us to ask, “when can I finally volunteer at Tempelhof Airport?” The answer was: if no one else knows, then we definitely don’t know.

What we do know, now, is that it’s most helpful if you sign up on Volunteer Planner, a website used by most of the volunteer coordination groups to keep a handle on the numbers of volunteers. While many shelters experienced a great rise in volunteer numbers in the late summer, as media hype and temperatures have started to drop off, so have the volunteer numbers.

Volunteer Planner allows you to see which shifts are available, what skills are required and how many people are needed, and lets you know when a shift is filled to make better use of everyone’s time.

Right now at Tempelhof there are only two types of volunteer work available: sorting donated clothes or translating for refugees who speak Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish, Russian and Urdu. After working a shift at the Tempelhof shelter on its first open day, one of our team members explained, “as English speakers, we are the least useful people there”.

Volunteering for refugees at Tempelhof Airport may sound like the completion of a Berliner dream come true, but volunteering is hardly ever glamorous. There’s a lot of waiting around for people or supplies to arrive, and it’s unlikely you’ll get the one-on-one time with a refugee that many seem to covet.

If you do want to meet refugees and make genuine connections, Give Something Back to Berlin is hosting regular community team up events giving refugees the chance to meet some local people with similar interests, so they can get on with doing some of the activities they might miss from home.

Thankfully, there is currently an incredible array of volunteer opportunities listed on our website, both for working with refugees but also other members of Berlin society.

For example, staff at the refugee shelter in Olympiapark is suffering from exhaustion due to picking up extra shifts when volunteer numbers dwindle. They could certainly use some fresh pairs of hands to power through the workload there.

In short, yes you can now volunteer at Tempelhof Airport. But wouldn’t it be great to cultivate a culture of reaching out to more than just the volunteer opportunities in iconic settings, to the people who might otherwise be forgotten in the less hip parts of town?

Vanessa Ellingham is the editor of the Give Something Back to Berlin blog.