For the past two months, volunteers from Babbel have been visiting the LAGeSo refugee centre in Berlin’s Bundesallee to distribute free online German courses. Sam Taylor talked to some of the project’s participants to find out more about their experiences.
“But why did you come here?” pressed the 20-something Syrian we’ll call Ahmed.
“London is so much more beautiful!”
“Well,” I began, but trailed off. I’ve had the London vs. Berlin conversation plenty of times since I arrived in my new home. To be frank, it’s getting old.
That’s when I finally twigged to something I thought I already knew. Ahmed was pretty normal. Here I was, talking to a man who’d been through things I can’t fully imagine in order to reach this waiting room, and I was actually beginning to tire of the conversation topic.
I mean, of course he was normal. So were all the other refugees I’d spoken to – they just so happened to be fleeing a war zone. I knew that, and so did all of my colleagues who have recounted similar revelations in the past few weeks. But until you meet some of the Flüchtlinge you’ve been reading about and engage them in mundane conversations, it somehow doesn’t sink in.
“Things in Berlin are very different from Calais,” explained Giulia Raffaello, Executive Assistant to Babbel’s Product & Engineering team. Giulia has previously spent time with refugees in northern France’s infamous ‘jungle’ camp, and she immediately noted the contrast between that situation and the one in Berlin.
“Things are a lot more desperate in the jungle. The most pressing concerns are basic things like food, water and shelter. Here, things are much more settled – these people are coming to the end of the nightmare.”
The refugees that arrive at the LAGeSo on Bundesallee have already made the difficult journey to Germany. With the bare essentials of life no longer such a pressing issue, they’re able to turn their thoughts to building new lives – administrative processes and language learning included. That’s where we step in.
“It’s not necessarily life and death,” says Babbel CEO Markus Witte. “But there’s certainly a lot more at stake for these people than there is for someone who wants to brush up before a holiday. Learning German will make an enormous difference in these people’s lives.
“And I think the benefits go both ways. From the very beginning, I felt that we were hugely privileged to be able to work with these people. After meeting them for myself, I know that to be the case – it really helped me as a person to understand the situation.”
Giulia, Markus and I are among dozens of Babbel volunteers that have been spending time at the LAGeSo over the past two months. We visit in pairs, two people for every day of the working week, and distribute free Babbel courses to help the refugees learn German.
“We arrived at the Bundesallee early in the morning,” recounts Junior Technical Product Owner Aria Jones. “It was cold, and there was already a line of people waiting behind a barrier.
“Skipping the queue and entering the building ahead of them was kind of uncomfortable – it was somehow a poignant reminder of our privileged position.”
With a little help from the guards, volunteers navigate the building’s network of corridors and stairwells to emerge in Waiting Area 2, a large, carpeted room encircling a courtyard and smoking area one floor below. Windows line most of the walls, but the room is lit mainly from the fluorescent bulbs overhead.
“There was a mix of young and old, women and men,” continues Aria. “Most people looked exhausted and weary, as well as bored.
“We tentatively made an announcement in German and English to let everyone know where we were from and what we were doing. People seemed interested, but also a little confused. A couple of friendly English-speakers stepped in to helps us explain, and people soon began to gather around.”
Thanks in part to the woes of public wifi, repeatedly setting up Babbel accounts gave the volunteers plenty of time to get to know some of the refugees waiting for their appointments.
“It was sad that I couldn’t help everyone, or take them home with me,” says Gaia from Customer Services. “I’d have liked to stay in touch with some of the people I met.
“Before I went, I was anxious about the whole thing. You read the news, and see things on TV, but you really don’t know what to expect. I think it took me about a week to sort through all the feelings, but looking back now… I’d do it all day, every day if I could.”
CMO Arne Schepker, a relatively recent addition to the Babbel team, also paid a visit to the centre: “It’s amazing to see how much motivation everyone has to learn German and integrate into the country. They’ve been offered the opportunity to start a new, better life and they’re grabbing it by the horns. Every little help we can offer is graciously accepted.”
That’s something that’s been repeated by almost everyone who’s participated in the project thus far. By and large, once you’re able to explain the product to someone, they immediately see the benefit.
“People were a little skeptical at first,” admits Arne Gerdes, Product Owner. “They thought we were either from the media, or trying to sell them something. It’s not always easy to convince people they can trust you, but once we explained, they soon opened up. They were all very happy with the courses – I even had someone come back to show me how much they’d learned.”
Product Manager Raphael Menezes visited together with Gerdes and also believes that getting past the barrier of “what are you trying to sell me?” is key to helping people at the centre.
“Once people understand, they’re incredibly grateful” he tells me. “plenty of them even manage a ‘danke’. I met a guy who had been to the centre at least once before and spoken one of our colleagues. He’d been using Babbel since then and was making real progress – ‘pretty cool’ he said.”
“I had a bottleneck of people who wanted to sign up,” recounts Markus’ Executive Assistant, Lisa Rieh. “But I had a willing volunteer who helped to get others started with the app. I also met a boy of around 13 who began to learn the moment he got the chance. Within about ten minutes he came back to try out his German on me!”
Aside from providing people with the tools they need to learn a new language, we wanted to make sure that we offered them a warm welcome, or as CRM Manager Giovanni Perrucci put it: “to be a friendly face and a good experience for them.”
“People respond very well to a welcoming gesture,” says Markus. “Just the idea that someone wants to go there and help is very powerful.”
That much became evident early on in my exchanges with Ahmed. In the five minutes or so I spent talking to him, it became clear that as helpful as a German course would be, he was just as happy with the opportunity to have a friendly conversation. The sentiment is especially true, however, in the story of an Iraqi man that SEM Manager Pedro Werneck relayed to me:
“The first thing he said to me was: ‘English? Please, help me! I don’t want to stay in Germany. I just want the papers so I can go back home! Please send me back home!’
“It was his second week of coming to the Bundesallee, and he was beginning to doubt that the government would help him at all. I gave him a Babbel voucher anyway and spent some time talking to him about my experience in Germany. After all, as a Brazilian, I’m an immigrant myself.
“Just as I was leaving for the day, he was called in for his appointment. He was so happy, he ran all the way up the stairs – what a change!”