Volunteering With Refugees

What It’s Like to Volunteer at a Refugee Shelter in Berlin

February 7, 2016
Volunteer at a Refugee Shelter in Berlin

What It’s Like to Volunteer at a Refugee Shelter in Berlin

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to volunteer at a refugee shelter in Berlin?

What It’s Like to Volunteer at a Refugee Shelter in Berlin

I’ve been volunteering with the Berliner Stadtmission for the better part of a year now and work a shift at their shelter in Moabit almost every weekend. There’s a number of duties you can choose from, such as helping with laundry, to handing out hygiene products like shampoo and soap, to working in the kitchen.

As I like keeping busy and interacting with people, I always opt to work kitchen shifts.

Finding the Refugee Shelter

The shelter’s tucked away on a quiet street in Moabit. Ironically not too far, but thankfully far enough, from the nightmare that is LaGeSo.

Finding the exact location of the shelter can be difficult for first-timers. Once you find the “house” number, there’s no building within immediate sight. You’ll see a Berliner Stadtmission sign. Walk past the sign and continue along a tree flanked path.

Refugee Shetler Moabit

Directly beside the shelter, is a venue which plays host to different types of events. During the summer, I once walked past when they were holding a wedding. There was a small orchestra playing music, wait staff handing out hors-d’oeuvres, and elegantly dressed people sipping glasses of champagne.

On the other side of the shelter are some tennis courts and a soccer field. During the warmer months, it’s not uncommon to see the facilities put to use.

You also  can’t help but notice the sheer number of BMWs, Jaguars, and Porsches parked nearby.

The juxtaposition of seeing two such distinct lifestyles physically side-by-side is jarring. The difference is not lost on the refugees, nor volunteers at the shelter.

It just feels weird and somehow wrong, even if no one is actually doing anything wrong.

Once you reach the end of the pathway, turn left. You can’t miss the shelter, which some of the refugees have come to refer to as “the balloon.”

The “Balloon” Refugee Shelter in Moabit

Volunteer at a Refugee Shelter in Berlin

The emergency shelter is a large domed structure, which can house up to 300 people. It contains dorm rooms that sleep six, a large dining area, a children’s play space, a working kitchen, and even, ping pong and kicker tables.

The Inside of a Refugee Shelter in Moabit

It’s the first inflatable structure for refugees in Germany. Although it was met with criticism when it was first built in the fall of 2014, due to a perceived lack of privacy and dignity for the refugees, the government is now looking to replicate this model elsewhere in the country. Much has changed since then and this shelter is one of now one of the better places a refugee can stay when in Berlin.

Entering the shelter is a challenge in itself. You open the first door and must wait for it to close behind you, before opening the second door. When you attempt to open the second door, there’s a sudden gush of wind, forcing you to push it really hard to actually get the door to open all the way.

Once you enter, you immediately notice how warm it is. It’s like being inside a hot yoga studio. At this point, my glasses usually steam up. I laugh, greet the security staff a friendly hello, and inform them that I’m working in the kitchen. They check for my name and then wave me in.

Walking towards the kitchen, I see familiar faces. While the shelter was first built to house refugees temporarily, for a few days maximum, due to the backlog in the processing of asylum applications, they often find themselves there for days or months at a time.

I smile at an Afghan man, who knows I’m from Canada. We’ve talked about his desire to relocate there and it hurts to know his chances of being able to do so are slim.

My most special friend, is a little Syrian girl named Alisa. She speaks fluent Arabic, some German, and even a bit of English. She once told me that she thinks she’s 20 years old, then later confessed that she’s only 10. She always offers up smiles, big hugs, and begs you not to leave when you’re shift is over. For fun, she likes to try on my sunglasses and pose like a model.

There’s also plenty of “hallos” and “wie gehts” from the other children as you walk to the kitchen.

Working a Kitchen Shift in the Refugee Shelter

Finally, I reach the kitchen and from there, the routine is second nature. I hang up my jacket, don an apron, write my name on a nametag, wash my hands, put on gloves, and set out to work. I find out who the kitchen leader is that day and ask them what they’d like me to do.

Names of Volunteers at a Berlin Refugee Shelter

Often it’s drying dishes used from the previous meal and putting them away. Other times, it’s preparing the food, like chopping pickles into small pieces, putting bread into containers, and more.

The kitchen “boss” will approach the group at some point and ask them what they would like to do during the meal. Some prefer to spend the entire shift working with the dishwasher at the back. Others, like me, prefer to serve food. Some days, I’m the “banana lady” handing out fruity desserts because the kids treat you like you’re a superhero. I usually prefer to take the first position in our little assembly line, saying hello to the refugees, and asking them what they would like to start with.

Then it’s time to serve the meal. Note – when you volunteer, you can opt to work breakfast, lunch, or supper shifts.

At times, the crowds are small, with around 100 people. Other times, the shelter is filled to capacity and you’re serving crowds of up to 300 people.

A typical meal includes fish or chicken, bread, vegetables, and fruit. For obvious reasons, pork is never on the menu. Bananas seem to be the most popular and the kids will line-up multiple times to procure themselves another piece of fruit.

Rules in the Refugee Shelters

Shifts are usually fun, but sometimes they’re also really tough. There’s rules that need to be followed and sometimes the refugees are not happy with them.

When they lineup for food, all members of the family must be physically present. Sometimes, the kids are sleeping or are off playing outside. You have no choice but to refuse the mother and ask her to lineup again, with the kids in tow. As you can imagine, this does not always meet with a positive response.

Sometimes, they’ll ask for extra portions. You have to request that they eat what they have and get in line again for seconds. It’s only fair, as everyone needs to be fed before you go about doling out more food. It’s extremely hard saying no though, as you only want to be generous.

Language barriers are another problem. Refugees come from all over and speak a number of different languages, but German and English are not usually one of them. This makes communication very hard, especially when there’s not always translators around to explain things. All you can do is smile, try your best, and compromise as needed. Hand gestures and pointing help. Sneaking them extra bananas also helps to keep them happy, maintain the peace, and ensure the line’s moving.

Often the refugees don’t like the food being served, and if I was them, I’d feel the same. While the food is mostly good, there’s sometimes items on offer that I wouldn’t want to eat either.

I’ve noticed a growing trend lately and see that many leave, buying their food elsewhere. They return to the shelter later on and throw together a small meal that doesn’t require any cooking preparation (they are not permitted access to the shelter’s kitchen facilities). Sometimes, it’s something as simple as cheese and bread.

After the first wave of people have taken their meal, they begin queuing up for seconds, thirds, and so on. We pass out food until everything’s gone, before closing the blinds to signal the kitchen is closed.

The real work starts at this point. There’s dishes to wash, dry, and put away. Counters to be scrubbed clean. Floors to be vacuumed, etc.

Volunteers Are Everything to Refugees

At some point, the volunteers take a break and eat a small meal together. This is my favourite time, as it’s nice to get to know the other volunteers and what motivates them to be there.

As time passes, you start to see the same people, so instead of exchanging the typical hellos, we hug and give each other high fives. Other times, there’s people on a short holiday, who actually take time from their vacation to volunteer with refugees. If I knew them better and they wouldn’t think I was weird for doing so, I’d hug them too for being so awesome.

The conversation during our break is always interesting. More often than not, it centers around politics and current events. Hearing the perspective of the paid full-time staff is always eye opening, as they are dealing with the refugee crisis on a day-to-day basis. They worry about the ineffectiveness of LaGeSo, how long refugees are stuck in limbo, and how hard it will be to integrate them into German society so they can go to school, secure work, and so on.

This particular shelter is supported by 1,300 volunteers and I’m proud to be one of them. The fact that people show up regularly and give up their free time is simply inspiring.

Groups like Serve the City come in and do art sessions with the kids, musicians come in and perform opera, while others just come in for coffee and conversation with the refugees.

I met a German man, who once took a group of male refugees out for an evening of billiards. Another girl who owns some dogs, organized an event last weekend, where she took out some of the kids and parents to a nearby park to walk and play with her dogs. Volunteers also come in daily to facilitate German language classes.

While Germany, not to mention the city of Berlin itself, may be mishandling the crisis, volunteers and charities are everything right now. If it wasn’t for them, conditions for refugees would be much worse.

For more information about the “balloon” shelter in Moabit, read this NPR Berlin piece.

If you’re interested in being a volunteer at a refugee shelter in Berlin (specifically this one), you can book a shift through vostel.de.

You can also request to be added to Berliner Stadtmission’s mailing list. They send weekly emails, allowing you to book a shift on a date and time that’s convenient for you. 


  • Reply Expat Living: Celebrating 14 Months in Berlincherylhoward.com. February 19, 2016 at 2:27 pm

    […] also put together a piece on what it’s like to volunteer at a refugee shelter in Berlin and a feature on Ai Weiwei’s refugee art […]

  • Reply The Donald Trump Protest in Berlin — cherylhoward.comcherylhoward.com November 13, 2016 at 1:36 pm

    […] would I survive as an American citizen under his leadership, as an ardent LBGT supporter and refugee volunteer. […]

  • Reply Ai Weiwei Refugee Art Installation at Konzerthaus Berlin – Berlin Refugees January 16, 2017 at 6:25 am

    […] in helping refugees in Berlin? Then read this article about what it’s like to volunteer at a refugee shelter in Berlin. Or read this helpful article from Finding […]

  • Leave a Reply