Florian Börner and Ahmed Al-Shaikhli in the Stadtmission refugee centre in Berlin-Spandau. © Sascha Montag, Zeitenspiegel

Two heads are better than one

Florian Börner and Ahmed Al-Shaikhli live thousands of kilometres apart – one in Germany and one in Iraq. But they are spending a month working together at a refugee centre in Berlin-Spandau.

Portrait by Jan Rübel

The living room is vast, easily big enough to accommodate a football pitch – and at the moment a couple of dozen refugees. In Berlin-Spandau, 750 refugees live in the Stadtmission refugee centre, a former cigarette factory comprising a number of production areas. They are sitting on wooden benches or slowly wandering around beneath the metal roof braces. The size of the room is intimidating.

But the tempo quickens as two young men come round the corner. Florian Börner and Ahmed Al-Shaikhli are looking at their phones, talking in staccato phrases, pointing to the unfinished wooden screens in the adjoining room on the left. Short-haired Börner is wearing a black T-shirt and seems to be in a good mood. Al-Shaikhli is dressed in a blue shirt and suit pants. "We'll have 40 cubicles there," says Börner, "each one for six people". Al-Shaikhli looks up. "When will they be finished? They're still drilling and sawing." Börner laughs: "Officially tomorrow."

Börner (34) and Al-Shaikhli (35) work here. Börner looks after the organisation of the facility, while Al-Shaikhli is a scholarship holder with CCP Refugees and Migration, a new module in the CrossCulture Programme (CCP) run by ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen). This intercultural exchange programme is organised by ifa in conjunction with the German Foreign Office, helping to strengthen Germany's ties with the Islamic world. All of the 13 scholarship holders are professionals in the area of refugee work and migration.

Ahmed Al-Shaikhli in the "Stadtmission" refugee centre in Berlin. © Sascha Montag, Zeitenspiegel

In Iraq, Al-Shaikhli works for the Al-Mortaqa Foundation for Human Development. As part of his involvement with this NGO, he goes into refugee camps and provides training on civil rights, participation and civil society issues. However, he has spent the last four weeks learning about the microcosm that is the Stadtmission refugee centre in Spandau. He is in the midst of a project "that is giving me lots of ideas to take back to Baghdad."

Florian Börner in the "Stadtmission" refugee centre; in the background a map of the centre. © Sascha Montag/Zeitenspiegel

Florian Börner is a native of Germany, but he is also a scholarship holder in the CCP Refugees and Migration module and is working in tandem with Ahmed Al-Shaikhli. At the beginning of November, he returned from northern Iraq, where he spent a month studying the work of Al-Mortaqa. He says he "found a great many similarities."

The air smells of sawdust and wood glue. Some of the 11m2 cubicles are already kitted out with three metal bunk beds. People will be living cheek-by-jowl – in contrast to the ‘living room’, which currently feels like an arena. Börner thinks they are making progress, but it is not enough. "I’ve been negotiating with the authorities for a year," he says. "Now they have agreed that I can take one bunk bed out this year – then there will only be four people in each cubicle." Al-Shaikhli nods.

The two men have had similar career paths. They both started off working in other areas, and initially moved into their current occupations as volunteers. While he was studying IT, Al-Shaikhli also gave maths lessons to the neighbourhood children. After graduating, he began working as a trainer at Al-Mortaqa. He moved on to become a project manager, and in his current role he trains trainers and looks after fundraising and organisation.

Börner studied History and Politics, and on cold winter nights he often helped out at the Stadtmission, which also provides shelter for homeless people. This is where his talent for organisation was spotted. He took charge of the emergency winter shelter at Berlin's main station. In October 2015, when Chancellor Angela Merkel was opening up Germany's borders, the state of Berlin was desperately looking for accommodation for refugees. The Stadtmission was invited to view the cigarette factory and given 24 hours to make a decision. It said yes – and asked Börner to help. 19 hours later, the first 400 people arrived. "It was a crazy time", remembers Börner. Since then, he has been trying to help the refugees who live here maintain their sense of dignity.  

"In Iraq people in camps are much more independent," says Al-Shaikhli. "In the Middle East the refugees in tented camps organise themselves; they are given food but prepare it themselves. Here everything is served to them." This sounds all well and good, but it can have an incapacitating effect on refugees, leaving them feeling passive and apathetic. "We are trying to combat this," says Börner. The paint on the dull walls, the furniture, even the textile shoeholders in front of the sleeping cubicles were all made by the refugees themselves. Börner likes to call them "guests" rather than refugees. "We have set up workshops where our guests can be active."

During his month as a CCP scholarship holder working with refugees in northern Iraq, Börner was impressed by his co-workers at Al-Mortaqa and their pragmatic management style. "There are often a number of aid organisations that are working together or alongside each other. They hold cluster meetings on topics such as education – the 20 organisations come together to discuss the issue and agree an action plan. It's time well spent."

Florian Börner shows the slogans written by the employees of the "Stadtmission" refugee centre. © Sascha Montag, Zeitenspiegel

Börner and Al-Shaikhli want to do more for their "guests" than simply look after their basic needs. This difference soon became clear when they were getting ready for the job fair that was held at the centre in Berlin-Spandau. "I suddenly realised we were only organising the logistical side," says Börner, "but the guests were not prepared for the event." So Al-Shaikhli conducted interviews with people who were interested in volunteering and helped them to write their CVs. "This kind of training not only helps them to integrate, but it can mark the start of an independent life," he says. The idea of a job fair and a focus on refugees' particular talents and interests is something that Al-Shaikhli plans to take back with him to Iraq. "Not for the camps – that's just survival management – but we have thousands of internally displaced persons who have found their own accommodation. This is one way of helping them."

It is midday when the two men reach the office known as the "White Box" – a white cabin where social workers hold interviews with refugees with a view to helping them and moving them on.

Social worker Annika Meyer, one of Börner’s colleagues, is currently talking to Hamoudi, a stone mason from Aleppo in Syria. Al-Shaikhli acts as interpreter while Börner looks through Hamoudi's personal file. Thirty-something Hamoudi is keen to work as a volunteer. He just wants to do something, gain some work experience. "I'd like to cook, perhaps learn how to make pizzas," he says. "I've always been interested in that and I think it would be something I could do in Germany." He has been living here for a year. "I find it difficult to learn German in these conditions. Too many people are packed into the cubicles – I can't concentrate." Börner reaches for his phone. He has a busy day ahead: he has to talk to the centre's interpreter to discuss shifts, and sift through a pile of job applications. The centre is growing and more staff are needed to work with the refugees. But despite all this, he always has time to make a quick call to one of his contacts.

"He can start by helping out at the homeless shelter," says Börner with a smile, putting his phone back in his pocket. On a voluntary basis, working eight hours a week. "A refugee who cooks and serves food to homeless people – that sends out a signal."