NesT ("Neustart im Team") is a new German resettlement program for 500 vulnerable refugees | Source: UNHCR/Annie Sakkab
NesT ("Neustart im Team") is a new German resettlement program for 500 vulnerable refugees | Source: UNHCR/Annie Sakkab

Members of civil society taking vulnerable refugees under their wings – that's the premise of Germany’s community sponsorship-based resettlement program for refugees (“NesT”). Now, 25 mentor groups are ready to welcome an individual or a family of refugees waiting to be resettled from third countries. The pilot program, run jointly by the government and faith-based organizations, has groups of at least five volunteers serving as "mentors" who commit to covering refugees' rent and improving their overall conditions for integration. The first of a total of 500 refugees are expected to arrive this fall.

Close to three months after the launch of Germany’s first resettlement program based on the “community sponsorship” model, 25 mentor groups are ready to welcome refugees who are in particular need of protection.

The resettlement program titled NesT (“Neustart im Team”, or “a team for starting over"), launched at an event in May in Berlin InfoMigrants attended, will provide a new home for 500 mostly Syrian refugees who have sought refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Ethiopia but cannot stay there. They are victims of torture or rape, unaccompanied minors, pregnant women or frail people. Teams of “mentors” – individuals, associations and other members of civil society – will guide and support them in every aspect of life in Germany.

From the get-go, the government and civil society will work hand in hand: While different state bodies are in charge of the implementation, groups of at least five mentors will look after an individual or one family by finding them an apartment, covering the bulk of the rent for 24 months and offering advice to help navigate their new situation. The mentors themselves receive support through training, among other things, from civil society groups like Germany’s Protestant Church (EKD).

“NesT is based on long-standing demands … to provide secure and legal pathways to Europe,” said Martin Dutzmann, representative of Germany’s Protestant Church (EKD), at an event in Berlin at the end of July. Without initiatives like NesT and upping the number of resettlement spots overall, “images of desperate people trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe” will continue to abound, Dutzmann added.

Echoing recent statements from European politicians in the context of distributing rescued migrants in the Mediterranean across Europe, Dutzmann and other church representatives stressed the need for “humanitarian corridors” to Europe.

“The humanitarian catastrophe reflected in uncountable individual fates is a confession of failure for a Europe that has made human right part of its narrative,” said Ulrich Lilie, president of the social welfare organization of Germany's Protestant churches (“Diakonie”).

Ulrich Möller, representative of the Protestant Church of Westphalia (EKvW), called NesT a “symbol of humanity” and a “spike” against indifference, looking away and suppression.

“The willingness of people to help must not be nullified,” Möller said. “NesT shows that everybody can be part of the solution.”

The first resettled refugees are expected this fall, with the rest of the 500 refugees arriving over the course of next year.

Community sponsorship

The centerpiece of NesT is a team of at least five volunteers functioning as mentors for one of more refugees, a system known as community sponsorship. The civil society group must commit to finding ‘their’ refugee a suitable place to live and pay the bulk of the rent for two years. As the refugee’s main contact persons, they are also to help run errands, find apprenticeship or jobs as well as foster social participation. The hope is that this ‘guided’ approach will lead to an improved and faster integration.

Each group, which elects two main mentors who carry more responsibility than the rest, decide whether they take in a single refugee or a whole family. So far, all 25 groups have decided to take in families, EKvW representative Edgar Born said.

According to Born, the volunteers who make up the 25 groups are very diverse and include volunteers from church parishes, communes or private groups who want to open up a secure, long-term perspective to refugees in Germany. Many of them are motivated to “send a signal” amid the death in the Mediterranean. “They are solution-oriented people” who are “well-integrated in to their local communities,” Born told InfoMigrants.

One of the mentors is Jehan Awan from Syria. The 31-year-old fled the civil war in her home country together with her husband and their small child. Now, she lives in Hopsten, a small municipality in North Rhine-Westphalia. Awan said she is volunteering because of what she went through herself in Syria and because Germany took her in.

Former Syrian refugee Jehan Awan is volunteering to mentor refugees as part of the NesT resettlement program  Photo Benjamin Bathke

"I feel comfortable here and well-integrated," she told InfoMigrants at the event in Berlin. “The more contact children have with German kids, the faster they learn the language,” she said. Her own experience as a refugee family in Germany – a local family took them under their wings – showed her that contact to neighbors and sports clubs is very important, “especially at the beginning.”

Speaking both Arabic and German, Awan also hopes to help overcome language barriers, for instance by accompanying her mentees to doctor’s appointment.  

Is the mentor training sufficient?

"The government remains responsible, but we as civil society support the state in taking in those in need for protection … because we do that especially well,” said EKD’s Dutzmann, stressing the potential of volunteers in the integration of refugees. According to Dutzmann, some have decades-long experience in refugee relief.

Rüdiger Höcker is a case in point. Before his retirement in 2016, the NesT mentor worked for 12 years as a full-time superintendent of a Protestant congregation, which has "always been active in refugee work," Höcker told InfoMigrants. Since his retirement, the German lives and volunteers in Minden, a town of about 83,000 also located in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Although he called NesT “a theory that needs to prove itself in practice,” Höcker said he was very confident in the “competent assistance” of experienced volunteers like himself.

However, the only mandatory training before assuming responsibility for the refugee(s) is a basic instruction conducted by “civic contact points” (“Zivilgesellschaftliche Kontaktstelle,” or ZKS) on a weekend. During the four-hour course, mentors learn about challenges they might be facing, reflect expectations and discuss concrete obligations. Participation is only mandatory for the two main mentors of the group.

Once the refugees have been resettled, mentors will be offered targeted education measures based on feedback from mentors that teaches them how to manage expectations and balance closeness and distance to the refugees, Born said.

Will a four-hour course also suffice for inexperienced mentors? Born thinks so. Novices receive “permanent input” from “employee groups” accompanied by the Migration Advice Service for Adult Immigrants (MBE) and the Youth Migration Services, he said. The pastor also stressed that the ZKS will be “constantly accessible” for questions and advises mentors-to-be with the application process.

But what happens if the patchwork family doesn’t get along and threatens to fall apart? Diakonie’s Lilie named four considerations to avoid such a scenario: Bringing in additional volunteers; a group of full-time volunteers accompanying mentor groups from a “certain distance” to detect things the mentor groups cannot; supervision; and connecting mentor groups in the same region to “exchange ideas.”

In case the relationship between mentors and ‘their’ refugee(s) really goes sour, another mentor group might replace the original group, Born said. Regardless, the commitment to cover mentees’ rent for 24 months cannot be cancelled.

‘Civic contact points’

The Protestant Church of Westphalia (EKvW) in Germany’s most populous state is one of the biggest supporters of NesT. It is not only home to one ZKS; it will also resettle nearly one in four of the 500 refugees. The other two ZKS are located in Berlin and Freiburg in southwestern Germany.

In Minden, which is home to more than 2,000 Syrians, “those who have the money don’t have time, and those who have time don’t have the money,” said volunteer Höcker. That’s why he welcomes the initiative of the EKvW to bear the financial risk by means of a €425,000 fund.

Germany’s Protestant Church (EKD) is one of three institutions responsible for the mentor training. The others are Caritas, the social welfare organisation of Germany's Catholic Church, and the German Red Cross. According to the EKD, five of the 25 mentor groups have been trained to date.

Once the basic instruction course is over, Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) matches a single person or a family with a group of mentors.

What can resettled refugees expect?

Beneficiaries of the resettlement program receive resettlement-refugee status and a residence permit for at least three years, which can be renewed. They are also entitled to a work permit as well as welfare and educational opportunities including language courses upon arrival.

Currently, 1.4 million refugees worldwide have been identified by the UNHCR as in need for resettlement, the majority of them Syrian, South Sudanese and Yemeni.

Money for NesT comes from the European Commission’s €3.137 billion Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), €500 million of which was earmarked for said EU resettlement scheme. The fund will run out in 2020.

When asked about AMIF, Born said he’s received signals that the fund will be renewed. “We expect the EU to continue financing the resettlement.” NesT is a complementary program to the EU resettlement scheme, whose goal is to bring at least 50,000 people in need of protection to Europe in 2018/2019. Germany has pledged to take in 10,200 of those 50,000.

The NesT resettlement program builds on experiences other states have made in recent years, including Canada’s 41-year-old private refugee sponsorship program and a two-year-old community sponsorship scheme in the UK. The Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (GSRI) as well as campaigns for refugees including "Save me," "Start with a friend" and the "Flüchtlingspaten Syrien" (“refugees godparents Syria”) also served as blueprints.

Potential to grow

In March, eight German and French civil society groups including Diakonie and French charity Terre d’Asile had signed the “Paris Statement” on a new European integration policy. “We are trying to build a strong civil society network on the European level so that initiatives including NesT can have children,” said Diakonie president Lilie.

Ulrich Möller of EKvW acknowledged that 500 refugees is a “very small number” amid the more than 1.4 million particularly vulnerable refugees waiting to be resettled globally. “It’s not a sufficient answer to the failure of Europe’s politics,” he said.

Still, Möller believes NesT has the potential to grow from 500 to 5,000 spots and eventually to 50,000 and more resettlements. “Successful integration can lead to more acceptance of those concerned about integration overburdening our society,” he added.

If you’re interested in becoming a NesT mentor, you can find more information (in German) here


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