At a community center in Berlin’s Spandau district, two large rooms were filled with noise and the roar of sewing machines, colorful cloth rolls scattered on the table.
About a dozen migrants from countries including Iran and Afghanistan are busy making face masks to donate to the public – and their work is in great demand, with queues stretching down the stairs and out the front door.
Germany has made mandatory masks on public transportation and in many stores as part of measures to control the spread of the corona virus, which has claimed nearly 6,000 lives and caused huge restrictions on public life.
But according to project coordinator Afsaneh Afraze-Ketabi, this crisis has an unexpected negative side for many migrants living in Germany.
Engaging in voluntary work helps them to strengthen their relationships with the community, improve their language skills and build confidence, said the 36-year-old man from Iran.
“Many people have been given the courage to show their skills, show their faces … and strengthen their confidence.”
Germany has seen a large increase in the number of people coming from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, with more than one million coming between 2015 and 2016 alone.
The entry became a thorny political problem and sparked the rise of the controversial right-wing alternative party for Germany (AfD), now Germany’s largest opposition party.
Thomas Noppen, whose charity Go Volunteer manages a website that matches refugees with voluntary opportunities, wants to show that newcomers can make a positive contribution.
“Many participants see it as a culture given to doing charity,” he said.
Since April 2018, around 500 migrants have applied for voluntary work through the Engagierte Newcomer (Engaged Newcomers) website.
A new section dedicated to the current crisis – newcomer Gegen Corona (newcomer against Corona) – will be launched this week.
“We received a lot of feedback from the refugees that their main motivation was to ‘give back’ to the host community,” Noppen said.
This applies to Jamila Ahmadi, 45, from Afghanistan, who has sewed up to 50 masks a day for the Spandau project.
“Everyone must do something to help if they can,” he said through his own white and gold mask. “Germany is helping us, and now we want and must help the people.”
Across the city, in Oberschoeneweide, Abdulrahim Al Khattab has helped run the COVID-19 environmental volunteer project.
The 31-year-old man from Syria and his two friends have formed a Facebook group and posted notes in the hallways of their building asking if anyone needs help with grocery shopping, medicine or other necessities.
Before they came to Germany five years ago, Al Khattab and his friends volunteered in Syria, helping provide food, clothing, medicines and new homes for people displaced by the civil war.
“This experience taught us a lot,” he said. “In this difficult situation, we think of people (Germans) as we think of our people.”
Meanwhile, in the central district of Schoeneberg Berlin, a large pot full of lamb steak hissed in the kitchen of the empty restaurant Malakeh Jazmati.
With the door closed for customers, this 32-year-old man from Syria has decided to cook a free lunch for supermarket workers – whom he sees as a hero without a pandemic sign.
“I know they live in very difficult situations and they work under pressure, so I want to give them something,” he said.
Jazmati came to Germany in 2015 and opened her restaurant two years ago.
He will add rice and eggplants to the lamb to make one of his signature dishes, known as Makloubeh.
“Right now, volunteering is not something we want to do … or we don’t want to, it’s something we have to do,” he said.
“Everyone must do something now. We must be together.”