We wanted to help - and became the "competitors"

- An article by Larissa Neu -

Thoughts are free, as we all know, and so are the thoughts and memories that have accompanied my volunteer work for 22 years. Good and bad.

What is called voluntary work in Germany is simply "helpfulness" in many countries, a matter of course. You help where you can, when you are needed. One does not expect gratitude or recognition. You are needed - and then you go. I grew up in a country like that and learned and appreciated helping people. Then in Berlin I learned that voluntary work can also have other qualities. That it doesn't have to be taken for granted. That it needs publicity, that prizes are awarded for it...

© Migrationsrat Berlin e.V.

The beginnings 

The first months in Germany were very exhausting simply because I didn't know German. I will never forget this experience. Suddenly you feel completely isolated and excluded from the whole world, a terrible feeling! During the language course, we, a group of late repatriates, decided to organise ourselves to help others on their way. After all, we had and have so many talented immigrants, including German teachers, for example. They organised conversation courses in small groups in addition to the language course. Today this is called a "language café". Accompanying people to offices and authorities was also a focus of our work. But conversation courses, which were later to be our undoing, were particularly in demand. They were free of charge, which was good and right. But they also drew away many participants from a "carrier" that still exists. It calls itself "socially committed". But I cannot confirm that. First we were approached, then we were threatened. We would have to pay participation fees - and preferably belong to the organisation altogether. But that was not our idea at all; we wanted to help. We all knew from our own experience how tight the family coffers were: nobody could afford 300.00 DM per month for a language course. 

Our decision was: just carry on as we saw fit. In the meantime, our statutory language course had come to an end, but the wonderful 28-year-old German teacher continued to support us. He took over our free language courses. We were seen as competition; all kinds of instruments were used against us. It sounds ridiculous - because we all have similar goals - but it is true. A "high point" was the search of our premises on suspicion of "economic crime"! The "instigator" was identified in my person, I was supposed to leave, but of course that was out of the question! 

New start and awards 

There was only one thing left to do - leave the district where we were active, but not give up. In another district, a new life began for our group and for me, the activities and my personal commitment were welcomed. So Berlin could also be different! Our self-help group became an association, with the name we would so like to change - Harmonie e.V. Because of it, we were often seen as a singing club. But there was no choir and no cultural activities... Either way, a new era began. With grandiose and exciting projects, masses of people who wanted to get involved and contribute together with us. Whose ideas were realised together, with whom we were happy about successes and recognition. One of the leaders of our youth group was awarded the "Junior-Kosmopolita" in the district of Tempelhof-Schöneberg, the intercultural women's award of the district. A fellow campaigner who offered conversation courses received a medal of merit in recognition of her voluntary work. These and other awards have always motivated and encouraged us. 

On a busy day, I read and sorted the incoming mail. I did not understand the content of one letter and asked a colleague. He told me it was an advertisement for a gas company - so I threw it away. But the thoughts... The free thoughts... The letter continued to occupy me, I took it out of the waste paper basket and read it again. It actually said that district mayor Ekkehard Band had nominated me for an award as ambassador of the Verbundnetz der Wärme, which had been initiated by Regine Hildebrandt and of which she remained patron until her death. An incredibly big thing... Was there anything bigger? Not for me! 

In spring 2010, another surprise came: I was chosen by the campaign "be Berlin" as one of 204 Berliners who were to decorate the scaffolding of the shrouded Victory Column under the motto "Berlin, your face - Berliners get involved for their city". I, too, was to help honour the social commitment in the capital... How often did I cycle past the scaffolding after the festive opening to greet myself... Me, but also my fellow campaigners, without whom the excellent work would not have been possible!  

And tomorrow? Worried about the future? 

That was the last award. After that, a huge legal battle began with the landlord of our association rooms, which were terminated. This legal battle continues and eats up nerves and energy and motivation. How much more meaningful things could be done in this time - but at the same time we are harmony, we don't let it get us down! I am and we are infinitely grateful to the people who believed in us and the common idea, who supported, who we took to their hearts and who took us to their hearts! 

Online Dossier des Migrationsrat Berlin e.V.

This article is part of the online dossier of the Migrationsrat Berlin e.V., our partner for the field of action "Migration and Participation".

Larissa Neu is co-founder and managing director of the integration association Harmonie e.V.

Integrationsverein Harmonie e.V.