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Do you feel like you belong in Berlin?
Whether or not I belong to Berlin is still an open question for me, I would say. Since I have been here since 2016, the answer changes, I cannot say yes, I do, or no, I don’t. When I leave, I miss the city, then I ask myself, is it the city or my daily routine that I miss? There is a quote by a Syrian writer: when a man loses his first city, he can never find another one to replace it. Maybe I’m not looking for a place, maybe I have an inner feeling of fear to belong to a city, maybe I just mean I belong to my apartment, to my friends – maybe this is a new form of belonging we have had to develop after losing everything. 
Can you belong to more than one city/place at the same time? 
Yes, of course. I think that would make things easier, if you only belong to one person, place, idea, then you lose it and it will break you. Maybe what I try to do is develop a simple definition of belonging: this could be belonging to a movie that I like, belonging to my kitchen, cooking with my loved ones. After everything we experienced, it’s too hard to belong to just one city…Maybe it’s not right but it’s my solution. For example, I work with families who live in refugee camps. They don’t even have a kitchen to cook their meals. They don’t even belong to the simplest thing. In such a situation, it’s really strange to talk about belonging to cities because you don’t even belong to a room, to a home.
— Nour, Syrian social worker living in Berlin

Berlin, Europe’s third largest city at the turn of the 20th century, evokes images of the cultural metropolis and industrial center of the Golden Twenties, the darkness and cruelty of the Nazi regime, and decades of Cold War tension. Over 30 years now since the Wall fell, the unified capital has become a popular tourist destination. An international community of artists, academics, diplomats, journalists, and an increasing number of tech start-up workers also call Berlin home, contributing to gentrification and rising living costs across the city. However, not all of Berlin’s newcomers arrived out of choice. Six years after the influx of more than one million refugees in 2015, there are now approximately 50,000 Syrian refugees living in the city. 

Despite recently resettling significant numbers of refugees and hosting large numbers of labour migrants since the 1960s, notably the Turkish ‘guest workers’, Germany is still not widely recognised by Germans as a country of immigrants. This othering has manifested in hate speech as well as violence, and tension has continued with the so-called European refugee crisis. Today we see growing xenophobia and anti-immigration policies at both the European Union (EU) level, as evidenced through the New Pact on Asylum and Migration, and domestically, as many countries have sought to limit asylum seekers’ access to territory and procedures (Interview, Director of a European asylum agency). In Germany, for example, there is a growing anti-immigrant backlash evidenced through the rise of the far-right group Alternative for Germany (AFD) as well as increases in hate crimes such as xenophobic attacks (DW 2019). 

One ongoing point of tension has been the integration versus assimilation - and even exclusion - of immigrants and refugees. While discussions on refugee integration in Europe are widespread, they often focus on labour market integration and language acquisition; the topic of belonging rarely surfaces. However, we argue that belonging is a core part of integration1 into a new society, and an aspect of integration that is inherently intertwined with refugees’ own autonomy. While existing research is helpful in identifying challenges with both legal and cultural integration into Germany, more is needed to understand the integration of Syrian refugees that have arrived in Germany since 2015 (Elger & Haidar 2019) and how their experiences connect to notions of belonging and othering.  

But what does the concept of belonging mean to refugees? How do refugees create feelings of belonging for themselves and foster it for others? Most interesting for us, what role does refugees’ civic engagement, such as self-organisation and volunteering, play in fostering belonging in Europe today?

We explore these questions here through research on initiatives and organisations started and led by Syrians (termed here refugee-led organisations) in Berlin, Germany, and individual refugees’ experiences of volunteering in different capacities in Berlin. Since 2018 we have researched a variety of Syrian refugee-led, and co-refugee/German-led organisations and initiatives, including some led by individuals, small groups, or as part of religious institutions like mosques (for more information see Wood et al 2018, Easton-Calabria & Wood 2020). Our research is informed by our own experiences and perspectives as, respectively, a labour migrant formerly living in Berlin and a Syrian refugee currently living in Berlin. Along with our research colleague Jennifer Wood, we have now identified over 30 refugee-led organisations and initiatives, both informal and formally registered, that provide a range of assistance and support. To the best of our knowledge, this is the most comprehensive mapping of Syrian refugee-led organisations and initiatives in Berlin. 

In this paper we present findings from our most recent period of research, spanning fall 2020 – spring 2021. We focus primarily on initiatives created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how the pandemic has affected longer-standing initiatives and organisations.2 Our research finds that refugees’ civic engagement plays an important role in their feeling that they belong in Berlin, and sometimes wider Germany, and also creates spaces of belonging for refugees and non-refugees alike. This is particularly important due to perceptions that migrant organisations foster exclusion rather than inclusion (BPB 2013). However, despite their many contributions, refugee-led organisations and their volunteerism often go unseen and under-appreciated. We argue this is both ethically and practically problematic. Many refugees are in need of assistance – and many refugees are providing it, often successfully, due to an intimate knowledge of needs and how to address them. They deserve more awareness of and support in their important work. 

Overview of paper

The following section provides a context for Syrian refugees’ civic engagement in Berlin, including German’s recent history with immigrant integration, different interviewees’ definitions of belonging and integration, and a brief discussion of differing cultural notions of volunteering and charity in Syria and Germany. Section III provides a snapshot of some refugee-led initiatives created to address COVID-19 and different themes arising from interviews. The discussion in Section IV explores belonging in the context of COVID-19, and the future of refugee-led initiatives in Berlin. Here we raise points for policy and practical follow-up and follow-through. Section V concludes with an overview of the importance of refugee-led initiatives in Europe today. 


In 2018 German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier stated, ‘A permanent suspicion of migrants, no matter how long they've lived in Germany, isn't only hurtful for the individual. It's a cause of shame for our country’. Conflicts in the late 1990s over offering Turkish Germans dual citizenship, and the fact that Germany has only had a comprehensive integration policy since around the new millennium, illustrate how challenging creating a legal integration framework has been – reflecting significant social backlash to immigration to Germany.3 For example, it was not until 2000 that children born in Germany to foreign residents, who met certain criteria, were granted citizenship. Over the years the integration of Turks, Europeans from the former Soviet Bloc, and more recently Africans, has been heavily criticised due to a lack of comprehensive integration support packages as well as low socioeconomic outcomes for refugees and other immigrants, persistent migrant enclaves, and racist public discourses all feature in critiques. Against this backdrop, understanding how feelings of belonging are forged in exile across languages and nationalities – as well as within refugees’ own national, cultural, and religious networks – is important. So too is gaining a better understanding of what belonging means to refugees themselves.

Belonging and Integration

When asked about how they defined ‘belonging’, ‘social inclusion’, and ‘integration’, it is clear from our interviewees that these terms are not considered the same. Integration was often described as a state-led, ‘formal’ procedure encompassing some stages such as language classes that refugees had to pass through in order to have access to work. Social inclusion often meant the ability to partake in social activities, such as feeling welcome on sports teams or in German community associations. In contrast, belonging was considered by many to be a feeling, an almost intangible sense that might only even become apparent once one has left a place. As one interviewee shared,

I have travelled to Syria many times [since I first left] and every time I felt nostalgic for Germany, and when I came back here it is with great comfort. Is this not a feeling of belonging? As time passed, I became aware that my belonging with Germany became stronger.’ (Interview, Soher)

Similar to the statement above, many other interviewees invoked the aspect of time as being important for belonging. Nour explained,

Belonging is a dynamic concept, if you ask me four years from now I will probably give you a different answer. It changes with time. Right now I define it as simply being safe, that you can do what you want. It’s the idea of being surrounded with safety, or let’s say that safety is the first step to belonging.
I moved to Kuwait then to Syria then back to Kuwait -  belonging was a concept I had directly connected to my homeland, to my city - but when you’re first forced to leave, you’re forced to change. Belonging becomes an obstacle, it can be really hard to take a step forward. It’s not about forgetting, but to have a new understanding of the word ‘belonging’, how to be active and mentally healthy – adaptable. 

These differing definitions illustrate the dynamism inherent in the concept of belonging, as well as the importance of further exploring and clarifying terms with refugees when designing integration policies, for example, or initiatives meant to foster social inclusion or belonging. This approach also extends to examining refugee-led organisations and initiatives, including how they operate and what they aim to achieve–discussed in more depth below.

Differing Cultural Notions of Volunteerism and Charity

Understanding the role of Syrian refugee-led initiatives and other forms of volunteerism in Germany is particularly important due to the contrast it presents to many Syrian refugees’ experience (or lack thereof) of NGOs and volunteering in Syria. Even before the country’s 2011 violent crackdown on anti-government protesters, there had been very little independent civil society since the Ba’th party assumption of power in 1963, which sought to control civil society (Khalaf 2015). Prior to 2006 no international charities or NGOs operated in the country due to the country’s closed political system (The Guardian 2016). Charity initiatives were under the control of the regime and many remain on EU and US sanctions lists. Only religious organisations were allowed to be active, mainly for Muslims and Christians. This had a suppressive effect that interviewees described playing out in their daily social lives, even to the extent of no longer offering assistance to neighbours or internally displaced Syrians who often arrived destitute in new towns and cities.

In contrast, in Germany, there are hundreds of diverse grassroots projects, networks, and organisations. Such organisations and societies are called Vereine, meaning ‘coming together’ in German. Vereine are membership based associations with broad foci, such as sport, or more specific ones such as historical remembrance. According to one source, nearly one in two adult and young adult German citizens belongs to a Verein and Germany is the European country with the most Vereine (Spiegel 2017). They are an essential aspect of Germany’s democracy and to establish and participate in Vereine denotes efforts to foster social connection. 

Many Vereine are partially or fully run by volunteers, enabled in part due to volunteering being considered a normal part of German life. It has even been institutionalised through the option of completing a ‘civil service’ year (Zivildienst) instead of the until recently compulsory military service after teenagers graduate high school. Vereine offer opportunities to newcomers in Germany to volunteer and participate in organisations that support causes and communities they care about. This volunteer experience can benefit newcomers on many levels including through civic engagement, language acquisition, creating feelings of belonging, gaining valuable professional experience, and developing social capital. One of our interviewees – a Syrian woman in her fifties – even completed the civil service year generally meant for younger people as it was the only way for her to be involved in social work supporting fellow refugees in a formal, remunerated capacity.

These differing contexts for providing assistance are particularly relevant as they shape the type and form of support that Syrian refugees currently receive and offer each other in Berlin. Many formal and informal groups and organisations (German and refugee-led) support the efforts of the State and aspire to meet various needs of the refugee community. This includes refugees’ basic needs for shelter, legal advice, health care, and language. However, refugee-led initiatives often go farther than just practical assistance. Many aim to offer both practical and emotional support to fellow refugees, thereby offering a scope to increase feelings of belonging that support by other actors may not have. Almost all have formed since 2015, including many created specifically to address the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Snapshots of Refugee-led Initiatives to Address COVID-19
In a way [lockdown] is easy for us because as Syrians we used to bring a lot of bread to our house because all the time during our history we are used to difficult situations. [At the start of the pandemic] the refugees in Germany, they went to shops and bought a lot of things to keep at home. This is very normal for people coming from a very bad situation like Syria, Iraq, and other countries. I have seen a lot of refugees going to shops to do this. (Interview, Y.)

Many of the refugee-led assistance initiatives addressing needs relating to the COVID-19 pandemic were created because refugees recognised how important assistance is during periods of crisis and enforced isolation. One refugee-led initiative that began soon after the first lockdown supports homeless people in Berlin. Refugees of seven nationalities decided to start preparing daily meals and distributing them to the homeless on the streets. Layal, an Iraqi refugee woman participating in the project explained that they prepare between 100 and 200 meals every day. One of the activists in the initiative explained, ‘With the start of the Corona crisis, there was a great humanitarian crisis for displaced people, because many organizations stopped working, and as refugees we are fully aware of what the need means in such difficult circumstances, so we initiated this project.’ While the project is volunteer-based, they have received support from individuals and private parties, as well as from the Qatari embassy in Berlin. The project belongs to the Kreuzberger Himmel, a Syrian restaurant in the heart of Berlin, which was already working to provide food for refugees prior to the pandemic.

Another initiative is the Newcomers Against Corona platform, hosted by the GoVolunteer platform. Through this system of online solidarity, refugees provide coronavirus-related assistance and protection, including shopping, cooking, and translating between doctors and patients over the phone. A member explained, ‘At the beginning of the Corona crisis, we launched a new initiative, which is for Syrian refugee women to sew masks and donate them to those who want it. We wanted from this to highlight the contribution of the refugees and make it appreciated.’ One of the women participating in the project says that all the volunteers, ten women and three men, are refugees or immigrants, and that some have experience while others were trained to sew masks and offer other forms of support. The project was initiated by the refugees themselves, as they wanted to assist their community.

Initiatives like these are not confined to Berlin but are happening across Germany and likely around the world. In Limburg an der Lahn, for example, a town in Western Germany, another grassroots refugee initiative began several months into the pandemic which focuses on helping elderly people, both Germans and non-Germans. A group of young Syrian refugees introduced themselves online, and provided their contact details. They quickly started receiving dozens of calls from elderly people in the city who had no one to shop for them. Many of these people were Germans with no previous contact to refugees. The Syrians shopped and took as many protection measures as possible when delivering the items, including sterilizing groceries. 

Other Syrians have used YouTube and other social media platforms to share information for refugees in Arabic about a range of topics on life in Germany, including how to find work, identify good schools, find Arabic food in markets, and more. These channels have had remarkable success, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they provide daily summaries about the developments of the disease in Arabic, including the numbers of those infected and number of deaths, information about new laws and procedures like lockdown rules and school statuses. Much of this information comes originally from main German media sources, which are not always accessible to refugees.

The importance of these channels lies in the fact that they address all categories of refugees, especially those who are less educated and who are still unable to understand German. This includes large numbers of refugees who are still waiting for the opportunity to take German language courses, as COVID-19 has led to the replacement of normal in-person German language courses with online courses, which many refugees don’t enjoy. Refugees described the value of hearing news in Arabic on these channels and, additionally, being able to comment and ask personal questions and receive responses to them.

This type of informational assistance is crucially needed in Germany (and elsewhere) given that people from minority ethnic groups are systematically overrepresented in COVID-19 cases and deaths. In Germany a leading pulmonary specialist stated that the demographic of patients he was treating in intensive care “shows very clearly that there is obviously a group that politicians are not managing to reach with their coronavirus warnings, who have a migrant background” (quoted in The Guardian 2021). The head of Germany’s disease control agency was quoted as stating, ‘These are parallel societies in the heart of our country. If you want to get a message through, it only works with on-the-ground social work in mosques. And we can’t get in there, and that’s bad.’ (ibid.). These statements clearly illustrate both the value of existing refugee- and other migrant-led assistance as well as the need for more of it; they also touch on belonging and the lack of it that many Germans may feel in so-called ‘Arab’ social spaces. Yet ‘Integration means living together as one society, not in separate worlds’, states the German Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community: ‘Integration means feeling part of a community and developing a common understanding of how to live together in society. Integration can work only as a two-way process.’ (FMIBC 2019).

Strikingly, many of the refugee-led initiatives identified in Berlin emphasised opening their doors to everyone, regardless of nationality. Many prided themselves on helping Germans as well as Syrians and other refugees. For some, this encapsulated feelings of belonging. As one interviewee explained,

Individual initiatives from refugees appeared in the last year online, saying we will help the old people to bring their stuff inside their homes, if they want anybody to help them, to go some place, we can offer you some medicines. These initiatives were established by groups of refugees but not those who were part of any organisation. They were working as individuals. The idea itself was: we are ready to help, we are ready to offer. So this is one expression of belonging, offering help to anyone, refugee and non-refugee. They don’t have to differentiate between people, this is belonging, I think, but not integration. You don’t get it through language, but by accepting others’ values.

Many of the Syrian refugees taking part in initiatives like these had once been in situations where they badly needed food, clothes, information, and other assistance; in Germany they are working now to offer food and masks for other people. One interviewee explained, ‘These kinds of initiatives help refugees feel as if they are in their own home, they are not a heavy burden on the society but they are active members [of it]. They are working not just for refugees but for everyone that could need their help.’ 

Belonging and COVID-19

At the same time, COVID-19 has presented serious challenges to both refugee-led organisations in Berlin and broader volunteering efforts, with impacts on interviewees’ feelings of belonging. Interviewees described that it is much harder to be effective today given social distancing protocols and the ongoing closure of many public and social spaces where activities were previously held. It was emphasised that even in normal pre-pandemic times refugee-led organisations were already facing many challenges, which COVID-19 has exacerbated. Donations have greatly diminished and organizations that had rented offices faced significant financial difficulties. Additionally, many organizations had been getting small financial returns by selling coffee, sweets, or drinks while organizing their activities, which during the pandemic has no longer been possible due to the suspension of activities (Interview, Network leader).

As researchers we also felt the effect of the pandemic in our (in)ability to be in touch with many organisations with which we had previously met. Despite ongoing contact over several years and strong rapport, many organisational leaders were too busy to be interviewed. Our attempt to conduct a survey was also not very successful, perhaps also evidence of the difficult situation that many refugee-led organisations find themselves in. Of the seven responses from organisations we ultimately received, four had stopped their activities completely due to the pandemic despite all seven stating that refugees had particular needs due to COVID-19 which were not necessarily being addressed. One interviewee who works with refugee children and families explained,

Corona has made everything more difficult. The face-to-face meeting is no longer available, everything has shifted to the phone and WhatsApp, and this has led to decline in the service, because many issues need a direct communication, which has become impossible due to Corona.

Although the German State has created a fund for civil society organisations to apply for financial assistance, none of the organisations had received support – although three had applied for it. Only one association was able to receive financial assistance from another non-governmental organization. Sadly, six out of the seven organisations assumed that their future activities would be negatively impacted due to COVID-19.

Belonging and Giving Back

This lack of support is deeply unfortunate because these organisations matter for both practical assistance and a larger sense of belonging. This belonging is fostered for the refugees who created them, who volunteer in them, and the members that receive direct support from them. Out of discussions and interviews about belonging, there was a common theme of giving back and contributing as a way to foster it. Interviewees spoke about this across types of engagement, ranging from formal and informal individual volunteering to forming both grassroots initiatives and formally registered organisations to offer assistance to fellow refugees. This suggests the under-acknowledged role of volunteering as a form of belonging through contributing to civic life. One refugee-led organisational leader explained,

Starting Zusammenwachsen [his organisation, which means ‘Growing Together’ in German] was a very important factor in belonging because when you’re working in such an organisation it puts you in a good position, you have duties towards people working around you. This gives me very good feelings that I belong to here. And the people that came to work with us are not just refugees, they are also Germans, people who came to ask us for help, to learn things. This gives you trust, it will make it easier to feel like I belong here. These activities gave you a feeling of belonging.
When you have responsibilities in a place this will give you a kind of feelings that you are needed for this place, this task, or for this job. When you are responsible for something, then you belong to it. If I am responsible for the bus that I am using every day, I will not go to the bus without a ticket, I will take care of seat in the bus or the u-bahn. Without these feelings, if the bus crashed, I could say: I don’t care. But if you are responsible for this somehow, you will take care of the seat in the garden, if you find something happening in the street, garden, playground, you will help.

Multiple interviewees described volunteering their time, in both formal and informal capacities, as a self-esteem boost as well as a way to make important social connections. Fadwa explained,

My work helped me present myself in a correct way to the Germans. They knew that I respect my duties and know my rights. I gave them something from our culture…one of my German colleagues told me that I changed her attitude towards the Arabs in general. My work enabled me to help other refugees, I helped them learn about German laws, I helped them accept German values, I advised them to be more daring in raising their personal and public problems. I was helping them with all the issues they needed and finding the appropriate way for them to deal with it through our organization.

Similarly, another Syrian volunteer child educator explained,  

Voluntary work gives us a feeling: I am doing something, I am helping, I am supporting – it highly impacts self-esteem, self-image, it makes us feeling satisfied. Volunteering has been like a bridge, it helped me be part of a project where Germans and other nationalities were all included.

The predominance of feelings of responsibility and even self-esteem that came with leading or being part of civic initiatives suggests the existence and greater potential for refugee-led organisations as grassroots European institutions to foster inclusion in German society and internationally. It also suggests that volunteering could be more widely recognised as an important method of belonging and wider integration.

A flat collage of a multi-headed hawk with large red wings looming in the background. The hawk holds in one hand a green flower, and in the other a red bear emblem. The collage sits on a dark ridged background.

The Challenges that Remain

While Berlin was once thought of as a temporary refuge, it has now become a place of at least partial belonging for many. Interestingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has both expanded and constricted many refugees’ feelings of connection to Berlin. As one interviewee summarised,

I think my community, my friends, neighbourhoods, they are so interested in the situation in Germany, they are going step by step: what’s going on today? How many people had the virus? How many people died? I think there are warm emotions, they all the time say: I hope everything gets better… They don’t go without mask, they do social distance - they realise that they belong here, they have to protect the city through this behaviour. I think for a lot of people, corona moved them to have more solidarity with people… It doesn’t matter if they are German, Russian, Chinese. The other negative aspect is they don’t have enough or any relations - they can’t spend time with German friends, know more about society or life in Germany… When this social life is reduced, this can be a bad thing for belonging.

The pandemic has also disproportionately affected many asylum seekers, people who have not yet been granted refugee status and whose application may be rejected. Asylum seekers often live in crowded Wohnheim on the outskirts of Berlin (temporary refugee centers sometimes referred to as camps). As one director of a network bringing together Syrian organisations explained, ‘The suffering of the people in the shelters was greater [at the start of the pandemic], as it was not possible to provide all the information and means of protection.’ Another challenge for many asylum seekers is their legal status itself: Germany currently rejects 66% of asylum applicants (SRD 2021). Compared to refugees who have been able to obtain permanent residency or citizenship, many asylum seekers or those on different protection visas remain in a state of constant anxiety about the possibility of being returned to their country. For these people, belonging may already have been an elusive concept and is now exacerbated by the further isolation from German society caused by the pandemic.

Overall, in our interviews, Syrians expressed the need for support from their ‘inner community’ of Syrians and through Syrian and Arab spaces, and at the same time, skills and support for how they engage with Berlin, Germany, and wider Europe. COVID-19 has had a serious negative impact on a number of refugees who have lost their jobs due to lockdown, such as workers in restaurants or coffee shops, which are jobs that cannot be done from home. Interviewees discussed how this affects their sense of belonging, as it is not easy to find another job. The pandemic has significantly disrupted many practical pathways to belonging such as work and the ability of refugee-led initiatives and organisations to offer assistance in these areas.

Other non-pandemic obstacles to belonging, for refugees, are also paramount. The extremist right-wing and populist efforts of the AFD in Germany and other political groups across the EU are concerning for many reasons. One of the many negative outcomes of anti-immigration violence in both discourse and action is how refugees’ feelings of belonging are impacted. Several interviewees discussed racism, Islamophobia, and wider xenophobia as setbacks to belonging that can reverberate far beyond an isolated incident. This in turn reinforces the value of places where refugees can safely share and experience their own cultures and languages, as well as multicultural spaces that move beyond binaries of native/foreigner.

Elevating ‘Belonging’, Furthering ‘Integration’

Our research finds that through the creation of organisations and wider volunteer efforts – and despite significant constraints – Syrians create a network of co-created support that extends beyond their own nationality to assist Germans and fellow migrants of different nationalities. This chain of islands, or as Germans say Inselkette, offer connection, community, meaning – in other words, belonging. This links to other research on local and grassroots (non-refugee) organisations, which discusses how the blend of resources that many smaller organisations use to survive, including volunteer-time and shared spaces to run their work, often leads to a ‘recirculation of resources generated from their work to their immediate and wider communities’ (Soteri-Proctor et al. 2016). In this way, the benefits of these organisations extend beyond just that provided to their members.

These findings also reflect other research documenting the connection between volunteering and happiness and wellbeing, with a large body of literature finding that different populations, ranging from university students to elderly people, experience positive effects from volunteering (Smith et al. 2016). Interesting for our research, group identities appear to play an important role in many volunteers’ motivations and experiences while volunteering (Gray and Stevenson 2019), suggesting both that a drive to belong can lead people to volunteer (i.e. to become part of a group of volunteers) and that volunteering can lead to feelings of belonging. Our findings, and the larger bodies of research they fit within, point towards the importance of refugee-led organisations as sites of belonging for members and those running organisations alike.

All of this also suggests a serious need to (re)examine belonging as both linked to and separate from the concept of integration. Emerging from our interviews was an acknowledgement of the importance of some aspects of integration into Germany – the value of learning German to communicate and increase feelings of independence in Berlin, for example – and also a strong feeling that integration was imposed upon many refugees. One interviewee explained that many Syrians, particularly those from religious backgrounds, feared integrating into Germany because they believed it would mean losing their religious identity. 

Discussions of belonging, in contrast, focused on the ability to hold and express multiple identities at once. Many interviewees discussed experiencing this through refugee-led organisations as either members or volunteers. In some cases this appeared to be fostered because these organisations offer one of the few places where Syrians (often pre-pandemic) congregated socially, thus giving them a way to experience aspects of their culture, religion, and/or society which they rarely do otherwise in Berlin. For others, the activities of organisations themselves promoted these feelings, such as women’s groups bringing together both refugees and Germans, or activities to assist others during COVID-19, where refugees came together to help people in their neighbourhood regardless of nationality. In these instances, common identities (e.g. women or neighbour) as well as distinct ones (e.g. refugee) were held at the same time. These findings do not suggest a need to replace the concept of integration with that of belonging, but instead a value in elevating the importance of belonging as a standalone aim and/or a key aspect of integration that deserves more attention in both policy and public discussions on refugees. 

Expanding Support for Refugee-Led Organisations

Despite their value, refugee-led organisations appear to be left behind when it comes to funding assistance, perhaps due to their small size and registration status, and the challenge many face in making time for and having the German skills to undertake the lengthy bureaucratic procedures that many state funding opportunities require. It would therefore be valuable for funding pots for smaller organisations like these to be created, which could specifically target refugee and migrant organisations. These organisations should have the autonomy to determine their own activities and therefore apply for open funding for them. However, given the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on immigrant populations in Germany, it could also be useful for specific support to be given for COVID-19 awareness-raising endeavours and other pandemic-related assistance.

Many interviewees also discussed the value of working with German colleagues as fellow volunteers or as participants in programmes that refugee-led organisations and initiatives offered. This facet of volunteerism as an aspect of fostering social connection contributing to integration should not be overlooked. This could also be broadened by linking refugee-led and German organisations working in similar areas in order to exchange ideas and advice. Many organisations suggested the value of this in order to receive guidance and support with funding applications and legal registration procedures. One interviewee explained, 

The best initiatives are those who can find a German NGO partner or one to cooperate with it, because they know how to evaluate what could leave a good effect on the whole German society… German NGOs [share] the way of work and the tools that makes both sides feel and think positively. 

One strong network of organisations we identified in this research is the Verband Deutsch-Syrischer Hilfsvereine, an umbrella organisation (Dachverband) linking Syrian, though not all refugee, organisations in Germany. Through regular meetings, support sessions, and exchanges of information and ideas, the Dachverband links approximately 25 Syrian and Syrian-German organisations across Germany. As a network it is also able to act as an advocate for the needs of Syrians in Germany, and is a professional partner of the German government, specifically in helping government agencies to understand the needs and challenges of Syrians and other Arabic speaking groups. However, the Verband only works with formally registered organisations, and thus many grassroots and more informal initiatives do not benefit from this type of support. Efforts to create a similar form of networking amongst smaller refugee-led initiatives in Europe could be an important means of solidarity and be a way for more to gain institutional recognition and the visibility they deserve.


Examining Syrian refugee-led organisations, initiatives, and volunteerism through the lens of belonging offers an important means to understand the support that is valued by Syrians in Berlin, explore how belonging can manifest through volunteering and participation, and challenge the notion that Syrian refugees are only receivers rather than also providers of assistance. Cases where refugee-led assistance mirrors the type of help also offered by the state (e.g. daily information about COVID-19 via Youtube) present questions regarding why refugees may seek assistance from grassroots initiatives rather than formal institutions. Instances where refugee initiatives offer support not adequately provided elsewhere, such as shopping for elderly people during lockdown, present in turn potentially important overlooked gaps in refugees’ - and indeed Germans’- needs in times of crisis. Each of these situations has policy implications that, if better understood, could enhance belonging  and, we argue, enhance the definition and implementation of integration measures, in Berlin, Germany, and even Europe more widely. Belonging was described by interviewees as a much deeper process than integration, one that happens not only (or not at all) through formal integration measures such as language classes but instead through spaces where the many identities each of us holds are welcomed and experienced. Along with this comes a recognition of the important role of Syrian refugee-led organisations in offering such spaces, and a reminder that we all have the ability to offer support in the place where we are, which in turn can become a place in which we belong.

Annex: Overview of Research Methods and Process

We draw on semi-structured qualitative interviews and a small-scale survey to expand understandings of how refugees contribute to fellow refugees’ experiences of belonging and integration, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic (commonly known just as ‘corona’ in German). Research was conducted with the leaders and staff of refugee-led organisations and their members to learn about how the relationship between belonging and these organisations’ work, strategies, and aims, and how COVID-19 has affected this. We also interviewed individual Syrian refugees engaged in different types of volunteering in Berlin. This work builds on our ongoing (pre-pandemic) research which has identified the potential for Syrian refugee-led organisations to contribute to integration in Berlin through offering national as well as multinational spaces for interaction (Easton-Calabria et al 2018, Easton-Calabria & Wood 2020).


BPB (Bundeszentrale fuer politische Bildung (2013) What are Migrant Organizations?. 

Der Speigel Magazin (2017) Zahl der Vereine.

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Easton-Calabria, E. & Wood, J. (2020) ‘Bridging, Bonding, and Linking? Syrian refugee-led organisations and integration in Berlin’. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

Elger, K. and Haidar, A. (2019) Why Most Syrian Refugees Want to Stay in Germany.

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Wood, J.; Easton-Calabria, E.; Alaous, Y. (2018) Syrian refugee-led organisations in Berlin. FMR, Issue 58, pgs. 62-64. Oxford: University of Oxford.


We would like to thank the many interviewees who took time out of their busy schedules at a very challenging time to share their thoughts and experiences with us. We would also like to thank our colleague Jennifer Wood, whose contributions through past research projects strongly shaped this paper, as well, and whose administrative support has been invaluable. We are very grateful to the British Academy for helping fund this research through a small grant co-led by Dr. Evan Easton-Calabria, entitled ‘Refugee-led initiatives at the time of COVID-19: Exploring new forms of digital information, assistance and livelihood’ (Grant reference: COV19\200330).

For any questions or comments, please contact Dr. Evan Easton-Calabria (evan.eastoncalabria@qeh.ox.ac.uk) and Mr. Yahya Alaous (yalous@gmail.com)

Author bio:

Yahya Alaous is a journalist, researcher, Syrian refugee, and founder of a community organisation for Syrian and German women in Berlin, Germany. He was resettled to Germany in 2014 through the organisation Journalists Without Borders, after being imprisoned for two years by the Syrian government in retaliation for criticism of the regime. A selection of his articles written for the German newspaper Handlesblatt have been translated into English and are available here.

Evan Easton-Calabria is a Senior Research Officer at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, focusing on refugee livelihoods, self-reliance, and local governance. Her research includes a focus on refugee-led organisations in Uganda, Kenya, and Germany. Her forthcoming book, 'Refugees, Self-Reliance, Development: A critical history' (Bristol University Press) explores a century of efforts by national and international actors to foster the self-reliance of refugees around the world. She holds a Masters and Doctorate in International Development from the University of Oxford.

Art description:

‘Rose Refuge’ shows a multi-headed hawk (Syrian national animal) like entity bringing wisdom, assistance, nourishment, education and above all belonging & love (Damask rose). In every feather of their wings, hands are offering different kinds of aid. The creature stands symbol for the Berlin based (bear emblem) Syrian refugee-led organisations and volunteers, who have found their new home in the German Capital. They help others belong. The color palette reflects the shades used in the Syrian refugee (freedom/opposition) flag.

Artist bio: 

Ernst van Hoek is a Dutch Berlin based artist, illustrator and graphic designer. Since the beginning of 2020 and inspired by the father of collage Henri Matisse, he has started exploring the world of the paper cut-out collages. He approaches the creation of imagery in a personal and unique manner, with a bright and contrasting use of colour. A wide range of sources, photographs and real objects inspire his fascination with contemporary representation of the queer body and queerness in general. His practice embodies the experiences he has with people in the marginalised queer community – both on- and offline. It’s no stretch to say that queerness continues to render one an outlaw in society. Van Hoek has always tried to show queerness in all its layers and complexities, by investigating the transformation of the (human) body and displaying ‘otherness’ in our contemporary (still) predominantly heteronormative society. In his quest he is continuously researching, questioning and imagining the Queer Utopia.

Van Hoek has shown works in group shows in Rotterdam, Athens and Berlin.

Website: www.ernstvanhoek.com
Email: ef.vanhoek@gmail.com
Instagram: @ernst_du_coin

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  • 1 We also recognise that the term ‘integration’ itself is contested and, for many, problematic; as Schinkel (2019: 1) describes, immigrant integration ‘has always only been possible on the basis of the very work that “integration” now does: to identify the other, to manage her/him, in order to secure the order of “society”, of “Europe”, which has been possible only through histories of capitalist expansion and colonial plunder’. To this end, focusing on belonging as both feelings and actions – and as defined by refugees themselves – inserts an emancipatory element into the concept of refugee integration. It also counters the top-down and bureaucratic nature of integration processes in Germany that many of our interviewees described.
  • 2 For more details on our research methods, see Annex 1.
  • 3 For more information specifically about refugees, a full overview of the asylum process in Germany is available at: http://www.bamf.de/EN/Fluechtlingsschutz/AblaufAsylv/ablauf-des-asylverfahrens-node.html.