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In Berlin, Tango Community Embraces Refugees

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 17/10/2015 Pro Journo

By Waleria Schuele, Mercator Fellow
It seemed like a regular Thursday night at Nou, one of Berlin's most established Tango schools. In a large room more like a living room than a dance studio, with couches, coffee tables and decorative chandeliers, tunes of melancholic Tango music are thickening the air with remembrances of past sorrows. A group of students is exploring the intricate myths of the infamous Tango embrace.
Around 10pm the hall begins to fill with new arrivals. Still dripping from the rain outside, people enter the space in a festive mood: some greeting each other with familiar hugs, some humming Tango melodies. At first sight an outsider could only assume they're coming for the next class. At second thought though 10pm on a Thursday night seems like an odd time to start a dancing class.
© Provided by The Huffington Post Nou Tango school, Source: Ishka Michoka
In fact, the group of six has arrived for a night shift to take care of 30 refugees who will spend the night at the school. Because Nou is following a call for help from the NGO Moabit hilft - which assists the refugees that have been arriving in thousands at Berlin's train stations - the local Tango community has organized to provide emergency shelters for those in need. This is a particularly colorful example of how residents of the German capital have taken it upon themselves to welcome the tens of thousands arriving into the city.
"We had just gotten back from a holiday trip and put our three kids to bed when my phone rang at 10 pm" says Thomas Rieser, Nou's owner. There was an emergency situation in front of the local asylum agency. Despite hiring 100 extra staff over the last weeks the agency simply could not cope with the continuous demand: since January 2015 30,000 refugees have arrived in Berlin. On 26 August 2015, when Rieser received the call, around 150 refugees hadn't been able to register and were facing a night in the streets. An employee of Moabit hilft randomly searched for dancing schools in Berlin to ask if they could accommodate these people that same or the following nights.
"I didn't take me long to decide. The next day I created a group on Facebook and less than 24h later we had 30 people sleeping in the school," Rieser says. "Within days the Facebook group grew to over 800 members, allowing us to procure everything: mattresses, food, clothes, a washing ma-chine, a dryer. For the past two weeks, every night, a group of volunteers has been running the night and morning shifts. Monetary donations have been coming in from national and international supporters. The trust people put in our work exceeds all our expectations."
"Our work here makes me think of bee swarms," explains Ingo Heymann, who was born and raised in Berlin. As a security guard he always works at night. Now he is spending half of his vacation on night shifts for refugees. "One bee cannot accomplish much. But together the bees run a whole kingdom. For our society it's the same. Everybody gives their little piece and together we move things on the large scale. For me, it's a way to give back to those who suffer from the effects of our politics."
Hussam, an Iraqi architect, comes almost every day to translate for the refugees. After his father had barely survived a kidnapping by ISIS terrorists in Baghdad three years ago, his family insisted for him to leave to a more secure place. In fluent German he explains that it is hard to digest all the stories of hardship and solitude which remind him so much of his own. "None of the refugees has an idea what to expect once they are here," he says. "I try to explain how Germany works. That they must learn the language and work hard."
"When our initiative kicked off I quickly realized that missing night accommodation is only one part of the problem," explains Lilia Kel, a young blonde teacher at Tango Loft, the second school involved in the refugee aid project. "Particularly during the weekends, when the asylum agencies are closed, the men don't have anything to do. So I invited them to join my beginners classes," she adds. "I was quite insecure how it would work out, considering the diverse cultural backgrounds. But it went fine. Those who came were not much different than any other student in the first class. Shy for sure, but curious, too."
© Provided by The Huffington Post Tango loft, transformed, Source: René Loeffler © Provided by The Huffington Post Refugees during mealtime, Source: René Loeffler
It seems unlikely that a setting that is world-famous for its sensuality could be suited to accommodate refugees from largely muslim backgrounds. But for insiders there is no dilemma. "Tango teaches you important social skills like attentiveness, dedication and respect," elaborates Rieser. According to him, the dance itself is only a medium to develop these skills.
After many conversations with the refugees, Hussam could not agree more. None of the men from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan who have stayed at the schools so far has felt perturbed by the high heeled dancing shoes on display or the female volunteers on the shifts; even though they had never been in touch with Tango before. Some of the refugees commented to Hussam, that they were positively surprised to see women on the helper teams, which would have been impossible in their countries of origin. "We are very tired and very grateful that people here treat us so well," add Majd and Tarek from Syria.
Surprisingly, gratefulness is also the predominant emotion among the volunteers, report Arne Broy and Andreas Rochholl, both on the the management team. 'It is a deeply emotional process for our helpers. People start remembering the migration stories of their own families. They wake up to the global conflicts that have suddenly materialized in front of them. And at the end of the day they thank us for giving them the opportunity to participate."
In the meantime the Tango refugee support community has grown to more than 1,000 people who are supporting Moabit hilft in one way or another. In a press release from October 8th, 2015 Moabit hilft accused the local refugee agency of covering up an internal breakdown of the public asylum system, resulting in Refugees waiting up to 57 days for a first official registration. In response, the volunteers of Moabit hilf and associated groups are working voluntarily seven days a week and up 15 hours a day to provide private accommodations, food, clothes and medical support for the unregistered refugees who otherwise would be left alone in the streets.

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