Martina Behrens receives 5,000 euros from the VW FS initiative STÜTZRÄDER ("Stabilizers") for her work in "Flüchtlingshilfe Papenteich e.V.", a voluntary non-profit association to help refugees and victims of forced displacement living in the Papenteich district near Braunschweig.
Wednesday evening is a fixed weekly appointment for Martina Behrens, a date when nothing else can intervene. That's when she's in the so-called Magazin, an area comprising a number of rooms in what used to be the community center in Meine. "First off, I'm usually overwhelmed by lots of young children who are simply happy to see me there," Behrens says with a laugh. "It's a bit like family." The 51-year-old has been actively involved in Flüchtlingshilfe Papenteich for three years now. Among other activities, she teaches German, organizes events, and also sorts the various material donations that have been brought in when she has the time.
2015 has been a special year in Germany's history. More people than ever before came to Germany that year seeking protection from persecution and war. "The news broadcasts were full of the subject and I wanted to do something – but I didn't want to just donate a bit of money or some clothes," as Behrens explains her motivation. Around 80 citizens came together as soon as it became known that the area they live in, the integrated municipality of Papenteich, was also to take in refugees. "Together, we gave some thought as to how we could support these refugees and what was actually needed." The initiative quickly spawned a number of concrete measures such as sponsorships, a café for people to meet, a bicycle workshop and German courses.
"In the beginning we were giving a lot of German courses, not least because the integration courses planned by the German federal government had long waiting lists. And the refugees accepted this offer with open arms, because they were pleased to escape from their day-to-day existence, an everyday life that didn't really deserve the name anyway. They were happy that somebody was making the effort to introduce them to our culture and language." Martina Behrens taught German for over two years. "It was a challenge," as she acknowledges in retrospect. The language competence of those taking the courses varied considerably. There were also people who couldn't read or write among the refugees, and they had to be brought up to a working level in the classes. "Language is, after all, the gateway to culture," Behrens points out. "The most satisfying experience for me was always when somebody had learned my language enough to crack a joke in it."
Needs have changed
The voluntary initiative led to the foundation of a non-profit association two years ago. "And before I knew it, I was a member of the board," she looks back with a smile. A lot has happened since then. The 16 original members have grown to 44. In addition, 60 volunteers also support the association in its work, some of them regularly and others when a special need arises – what's on offer has expanded greatly over recent years. People's donations of clothes and other goods are collected and distributed, courses and advice meetings are arranged, and various events and talks are organized. "The needs have changed. The refugees want a job or want to be trained to do something. The problem is that many trainees and apprentices fail at the "academic" hurdle, because even a level B2 language competence (upper intermediate) is inadequate to understand and implement what is being taught." To help remedy this situation, the association fosters and supports those under its wing in their integration in the employment market with supplementary German courses on an individual basis. For example, the volunteers regularly meet students to help them improve their language skills, to look over their application documents together, or to simulate job interviews. The association also lends a hand with the purchase of educational materials if it has enough funds. The 5,000 euros from the VW FS STÜTZRÄDER initiative is a great help here. The money is to be used for private coaching and subsidizing the attainment of driving licenses so as to improve the refugees' chances on the employment market.
"Our main work starts when all the bureaucratic issues at the immigration authority have been dealt with, like the asylum procedure and the search for accommodation. To be honest, it's then that the long-term integration begins." A mutual understanding between cultures is especially important here. "Becoming integrated doesn't mean discarding everything that makes people who they are. But true arrival, getting there and being well received, implies mutual understanding." It scares her time and again that the association also comes up against hostility to foreigners. "Xenophobia is never far away, and it's sometimes just sitting around the table next door. This kind of attitude often arises out of fear. But that's something we can break down by opening our association to the community at large and by arranging encounters."
Many of Martina Behrens' contacts have ripened into friendships over recent years. "It takes time to realize just how much suffering these people have gone through." That motivates her all the more to make it as easy as possible for the refugees to come here and feel at ease. "The issue stirs me up – it galvanizes me in some way." Work on an interpersonal level is how Behrens describes her commitment. But she sees it as a social responsibility at the same time. "The point isn't that everybody should be getting involved in helping refugees. It's often enough to look left and right from time to time, to say hello to our neighbors, and to send out the simple signal: I notice you exist. For the sake of more interaction, understanding and respect between people."
The STÜTZRÄDER programme
Volunteers are the backbone of this society. For this reason, Volkswagen Financial Services supports employees who engage themselves in social projects above and beyond the normal level. The aim is to give something back to society and to play an active part in shaping it. The STÜTZRÄDER initiative promotes innovative voluntary projects of its employees with a connection to the Braunschweig region. In addition to supporting "Flüchtlingshilfe Papenteich e.V.", the STÜTZRÄDER programme also supported the baseball department of SV Lindenberg, child cancer care in Gifhorn and the circus project of the Förderverein für Grundschule KTK & Kita Veltenhof e.V. (KTK & Kita Veltenhof Primary School Association).