In Germany, Humanity Amid Upheaval

Refugees and migrants are flooding into Germany. At an elementary school in Moers, the crisis gets personal

By / November 2015

On a crisp fall morning in Moers, Germany, I crouched on a small chair in Frau Sebastian’s second-grade classroom. Glue dripped from my hands as I helped my son coat a balloon with paper, the makings of a lantern for the upcoming St. Martin Parade. We fastened strip after strip as one dad told the story of St. Martin, a Roman soldier who, as the legend goes, saved a beggar’s life during a snowstorm by tearing his cloak in half and sharing it with the man who otherwise would have frozen to death.

As the father recounted the story, I noticed a child sitting by himself, away from the others. “That’s Alex,” one of the students told me. “He doesn’t speak German.” When I walked over, he looked at me shyly but, as I reached for his lantern, he was happy to have some help. I wondered if he was like so many other new people in town, a migrant or refugee. “Where are you from?” I asked in German. He didn’t understand.

For the last 1600 years, St. Martin’s simple act of kindness has been remembered and celebrated across Europe. But this year, with Germany’s influx of refugees, one can find acts of kindness, reminiscent of St. Martin, everywhere.

Almost every town in Germany has a Facebook page set up for helping refugees, each one overflowing with examples of ordinary men and women going out of their way to ease the plight of perfect strangers. People donate supplies such as bed sheets, pots and pans, and backpacks full of school supplies, as well as coats, shoes, and toys. They give time and service to teach basic German skills. In Moers, a youth center opens its doors every night from 6 to 8 to provide a place for refugees to play games and sports, hang out and talk with locals. One man helps the visitors assemble Ikea furniture. Another one offers free washing machine repairs.

Many businesses are now offering free WiFi to refugees. In nearby Gelsenkirchen, people volunteer to accompany refugees to administrative offices and doctor visits. Some people go as far as lending a spare room to these strangers. There is a website called that is similar to, where space in a person’s home is made available to refugees.

“We have helped refugees in different ways: with clothes, meals, furniture and money,” Andreas Pavlic, the leader of a church in Duisburg-Rheinhausen told me. Recently a Syrian refugee named Sharif came to Pavlic’s church and told his story.

Sharif lived in Damascus, where he manufactured leather handbags and sport bags. He is married and has 3 sons, ages 10, 7, and 2. Their home was blown up, so the family moved in with Sharif’s parents. When his parent’s house was bombed, they all moved in with his sister. It was very crowded and they had no water for two months. Damascus was dangerous and resources were drying up. Staying would mean joining in the fight together with the Syrian army or against them. Whichever side you chose, the other side would come against you and your family. They had to get out of there. There was a man with a boat that could get him to the coast of Italy. The trip would be dangerous and he could be arrested entering Italy. Sharif decided the risk for his family was too great. He would go to Europe alone and find a safer way to get his family there.

The trip was, indeed, dangerous. The boat owner was greedy and did not care about the condition of the boat or the health and wellbeing of his passengers. The 14-day journey to Italy was wrought with problems. There was no roof. No tarp. Not even a blanket. They had nothing to protect them from the scorching sun of day or the frigid cold of night. Some people on the boat died, and the survivors continued their voyage sitting alongside the dead.

Sharif made it to the coast of Italy, but he suffered extreme sunburn, lost a lot of weight and developed a severe lung infection. He couldn’t stop to go to a doctor. He had to get to Germany. By the time he made it, all Sharif could think about was his family. For a while, he had no idea how they were faring in the war zone back in Damascus. In Germany, Sharif was able to get medical attention, a roof over his head and begin the process of seeking asylum. He was no longer in danger but, because he was unable to speak German, he was very lonely.

As Sharif told his story through a translator, the people in the little German church in Duisburg were overwhelmed with compassion. They took up a very generous collection to fly Sharif’s wife and children to safety. A few weeks later, Sharif was reunited with his family and they are now living together in Germany, living the dream of millions who are still trying to get here.

In the classroom in Moers, I stayed with Alex until he finished his lantern and then gave it to his teacher to hang up to dry. Moments later, he came to me in panic. “Which one is mine?” he seemed to be asking. I looked up at the 27 paper lanterns. I had no idea which one was his. I saw pain and disappointment in his eyes, and I wondered what he had been through to get here. Perhaps, I thought, he was coming from great poverty like the many people who have migrated from the Balkans. I assured him, the best I could, that it was okay. His lantern was hanging with the rest of them. He would get it back in a few days when it was dry. I’m not sure how much he understood.

Two weeks later, a light misty rain fell on the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles at the St. Martin’s parade. The smell of Glühwein lingered as we stood around and munched on Weckmann, bread shaped like a man holding a pipe, a baked item made only for this occasion. A man on horseback and dressed as a Roman soldier led the paper lantern-carrying children around the town singing songs about St. Martin. Afterward, everyone gathered in the schoolyard near a bonfire and listened to the story of St. Martin again as it was acted out.

I wanted to see Alex with his lantern, enjoying the festivities. But he wasn’t there. If his family had been classified as “economic migrants” and were seeking asylum I knew that they were likely to be sent back home. The German government has decided to take in only those migrants from places of on-going conflict. I said a silent prayer for the boy. Amid the celebration, his absence was a sobering reminder of the limbo in which so many migrant families find themselves.

“Traditions are today often ridiculed,” Werner Wollschläger, the elementary school principal wrote in the program distributed before the parade, “but I am firmly convinced that we would be much poorer without them. In these days and weeks, in which almost every day, people from war zones come to us who rely on our assistance, the significance of our St. Martin tradition is especially relevant.”

For hundreds and hundreds of years the story of St. Martin has reminded people to be aware of those in need. The recent attacks in Paris have some wanting to close Germany’s borders all together and others wanting to provide an even safer haven for those fleeing the terrorists. With an expected 1.5 million refugees coming to Germany this year, and an additional 5 million family members in years to come, the need here has rarely been greater. Whether dipping fingers in glue or dividing cloaks in half, the German people, at least for the time being, are heeding the call.


Tara Thomas, an EthnoTraveler contributor, lives and writes in Germany.