Café Offers Refugees Respite and Welcome
The café in Messstetten, Germany is staffed by volunteers, many from area churches
Read more about refugees in Messstetten, Germany.
Youssef Moshashai, right, who settled in Germany from Iran 35 years ago, provides translation into Farsi of a worship service offered in the Messstetten café, where recent refugees and asylum-seekers find a warm welcome. Photo by Klaus Ulrich Ruof
By Linda Unger*
Refugees who have spent days, weeks, or even months journeying from their war-torn lands to Germany are finding a warm welcome at a café run by the Red Cross and hosted by volunteers, many of them from local churches, in the leafy village of Messstetten in southwestern Germany.
The split-level building, surrounded by rolling green hills, tall pines, and colorful autumn trees, was once a canteen for the soldiers stationed at the army barracks across the road. The barracks closed in 2012, and just over a year ago, was converted into a center of first-arrival for some of the thousands of asylum-seekers streaming into Germany from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea, and elsewhere.
“God brought these people to our doorstep; now it’s our turn to figure out how to respond to them,” said the Rev. Rolf Held, pastor of the United Methodist Peace Church in Messstetten—and an immigrant himself, from South Africa.
Volunteering at the café is one way dozens of local residents are responding to the newcomers. Some 160 volunteers keep the place humming seven days a week, offering a welcoming environment where asylum-seekers can find a listening ear, a hot (and cheap!) cup of coffee, and a little distraction.
On a recent afternoon, one young asylum-seeker strummed a guitar and attracted a small following in the café garden. Some 30 refugee children smiled and laughed as they showed off the colorful crafts they’d made during a program designed for them and their mothers.
Other newcomers entertained themselves playing chess, foosball, backgammon, or bowling, while still others browsed the Internet or hurried to German-language classes, all at the café.
Martina Sauer, a local museum director, comes to the café one afternoon a week to teach German as a second language to some 30 asylum-seekers. “I’m doing this work because my own parents were refugees—twice, from Poland and East Germany,” she said.
While pouring a cup of coffee, which the café sells for the equivalent of about 20 cents a cup, she said she only laments the high turnover of her students, as they are transferred out of the first-arrival center to smaller, more manageable accommodations to await the outcome of their asylum petitions.
“Every four weeks you have new students,” she said. “You work with these students and then suddenly, they’re gone, and you don’t even get to say good-bye.”
|Tino Murgia, who, on a recent Thursday evening, led the ecumenical service, explained that the “church café” offers refugees a chance to talk about their journeys with interested volunteers. Photo by Klaus Ulrich Ruof
Each week, on Thursday evening, a Christian worship service is held, and all are invited. Tino Murgia, a Lutheran, himself an immigrant from Italy, explained what he called the “church café” to a visitor.
“There are two parts,” he said. “Part one: Communicate. We have volunteers come and sit at the tables and listen to the stories of the people: how did they leave their homelands, how was their journey, how is their life here.”
Part two is the church service. “We explain that it’s a Christian church service, so people can choose to stay or to go. We mix all the languages: English, Farsi, German, Arabic,” he said. Whatever their faith tradition, many stay for the fellowship.
During a recent service, the café proper—with coffee bar, booths, and large round tables—was full for the service. At one table, a group of young asylum-seekers took selfies and, once the prayer service got started, they recorded the hymns using their cell phone video cameras.
|Ahmed, a young sculptor from Syria, followed the ecumenical service, which is offered weekly at the café. Photo by Klaus Ulrich Ruof
At a booth toward the back of the café, a young Syrian couple, both sculptors, listened. Ahmed, a Dorzi Muslim, his long, dark hair pulled back in a French braid, drew a figure, a model for a sculpture he would work on with his wife, Rasha, a Roman Catholic. Committed to their respective faith traditions, they nonetheless shared in the prayers and tried to follow the songs, and Rasha made the sign of the cross at the blessing.
“I am desperate to complete my studies,” Ahmed said later. Because of the war in Syria, he had to leave the university before finishing his degree. Once he and Rasha are settled, he continued, he hoped to complete his studies at a German university. Then, he and Rasha hoped to open a gallery.
The sculpture he was drawing depicted a woman pushing herself up from the waist from what will be the base, right arm bent in that act, while the left arm reached for something unseen high above her.
Meant to express the Syrian woman’s struggle with her society, as Ahmed explained, it seemed even more broadly expressive of the refugees and asylum-seekers at the café, reaching for their dreams.
*Linda Unger is senior writer for the General Board of Global Ministries.