Spike Dresden, a youth project which also offers advice to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants | Photo: Emma Wallis
Spike Dresden, a youth project which also offers advice to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants | Photo: Emma Wallis

SPIKE Dresden is a prize-winning youth and cultura center in constant evolution. It started up in 1995 to meet the needs of one marginalized community, youth who were interested in Hip Hop not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall when a lot was in flux. Since 2015 it has expanded to meet the needs of a new community in need of support: migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

On a leafy street not far from the center of Dresden, SPIKE‘s presence announces itself even before you enter. A large red graffiti sign on a wall tells visitors to walk 50 meters down the road and turn left. Follow those instructions and you arrive at more walls covered in graffiti and murals. The bright colors and energy outside prepare visitors for what is going on inside the center.

“There‘s a creative and painting room, a recording studio, a dance studio, a meeting room, a kitchen and a learning room,” explains Henriette Hammer, one of the social workers in the center as she spins up and down the corridor opening doors and explaining what is going on inside.

Between 3 and 7 p.m. Monday-Thursday, SPIKE offers open house advice for refugees in Dresden, who might need help settling in to the community. Alongside that, they offer lots of youth-centered cultural activities from music-making to graffiti workshops for those in the hip hop scene. Their target audience is between 14 and 28 years old but anyone is welcome, stresses Hammer. In fact, as Hammer continues the tour, a family from the Middle East mingles with young Eritrean men. Daniel is one of them. “Are you working here?” he asks hopefully. He’s just signed up for a consultation and is waiting in the corridor for it to start. “I’ve just started an apprenticeship,” he explains. “I am training to be a salesperson in a shop, but I need some help with the program now.” He likes Dresden, he says. “There are more opportunities here than in Görlitz, [a smaller town in eastern Germany] where I spent two years.”

Daniel’s German is pretty good already and soon one of the advisers comes out to tell him that his appointment will start soon. He has been coming to SPIKE on and off for “about a year,” he says.

“Some people come regularly for years, some come back and tell us how they are getting on, others come when they need some help and then they move on,” explains Ellen Demnitz-Schmidt, who runs SPIKE along with her team. Ellen Demnitz-Schmidt and Souleman Osman at Spike Dresden  Photo Emma Wallis

In constant evolution

“We like to work in detail, and get to the root of whatever problem someone might have” explains Demnitz-Schmidt. “SPIKE fills whichever void is needed,” she adds, demonstrating the organization’s continued evolution and flexibility over the years. In 2014, she like other Dresden residents had noticed the increased numbers of migrants seeking refuge in Germany and in Dresden too. Their move to working with the migrant community came at the end of that year.

“That was the high point of the PEGIDA marches,” remembers Demnitz-Schmidt. “As a Dresden resident who didn’t think like them, I would always attend the counter-demonstrations. But PEGIDA got bigger and bigger and, although our opposition was vocal, we were relatively few compared to them.” At a certain point, thought Demnitz-Schmidt, “there must be different ways to counteract it than just Monday nights. […At the same time…] several groups of young Eritreans were put into centers in our [office] neighborhood. And I thought to myself, any groups of men shut up in a building with nothing to do all day and no connection to the outside is going to potentially be a source of conflict.”Any young men shut up in a house all day with no contact to the outside world and nothing to do could spell trouble, thinks Ellen Demnitz-Schmidt | Emma Wallis

The kind of conflict that a project like SPIKE might be able to alleviate thought Demnitz-Schmidt by working alongside these new communities. The trouble did indeed rear its head. “There was a murder. A young Eritrean man was stabbed to death. And of course everyone was clamoring to say ‘it must be the right-wingers, Dresden is such a right-wing place.’ It turned out to be one of his fellow countrymen, they had had an argument and then…but it gave us the push to say, ok things can’t stay as they are.” Demnitz-Schmidt and the team visited the home, introduced themselves and realized they needed to open their space up to groups of migrants and asylum seekers too.

Open to all

As we speak in her office, toddlers run up and down the brightly painted corridor, their mothers chat in the learning room and wait for their advisory appointments. Boxes of donated fruit and vegetables sit on a table in case anyone is in need of some extra ingredients. The flexibility of the project, thinks Demnitz-Schmidt, makes it ideal for addressing people’s needs properly. There are so many activities on offer that they can appeal to a broad audience and get people meeting, talking and integrating into the community. It is clear, as Demnitz-Schmidt talks that she is proud of her town. Any mention of the image of Dresden and Saxony as an AFD or PEGIDA heartland makes her face cloud over. That image of Dresden is not the reality, she states. “These people do not speak for us all,” she adds decisively. “Dresden is a really cool city and it is much more than PEGIDA.”

In fact, Demnitz-Schmidt, like other people working in the field of migration in Dresden, thinks that sometimes the PEGIDA movement has had the opposite effect to the one it sought. It galvanized those who don’t agree with statements like “refugees not welcome” or “stop the Islamization of Germany” to volunteer and show their solidarity with the new arrivals in the city.Ellen Demnitz-Schmidt is inspired by Chancellor Merkel's philosophy: 'We can do it' | Photo: Emma WallisDemnitz-Schmidt is a mother of adult children and clearly used to solving everyone’s problems with a calm and practical approach. She talks about teaching new arrivals how to start up a folder to deal with the huge amount of administration needed to live and work in Germany. “Keeping neat and tidy records is important,” she says with a smile. Hammer and Demnitz-Schmidt recount the number of times people have come to their consultation with one letter they don’t understand. The advisors have then asked them to bring everything they have in so that they can get to the bottom of what is going on. “Then they turn up with a bag full of letters,” they both agree. "This is just one of the examples of how we try and approach helping people by really getting to the bottom of each individual case," says Demnitz-Schmidt.

‘We can do it’

In 2015, once SPIKE decided to open its doors to the migrant community, “it was like a huge wave broke over us,” remembers Demnitz-Schmidt. “There would be 100-120 people a day at that time.” Demnitz-Schmidt says that Chancellor Merkel’s famous phrase from 2015 “Wir schaffen das” (We can do it) became their motto too. “We look to provide solutions to problems,” says Demnitz-Schmidt. “Things are never quiet but we have the freedom to work out what is needed and what people are asking for and then we try and fulfill that.”

Spike likes to create new programs in response to the needs of its clientele | Photo: Emma WallisThey are constantly responding to needs which come up because they have established such deep relationships with the people who use the center and have gained their trust. One such example is working out ways of offering culturally sensitive help with alcohol dependency, a problem they have noticed among some members of certain communities; people who might not know about or want to approach more traditional programs.  They are currently working on culturally-sensitive projects which offer something different from the more traditional programs available in Germany. That’s because, Demnitz-Schmidt adds, “we have a very intensive contact with people here because they might spend many hours here, reading and getting advice and learning something, so we really get to know them personally. Then we try and offer what the people might need.”

‘People come here to get help’

One of the vanguards from the Eritrean community who attended the project was Souleman Osman. He arrived in Europe in 2014 and after a few months in Italy made it to Germany. One of the volunteers at the project had heard him speaking German on a tram in Dresden and asked him if he’d like to come and help out with translating. Osman has been working at SPIKE since 2016 as a translator and cultural mediator.

“People come here to get help,” says Osman. “This is a really special place for refugees and migrants. They always say how much SPIKE helps them." A lot of new arrivals have trouble with the language and how to live in Germany, says Osman, “but those who come to SPIKE get help with that and can really learn about how things are.” Demnitz-Schmidt interjects with a big smile, “we really try and help people get a handle on living their own lives in Germany and really hope that what they learn in SPIKE helps them in the future!”'People come here to get help' says Souleman Osman, from Eritrea, who works at Spike | Photo: Emma WallisLike many migrants, Osman’s own picture of Germany, before arrival, was vague. “When I was in Africa I really didn’t know much about Germany. I only learned a bit about Hitler and stuff and that is the experience of most people I would say. When I arrived it was cold, winter and everything but I realized I could live here and survive.” Osman was scared by the PEGIDA demos but once he got to know people through SPIKE he started to feel more comfortable in the city.

Through Osman, SPIKE has developed a real bridge with the Eritrean community in the city. “It has been a step-by-step process,” says Demnitz-Schmidt. “Souleman is not just a translator, he has been able to interpret the cultures back and forth to each other for us,” teaching everyone as he goes along, she thinks. There are so many differences between the two cultures, agree Osman and Demnitz-Schmidt. “Eritreans don’t tend to say directly what they think, they are not so outspoken,” Osman thinks.

Looking to the future

Osman attributes his happiness today in Germany to SPIKE. “Well, he has got a wife and two small daughters too,” laughs Demnitz-Schmidt. Getting asylum was really difficult for Osman because he had already left his fingerprints on arrival in Italy, and had obtained asylum there. Demnitz-Schmidt explains that they then helped him obtain a residency permit in Germany. They offered him first a position via a Federal Volunteer Service Program (Bundesfreiwilliger) and he is gradually transitioning to preparing to study whilst working at SPIKE. “I am so grateful that SPIKE helped me,” he smiles. “I will never forget that.”'We want to make sure that people can take their lives and their future in their own hands' says Ellen Demnitz-Schmidt of Spike, Dresden | Photo: Emma Wallis

In the future, Osman wants to study social work at the Evangelische Hochschule Dresden, a university of applied science. “There was no university in Eritrea. I got good marks in Eritrea and I studied at high school.” Osman said he worked as a teacher for a few years but then the law stipulated that every man should carry a weapon and fight for the army and so he fled the country in 2013.

SPIKE has won a couple of regional and local integration prizes, including one in October 2019. Demnitz-Schmidt is humble about her work but she thinks their approach, based on experience is the right one. “We come at things through trust, sometimes even confrontation,” smiles Demnitz-Schmidt. “We say that we are here for you because we are interested in making sure that we can all get on together in this society. I think that we present a different image of Germany to people. […] We are there to support people so that they can stand on their own two feet as soon as possible. We are not a service point. We want to make sure that people can take their lives and their future into their own hands.”


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