BERLIN – Dog walkers, cyclists and doting parents all enjoy Berlin’s Gorlitzer Park. Everyone goes about their business, including the drug dealers – many of them migrants from west Africa – who work the park gates, seeking out potential customers.
Nobody seems much to mind the cannabis; it is just accepted as the way things are in this hipster neighbourhood of Berlin.
But after getting to know the dealers while walking her dogs each day, one local woman decided to do something about it.
Migrants can do way more than deal drugs, she said.
“We want to show they can have normal jobs and this can reverse the whole situation in the park. If you give migrants opportunities they will take them,” said Brigitta Varadinek, founder of Bantabaa – “meeting point” in the mandinka language, which is spoken in west Africa.
As well as weekly German lessons and legal advice as a first step to integration, the social enterprise she founded in 2015 offers employment opportunities in its cafe and a place to live for 15 people chosen for its work training scheme.
There are more than 300,000 unregistered migrants in Germany, drawn largely by the promise of work.
Immigration is increasingly shaping politics in the United States and Europe. Wealthy Germany is where the newly-arrived mostly end up and Chancellor Angela Merkel is under pressure to curb their numbers.
Since Mediterranean arrivals spiked in 2015, when more than a million refugees and migrants reached the EU, only about 41,000 people have made it to the bloc across the sea this year. But opinion polls show migration is the top concern of the EU’s 500 million citizens.
In Germany, dozens of charities and social enterprises are working to ease their integration, with a host of initiatives from retraining refugees as city tour guides to helping them fulfil the country’s complex bureaucratic obligations.
Slim and shy to speak, Mass, 38, works at the cafe.
He has been in Germany since 2015 and spent two days sleeping in the park every week when travelling into Berlin to seek work from a refugee shelter in Mecklenburg Vorpommen, the federal state north of Berlin.
Bantabaa employed him because, of the many migrants who come asking for work, he was one of the few with a CV.
Although Mass – who did not want to reveal his surname – has been refused asylum, he cannot be returned to Mauritania as he does not have a passport.
He does, however, have a work permit.
Mass fled slavery in Mauritania, working as a bonded labourer for five years for a man who had been subcontracted by a German construction company. He was given food and shelter, but said his boss kept his money.
The West African country has one of the highest rates of slavery in the world, with two in 100 people living as slaves, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index.
Mass said he cannot return to Mauritania because he would be forced back into slavery. If he refused to work for the man who owns him, he would be killed, he said.
Like his 80 fellow passengers, he was told to bring enough food and water for a five-day journey from Morocco to Spain by boat, for which he had paid 500 Euros.
But bad weather hit.
“The journey was prolonged to two weeks. Food and drinking water ran out and 15 people on board died as a result. They were tossed overboard,” said Mass.
He eventually arrived in Italy.
The people in the park have come looking for work because they don’t have any in their home countries, Mass said.
“Bantabaa is doing a lot for the African people that work here and it doesn’t get any support from the state. They could help them with money or clothing. The state should support them,” Mass told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Chancellor Angela Merkel offered a warm welcome to refugees in 2015 but is under pressure over a policy that is threatening to undermine her ruling coalition.
The situation in Gorlitzer Park is tolerated because of its location in Kreuzberg, with its liberal local government.
But things have changed, said Varadinek, who continues to work as a lawyer while running her social enterprise.
So far, it has helped 50 people and is largely funded by Varadinek, with donations from companies, charities and friends. Her aim is to help more migrants as the cafe makes more money.
The drug dealing still exists and the political atmosphere has soured – but Bantabaa will keep trying to bridge the gap.
“We will not solve the whole migrant question,” Varadinek said. “It’s a question of helping each other …. not to change the whole world. This is something we cannot do.”
Reporting by Lee Mannion @leemannion; editing by Lyndsay Griffiths Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. (Thomson Reuters Foundation)