Crossing Boundaries: A Day in Neuhardenberg

Neuhardenberg is a small town close to the Polish border, 60 miles east of Berlin, which houses a mixture of people.  It is the site of Neuhardenberg Palace and contains quaint homes and streets.  On a snowy Sunday morning, we drive past these homes to a quadrangle of dormitories – grey, tall and unforgiving.  In our vehicles are instruments, art supplies and volunteers.

Living in these state-provided buildings, which stand in stark contrast to the rest of the town, are 180 refugees and their families.  When we arrive the courtyard is completely empty and an almost eerie silence greets us.  We’re going with a simple message: that these people are welcome, though they are far from ‘home’.

This, unfortunately, has not been a message made clear by some residents of Neuhardenberg.  Right-wing xenophobic behaviour, including the outbreak of a fight following a community football match, has led to many refugees feeling unwelcome.  This, after the struggle to arrive in Europe, coupled with the lack of resources and integration tools, is unacceptable.  As a small group, we are not able to help these people overcome the multiple administrative hurdles or give back what has been lost but we believe we can help develop a sense of home.

After some time children start to appear in the windows of the buildings, waving at us.  They are curious to see what we have brought for them.  Men and women watch us too – at first indignant and with time the same ones who show us their classical guitar experience and ask for photographs together.  Doors are knocked on - which brings back fond memories of my own childhood, being called on spontaneously by friends – and a group forms amongst the snow.  Slowly introductions are made.  Some recognize those they have met before.

Later we will learn that most of the people settled in Neuhardenberg look away when they see the refugees on the streets.  Many refugees have lived here for over two years and are fighting routine battles with isolation, loneliness and feeling of a lack of purpose.  Most want to go somewhere else.  So it is no wonder that they feel secluded, in a place with a new climate, new faces and a sense that there is nothing for them to do but wait.  Many describe it as their lives being “on hold”.

Organized by Hania Hakiel, a psychotherapist by profession, and supported by Give Something Back to Berlin, we are not a particularly uniform bunch; amongst us are guitar players, artists, teachers, refugees, Berliners and expats. We come from different places and speak different languages (just like those in the Neuhardenberg dormitories) but when I reflect on the day I smile at the simplicity.  We had snowballs to throw and a warm gym where we could play.  We had art supplies and music; timeless tools to cross real boundaries.

Though the initiative is called Open Art Shelter, aiming to use art as a bridge between people, the day unravels as it should: spontaneously.  We get on hands and knees to roll snow with children.  We use the gymnasium for a mixture of basketball, rope climbing and football.  Conversations are struck up.  Kids run and yell, pausing to get their face painted or to make their own art.  Young boys take turns learning the guitar.

These are simple but necessary activities, which help build community.  As one Somalian woman told me, “We have nothing at all to do here.  We sleep as long as possible to avoid the day.”  On this day, the woman and her children are smiling, laughing and listening to music. When we leave, many say goodbye with hugs and hopes that they will see us again soon. It reminds me of the street parties from back home, where once unknown neighbours become friends and people to call on.

Open Art Shelter organizes similar events in Berlin and plans to continue visiting Neuhardenberg.  Whether you are creative or simply open to enjoying another person’s creativity, it is a great initiative to get involved with.  It is one of many burgeoning projects around the city that share this aim.  To sustain these activities and grow communities, these groups require more funding and donations, as well as the support of people who are lucky enough to call Berlin home.

To donate to the Open Art Shelter
To donate to Give Something Back to Berlin

By Michelle Beck
Photos by Emilie Scholten

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