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Helplinge Betahaus: The Startup Scene Gives Back

Image © Stefano Boghi. 

Something that is perhaps overlooked in the social media storm of refugee-related articles which have taken over so many media feeds in recent months, has been the quiet contributions of business in Germany. You’d struggle to find a man among the author’s friends brave enough to paint her as a pro-business type, but disregarding party lines, there has been a serious, concentrated effort on the part of businesses in the city to contribute to the refugee situation in a positive way. And while it is easy to dismiss the efforts as a corporate social responsibility (CSR) stunt, it turns out to be a mistake. I took my jaded self down to see it in person and was pleasantly surprised.

I was pointed towards Helplinge, a group that has been at the centre of many of the civil society efforts in this city, as a useful point of contact for this issue. When I reached out to them for a meeting, they invited me down to their event at Betahaus. For anyone who has been in Berlin startup scene for more than three months (a milestone, admittedly, which rules out a substantial chunk of the city’s CEOs) will be familiar with Betahaus, but for the uninitiated, Betahaus is the Granddaddy of Berlin’s shared work spaces, located on Prinzessenstraße in Kreuzberg - home to innumerable startups, poets and lonely folk alike. The event, they informed me, was aimed at refugee families, and would be both a day of activities for the kids, and a tour of Kreuzberg for the adults.

Upon arrival, there is the feeling you get when you arrive at the train station and are suddenly sure that you’ve misread your tickets and you’ve shown up on the wrong day. The place is empty. I wander through Betahaus’ cavernous halls and take in the most startup-y of all startup offices (think IKEA, neon colors, pinboards, 3D printing labs) before messaging Helplinge for some guidance - where is everyone? They’re running late, it turns out - the UBahn was late. There is no mistaking them on their arrival however. Streams of people throng through Betahaus’ properly-hipster cafe space accompanied by the Helplinge team. It is busy. They pass into a room off to the left, decked out with craft materials, crude language-learning pictures (‘Gut und Schlecht’, ‘Haus, Baum, Mutter, Vater’ etc.) and out into the backyard to games led in English by one of the Betahaus team and interpreted by a person from Helplinge. The kids play for about twenty minutes as families crowd around benches. Repeated attempts to talk to the organisers are stymied by small children with balls to be thrown, giddy calls for more, and the odd grazed knee.

Image © Stefano Boghi. 

Finally I find someone with a moment to talk to me, a chap in dark glasses who’s interning at Betahaus. Ed, who works in Betahaus’ education programme, tells me that the concept for the day had been dreamt up relatively recently, envisioned as a monthly event for refugee families to help to alleviate the kids’ boredom while they wait for school places and intended to run for at least the next six months. Ed then points me towards Alice Nell, the PR mastermind behind the day. Again, my jaded self flares up, PR you say?

Alice is running between the backyard and the craft room, clearly tending to a million details at once. She agrees to talk to me (but not before giving my credentials some very serious consideration) and takes a few minutes away from making prints with a child of about eight. In conversation with Alice though, it becomes clear that I was wrong. The aim of the day is simply to offer something -- anything -- to help with the refugee situation. Betahaus, as an organisation, realised that their primary asset was Betahaus itself, as in the premises. Once Alice points it out, it make a lot of sense. All the things that turn so many people off from the startup scene: the neon-everything, the beanbag chairs and homemade IKEA-esque everything else, are the same things that make it a very, very good creche. Thus armed with the space, Betahaus is surprisingly well-positioned to do a family day like this. And if nothing else, startups are supposed to be responsive, to be able to move with the changing conditions. In offering a day like this, at least, Betahaus proves itself to be as agile as you could hope.

The aim, Alice tells me, is to ‘keep everything positive’. She’s easily succeeding there - the yard is wall to wall smiling Betahaus staffers, and a handful of Helplinge navigating crises among the kids they know so well. ‘Sustainable -- that was important too,’ Alice says, perhaps preempting the need to ask if this is a stunt, a way to tap into community goodwill for some easy points for Betahaus. ‘We’ll do this for at least six months,’ she intones, almost identically to the way Ed spoke half an hour before. PR people indeed. Regardless, Alice makes a strong impression, and raises a thought that had bypassed me so far -- what are these kids supposed to do with themselves all day, every day? Without school places or proper accommodation, the weeks stretch out intimidatingly for refugee children.

Of course, there are difficulties, Alice points out. Chief among them, the children are all different ages, which means targeted activities are tough to organise, yielding the kind of free-for-all feeling this morning has built to. Looking at the kids though, I get the sense that the preoccupation in creating ‘structured’ activities is more for the organisers -- the kids look positively delighted to be running around and playing with brightly coloured chalks.

‘But it’s not political,’ Alice insists (Ed said exactly this to me too), and I get the sense that the day had been the subject of careful discussion in meetings before today. I wonder to myself later if it matters that Betahaus wants to position their refugee family open house event, which frankly couldn’t easily make a bigger political statement, as simply a ‘nice thing’, and I conclude it probably doesn’t matter -- everyone looks happy after all. But then, I’m back to where I started. Is this just how startups do CSR? No, I tell myself, it’s coming from the right place, and political or not, that’s good enough.

By Sarah Coughlan
Sarah Coughlan is the managing editor of Berlin Logs. You can find her at: www.bulletproofed.org where she hides her academic proofreading business.
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