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  • Barbara Hebenstreit with husband Robert and daughters Elizabeth, 26, and Veronika, 21 host unaccompanied minor Sadeq (15) from Afghanistan in Langenzersdorf., Autria.

Sadeq who was born in Afghanistan and grew up in Iran fled to Austria in October 2015. He was forced to leave after witnessing the horrific murder of his father at the hands of his employer. The police did nothing against the powerful business owner who kept harassing and threatening Sadeq and his family. Even a year after the murder, Sadeq, his mother, and two sisters moved to another village to avoid the man but he followed them and tried to run Sadeq down with his car. He was concerned Sadeq might try to avenge his father’s death. The young man packed a small backpack and set out for Europe by foot, bus, train, and boat. 
“I feel very lucky to be here otherwise I would be dead. They are like my family,” said Sadeq. 

The Hebenstreits welcomed him into their home after meeting Sadeq at a camp for unaccompanied children. It was Veronica’s idea to become a host family.   

“My biggest problem is worrying about the safety of my family still in Iran. I want to become a police officer to help people here. My dream is to get permanent residency and get my family over,” he said.

Barbara, who is a tourist guide, speaks proudly of Sadeq’s achievements. 

“It’s like he is my fifth child. It’s just the same,” said Barbara.

When people ask her how long he might stay with her, her response is always the same: “I don’t know, forever, how long do children stay at home with their parents?"
  • When the Nga and Ruth, both students, were looking for a new housemate to join them in August 2015, Ruth suggested they offer the room to a refugee. Nga was sceptical at first. 

"I didn't want to live in a flatshare of convenience. It's important to me to live with people who are equals, who I have things in common with and who become friends."

They registered with the Refugees Welcome (Flüchtlinge Willkommen) website and were soon introduced to Bashir, a 19-year-old refugee from Afghanistan. Ruth and Nga invited him to come over for pizza and the three got on immediately. He moved in straight away.

Sharing with two women was a new experience for Bashir. “When I first came to Germany, I was quite shocked to see the freedom people enjoyed here. Girls doing what they liked, not wearing headscarves, people drinking in the street and at parties. I was amazed and excited, and I got used to it quickly. I am a Muslim myself but I don't believe in the restrictions. I think that the world would be a better place if Muslim women had freedom.”

Nga says the housemates share everything. They cook together, go out together, and keep their doors open to one another, just like a regular flatshare. "When we watch movies, we alternate rooms. Sometimes I have a nap in Bashir's room, or we watch TV in mine."

They all laugh when Nga adds that “Bashir takes the longest time in the bathroom!"

“Bashir is a Berliner now”, says Ruth. “We don't like to label him as a refugee. We are just friends and housemates.” 

Nga came to Berlin from Ha Long City in Vietnam when she was twelve. She visits her family and the country often, and a poster of beautiful Halong Bay adorns her wall. "My relatives advised against sharing a house with a refugee," she says. "They were worried because there is a lot of negative news in the media about the refugee politics in Germany. They hadn't heard about all the positive projects happening."

Ruth agrees: “Relatives of mine were apprehensive
  • Originally from Damascus, Mouhanad fled his war-torn country in 2012. He initially went to Libya, and eventually embarked on the perilous journey to Europe in September 2015. After six rough days on the road, he stopped to shower and rest in Vienna. And, in those 48 hours, Mourad says he fell in love with Vienna and decided to stay. As soon as he got to a refugee reception centre, Mouhanad started helping in the kitchen, learned the language and made friends. He got his asylum papers in six months and soon after, moved in with his new flatmates. Valerie said the roommates were initially concerned Mouhanad might require a lot of assistance, and guidance. They were pleasantly surprised. "Mouhanad knows more people than we do. His list of contacts is incredible and we didn't have to step in – he doesn't need us at all," Valerie said. "He is standing on his own feet very well," said Roman. "We thought we might have to look after him like a younger brother but we didn't have to do anything. He's also very orderly, very organized, a very German Syrian." Nora describes Mouhanad as very caring, always smiling and giving back to others. "He found his place in Austria very quickly," she said. Mouhanad co-founded a group called Refugees for Refugees and wants to get his Master's degree.
  • Wilhelm, Brian and Inas, a refugee from Syria, met through a chance encounter on a train just four days after Inas arrived in Germany. Ten days later, Inas moved in with the couple of 25 years, in November 2015. 

Inas was making his way back to Berlin after going to visit a friend from Syria. Unsure whether it was the right train, he asked Wilhelm and Brian, sat nearby. With the help of Google Translate on their phones, the three struck up a conversation and then exchanged numbers.

Inas didn't yet know anybody in the city and was staying in an emergency shelter. "We were in contact through Whatsapp every day - morning, lunchtime, evening," says Inas. Soon thereafter he was moved to a gym-turned-refugee-shelter, where he shared the hall with 200 people. He says there were no mattresses on the beds, exacerbating the pain in his back from a slipped disc injury, and he had terrible problems sleeping. When Brian and Wilhelm visited him they told him he'd be welcome to stay at theirs for a few days.

During his registration interview Inas was asked if he had friends or relatives in Berlin, he texted Brain to ask if he could put down their names.

"When he asked whether he could say that we were friends," says Wilhelm, “we said 'of course, you can give them our address, get the post sent here and even stay with us for a few days at the beginning.' We told him to give the authorities our number in case they had any questions, because at the time we struggled to understand each other."

Inas was then given a document, his first permit to stay in Germany, valid for three months. On the third page it stated: "the owner of this document is obliged to live at the following initial reception institution," followed by Brian and Wilhelm's address.

"It came as quite a surprise to us of course," says Brian. "At first we were completely unsure of all the implications, three months is a long time. But we talked with our friends and decided: let's do it!"

"We had been wanting to h
  • Newruz, a refugee from Syria lives with Claudia and Tobias in Berlin, Germany.

At the beginning of their friendship, Newruz (20) couldn't stay with Claudia and Tobias in Berlin for more than a few days at a time. The Kurdish Syrian from Homs arrived in Germany in July 2015, but was registered and housed in a refugee centre in Meißen in Saxony, Tobias' hometown. 

After news of repeated arson attacks on asylum centres, Claudia and Tobias decided they wanted to do something positive. On their next visit to Tobias's family home, they organised a guided walk for residents of the local refugee centre, to explore the nature areas in and around Meißen. Newruz joined in and they struck up a friendship.

Claudia and Tobias, who both grew up in former East Germany, escaped to West Berlin in the 1980s, Claudia just two years before the Berlin wall came down. "At the end of the day, we are all refugees," she says with a smile.

"When we first told my father that Newruz would move in with us," Tobias says, "he smiled and his eyes sparkled. I wasn't expecting such a positive reaction. He told us that in 1945 every public building in Meißen housed refugees. And when he was a child, they had a refugee woman from Poland living with them for a while too. The only difference is that today they come from further afield."

In December, Newruz came to visit them in Berlin and stayed for ten days over Christmas. “So we could get to know each other,” says Claudia.

Finally, after waiting nine months for his papers, Newruz officially moved in with Claudia and Tobias in March 2016. With an agreement from the job centre to cover the rent, Newruz was free to chose where he lives. Claudia says, "this arrangement means we are equals. Sometimes I catch myself mothering him a little, because we have children that are his age, but we are really more like flatmates."

"Berlin and Homs are very similar," Says Newruz. "In terms of food, cycling around the streets. Maybe the markets are a bit b
  • Uta (44) hosts Hamid, a refugee from Afghanistan, in a small studio apartment in Berlin Marzahn, a sprawling estate of high-rise blocks in east Berlin. Built in the late seventies and early eighties to provide modern housing to residents of the city's older and (at the time) neglected central boroughs, the estate became characterised in the nineties by strong anti-migrant sentiment and support for far-right groups.

Uta has two children of her own. A son (17) who lives with her ex-husband and a daughter (22), who is studying in Hamburg.

After being off work with ill-health for two years Uta returned to Berlin in the summer of 2015, to attend a physical rehab centre in Potsdam and live near her mother. She also started a new job at a home for young refugees run by the German Red Cross, where she met Hamid.

They talked about music. He plays the flute and the piano and wants to learn more instruments. Uta plays the piano and the guitar. They had found a shared passion.

Uta now teaches Hamid the keyboard and encourages him to play her guitar. Hamid wants to study classical guitar and become a professional musician one day, but he feels short on confidence. He also likes rap and pop music "because you can talk about social problems."

“My neighbours have not been the most welcoming,” Uta tells us. Whenever Uta added Hamid's name to the letterbox it was quickly removed. Instead of numbers, letterboxes throughout Germany carry the name of the legally registered tenant on them, which means that it's hard to receive post if a name is missing. One of her neighbours told Uta “we don't want foreigners here” but Uta says she fights this kind of behaviour. “He's my son,” she replied, “you just have to get used to it.”

For Uta it was a real challenge. "I had to end friendships with people who didn't accept what I was doing. It was a shock to see how mean and small minded towards others people can be. It's exhausting. You really hit the edges of your energy and
  • Thorsten Winz and Heino Sieberath host Syrian refugee Bashir Altawil, 19, in Vienna, Austria.

Originally from Damascus, Bashir, arrived in Austria in December 2014 and received his residency papers 18 months later. He signed up with an organisation called Refugees Welcome which introduced him to Thorsten and Heino. 

"I have friends from everywhere. I love Austria, it is so beautiful and open minded," said Bashir. "I love acting, the arts, it's very modern here, but I miss Syria too." He says he's been able to improve his German by living with Thorsten and Heino because they always help and correct him if needed. He also jokes that he's also learned how to iron his own shirts and clean up after himself for the first time.   

"We felt obligated to bring our own efforts for integration," Heino explained. "We thought it's our duty to help improve the situation, so we brought someone in."

Thorsten and Heino say Bashir is hard working, ambitious, and always helping others. "For a person that just came to this country and never had contact to Western Europe before, he is very open minded," Thorsten said. "He's observant, sensitive and he recognizes quite well what his role is in this community."
  • Austria. Sabine David, husband Dominique and daughter Nora, 1, host Afghan refugee Nooria Youldash and her 2-year-old daughter, Aysu, in Lavanttal.
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