Refugio: Coffee, Shelter, Art And Home

Offering shelter, support and a community for those in need, Refugio is a share house and café that’s popped up in Neukölln. Beginning in the summer of 2015, Refugio provides refuge for people who have lost their homes or who have been forced to flee their countries to seek a new life.

Refugio is a Berliner Stadtmission project that offers WG style housing for people down on their luck. With a unique twist, Refugio also has a fully operational café beneath its living areas where volunteers with coffee and hospitality knowledge donate their time to passing on these skills. It’s a haven for exchanging skills, experiences and cultures. Through this project, organisers Sven Lager and Andy Romeike are building a new story. Not one of pity, rejection, or politics and crisis, but rather one of joy and communal wealth: a story that has a chorus of many voices. 

Sven Lager conceived the idea of a communal share house, like Refugio, when he was living in South Africa. Whilst there he wanted to create a home in which all people are valued. He wanted to have a space that reflected his belief that everyone has something to offer, whether it is unique and creative talent, experience or cultural input. With this idea in mind he rented a house and asked friends and strangers to help renovate the home into an adequate living space for multiple tenants. His request was met with an overflow of support and so became the first of his share houses. ‘In the share house people bloomed; musicians, travellers, artists, young people from all cultures came together, played music, gave talks, organised garden projects, 
opened a woodworking shop and helped each other create a community,’ Sven said.  

This idea made its way back to Berlin with Sven and came into fruition here in Kreuzberg, entitled Share Haus. Andy, who has worked with the project since its beginning in Berlin, says this share house mirrors the goals and output of the one originally started in South Africa. However the desire to start Refugio arose when he and Sven realised a lot of refugees were coming along to events held there.  ‘We had a lot of refugees come to the share house in Kreuzberg because they felt a sense of community there. So we connected the Share Haus idea with the refugee influx in Germany and created Refugio,’ Andy said. ‘We got a bigger house and moved to Neukölln and took it from there.’ 

They started Refugio in June last year with a mixture of Germans and refugees living within the house. They live in a creative community in which storytelling, singing, art and theatre are important. ‘There are now 40 people living here, we have 20 people from Germany and 20 refugees. The idea is to live together, work together and share culture and talents,’ Andy said. 

The residents of Refugio have private rooms and share communal spaces for 12-18 months. During this time they organise their daily communal lives together, from cooking to cleaning charts and even working schedules. Furthermore, all tenants are given the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of working in a café downstairs or gardening skills at the rooftop garden upstairs.  ‘Everyone who lives in the house spends 10 hours a week working for the community; this can be in the café, on the rooftop garden, during our events or cleaning common areas of the house,’ Andy said.

The emphasis on community and dealing with skills as a form of currency is the foundation of Refugio’s café and share house. This is a unique and empowering notion as it allows those with tangible and useful gastronomy skills to share these with people down on their luck.  It also promotes the assurance that everyone living in the house lends their part of their time each week to ensure their café and community are running smoothly. Furthermore residents are encouraged to share their culture and language with their fellow roommates. ‘Everyone has a tandem language partner-so one person teaches German and the other teaches their native tongue,’ Andy said. 

Cultural events like Syrian and Somalian dance parties are also a monthly event at Refugio as a fun and exciting way to promote this integration. Anyone can volunteer with Refugio and for these events simply by coming past the café or sending them an email. Andy says that they are overwhelmed by the support and love that has poured in. ‘We have a lot of people coming by the café to offer their help and a lot of messages on Facebook; we’re always open for that support. Here we work with talents and gifts so if, for example, someone is an actor and came in to offer acting lessons we’d do it,’ Andy said. 

In many ways the concept that has come to life through Refugio is a platform for tolerance and an embrace of the diverse community we all live amongst here in Berlin. 

Refugio is located at Lenaustrasse 3-4 and the café is open from Tuesday-Sunday 10am until 6pm. All are encouraged and welcome to drop in to learn more about the events and projects being run there or just to enjoy a warming cup of coffee. 

By Alice Dundon 

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