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150 Syrian refugees volunteer to help flood victims: "What Germany gave us, we can never give back"

150 Syrian refugees volunteer to help flood victims : "What Germany gave us, we can never give back"

In the Ahrweiler district around a half hour from Bonn, at least 150 Syrian refugees are helping with reconstruction after the flood disaster. They are taking unpaid leave from their jobs, sleeping in emergency shelters and come from all corners of Germany.

Yasser Shunat hasn't seen his family for weeks even though they only live a few hours away. Not even his newborn grandson. "I have to help. What Germany gave us, we can never give back," he says. Shunat is referring to Germany taking in Syrian refugees who fled the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. With a handful of helpers, Shunat is tearing up the tiled floor of a house in Sinzig on Wednesday. His employer gave him time off, but does not pay him for this time.

The owner of the home doesn't want to be named, but is visibly grateful. "These are really wonderful people." She has offered them money, but they don't want to accept it, says Barakat Oubaid. The volunteers cannot accept anything from those affected, he says. The Damascus-born refugee came to Germany in 2012 and has lived in Konstanz since then. He was a guest student at the University of Tübingen, studied Islamic Studies for his bachelor's degree and now wants to study social work in Heidelberg as well.

The Ahr region resembles Syria, only the rockets are missing

On July 17, a few days after the flood of the century, Oubaid founded the Facebook group "Syrian Volunteers in Germany" together with Anas Alakkad. After a short time, over 4,000 people had joined. Members of the group from Berlin, Baden-Württemberg, Saarland and other regions have come by train, and some by car. They travel to flood-affected regions in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia. As Oubaid speaks, the tiles rattle under the jackhammers in the next room.

Another small group is currently in Ahrweiler to help, Oubaid said. His cousin, Maher Oubaid, has been in town with the entire Sinziger group for almost a month. He took leave from his job near Lake Constance, to help here. "Of course, these images remind me of Syria," he says. "It looks very similar here. Only the rockets are missing. But helping the people does us good from the bottom of our hearts."

A WhatsApp group for the Syrian helpers in each German state

Anas Alakad is the second organizer of the Syrian volunteers' Facebook helper group, alongside Oubaid. He is studying international business administration and is a paramedic on the side. The focus on migrants is an advantage here, he says. He founded the group, he said, to bridge the language barriers between those in need of help in the flood disaster and Syrian volunteers. WhatsApp groups exist in each state so helpers from all over Germany can organized themselves logistically. Several dozen of the helpers were accommodated in "CoWorking Sinzig", an office space which actually gets rented out.

Melanie Brücken and Jennifer Fleischer had actually planned to open a café at Bachovenstrasse 3 shortly before the flood disaster. The day after the flash floods, they had electricity and internet there again relatively quickly. Within a very short time, they became a place where people would come for information and they set up a soup kitchen. Volunteers formed groups there, and the owners took over childcare. There was no other central point of contact in Sinzig. The city administration issued Brücken's private cell phone number as a hotline, so disaster management was primarily handled by the CoWorking Space, says Brücken.

There is a huge shortage of help

In social media, volunteers from Syria already enjoy great popularity. Many write about them in an Ahrweiler helper group: "Incredibly hardworking" or "They sometimes don't dare ask for protective clothing when it's damaged". Kathrin Weidlich from Ingolstadt, who traveled to help, describes the Syrian helpers as "incredibly nice and dedicated." However, she says it is sad that some of them had to thank her for being welcomed so kindly and without prejudice.

Alakad came into contact with Melanie Brücken when he was looking for sleeping possibilities for two helpers. Since then, about 25 helpers have been billeted next door where the Volksbank provided a vacant building. In total, about 150 Syrians are staying on in the region to help. But there were nowhere near enough sleeping facilities needed for the amount of helpers who were actually there, according to Brücken. There is no help whatsoever from the municipal or state governments, she said. "Everything that is being dealt with in private households, the state government eventually does differently," Brücken complains.

To cover their expenses, a GoFundMe initiative was launched. There, the volunteers collect donations: for food, accommodation, tools and materials, and their own expenses, which they also have to cover at the moment due to leaves of absence from work. The urgently needed donations can be handed in on site or transferred to https://gofund.me/35212ce5.

(Orig. text: Simun Sustic / Translation: Carol Kloeppel)