BERLIN (Reuters) - When asylum seeker Fouad Nour Aldin from Gaza arrived in Germany a year ago, he used to spend all day brooding inside his shelter -- until a scheme hooked him up with German buddies.
The 41-year-old Palestinian, a former bus driver, is one of more than a million migrants who arrived in Germany last year. Like many others, he initially struggled to communicate, knew little about German life and had hardly any contact with locals.
“We don’t have any plans and our days are long and boring and if you just sit there thinking you can get stressed,” he said. “If you can find a way to get outside, it’s very good.”
As authorities scramble to provide housing and social benefits, newcomers often have to wait months for a government-sponsored integration course. So many Germans, increasingly battling a swelling tide of anti-migrant feeling, are taking social integration into their own hands.
An array of bottom-up initiatives draw refugees and migrants into local communities via cooking, gardening, sports, yoga, mentoring programs and coffee afternoons. Most focus on helping people who have fled their homes.
A recent survey by the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) found around 11 percent of Germans were helping refugees. In Berlin alone, more than 150 initiatives are dedicated to doing so.
But the volunteers, and the refugees, are facing growing suspicion. Almost half of Germans fear too many refugees are coming, a recent survey by pollster Emnid showed. Support for the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), which talks tough on immigration, has surged into double-digits.
Failure to integrate the new arrivals could fuel right-wing parties and erode support for taking additional refugees, said Ruud Koopmans, director of integration research at the WZB Berlin Social Science Centre, a situation he said would be “social and political catastrophe”.
Opposition to migrants is growing, especially after women were sexually assaulted and robbed near Cologne Cathedral at New Year. Official reports said most of the men crowding around there were of north African and Arab appearance, increasing concerns about Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy.
“WE BECAME FAMILY”
Merkel and other politicians say Germany must learn from the experiences of ‘Gastarbeiter’, guest workers who came in the decades after World War Two. The new arrivals were seen as temporary and little effort was made to integrate them. Turkish ghettos sprung up.
Germany’s family ministry is eager to avoid those mistakes. It pledged in January to spend 10 million euros this year on a program to link up Germans and migrants.
Nour Aldin has already started to feel at home this way through a separate project called ‘Oremi’, which means ‘friend’, in the African language Yoruba.
“It helps to narrow the distance between refugees and Germans,” he said. “I’ve met people from the country and they welcome me and take me to their home.”
Schemes run by locals are a lifeline for newcomers like Syrian refugee Mohamad Rabee Sanoufi, 29. His lonely first few weeks in Berlin were filled with sadness.
But things changed after joining sessions with ‘Ueber den Tellerrand’, an initiative where migrants and locals make dishes from around the world. Last weekend, they cooked Syrian lentil soup, South American peanut soup and German red cabbage soup.
“Now I’ve got a lot of German friends – I go to their homes and we exchange culture and cook together so I‘m getting to know how Germans think,” Sanoufi said. “We became like family.”
Anja Thiem, one of the organizers, said some participants had become such good friends that they held PlayStation evenings and were even considering going on vacation together.
The initiative also brings migrants and Berlin residents together via yoga, dancing classes, women’s breakfasts, beekeeping and soccer.
Germans in other cities, towns and villages are also coming up with creative ways to integrate newcomers.
In the northern town of Lueneburg, refugees tend sunflowers, potatoes and pumpkins in a garden with locals. In the university city of Heidelberg, young Germans mentor young refugees.
And in Leutenbach and Winnenden, small communities near Stuttgart, refugees and Germans repair bicycles together, grow vegetables, play tennis and learn each other’s languages.
“There are a lot of prejudices and stereotypes associated with refugees but ... as soon as you get to know them, you realize that a lot of things are very different from what you hear sometimes,” said Leif Braendle, a student who set up a “circle of friends for refugees” in Leutenbach and Winnenden.
Almost every soccer club in the area has taken about five refugees, he said, and many proudly wear their team jackets in the shelters.
Back in Berlin, Thiem recently took refugees and locals to a farm outside the city to pick apples. The groups mingled so much it was longer clear who was who.
“When we got to the farm with our big mixed group, someone asked ‘when are the refugees coming?’ I laughed and said ‘they’re already all here!'” she said.
Reporting by Michelle Martin; editing by Katharine Houreld