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Refugees taught me a lesson in making people feel welcome

Commentary: For Road Trip, reporter Katie Collins went to Germany to watch refugees welcomed with tech. She didn't expect the refugees to be welcoming her.


This is part of our Road Trip 2016 summer series, "Life, Disrupted," about how technology is helping with the global refugee crisis -- if at all.

There's nothing that breaks the tension of a serious interview quite like an invasion by a pair of toddlers, launching themselves at your legs. As they grinned manically, their hugs had us all giggling.

Refugee shelters -- at least the ones I visited with my colleagues Shara Tibken and Andrew Hoyle in Germany -- are uniformly dispiriting places that seem to thrum with human frustration. Then the kids appear. The air is suddenly filled with chatter, laughter and yelps, turning the centers into giant playgrounds.

Kids don't care who you are or where you've come from. They just want to play. I hesitantly decided to join them while observing a dance class at one East Berlin shelter. Once I got going, there was no way they would let me stop.

Joining these girls in their dance class was a heartwarming experience.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The welcome I received from the children was emblematic of the welcome CNET received in Germany from refugees we went there to meet. From the biggest gesture to the smallest, it felt as though we were on the receiving end of a stream of goodwill throughout our trip, which took us from Berlin to Dresden to Nuremberg, then finally to Munich.

Journalism, especially reporting on events like the refugee crisis gripping Europe, relies to a large degree on the generosity of others. There are plenty of reasons refugees wouldn't want to talk to us: safety, a general wariness of the motives of strangers, a specific wariness of the motives of journalists, or simply a reluctance to relive hard and challenging times. Even so, no one refused us.

People want to be heard, of course, but in Germany some refugees also feel the need to defend their honor and explain that they come in peace. Even with the widespread Welkomkultur in Germany, which contrasts starkly with strong attitudes in countries like Hungary, France and my native UK, not every German is happy the refugees are here. This summer's Bavarian terror attacks, in particular, are at the forefront of some people's minds.

Four-star hospitality

Munich isn't, on the whole, hostile toward the refugees. It's a multicultural city where you're hard pressed to distinguish refugees from second- and third-generation immigrants. But on our last day wandering through the city center's Max-Joseph-Platz, we happened on a group of Syrian men from a local refugee shelter standing with placards that rejected terrorism and professed a desire for peace.

Syrian refugees reaching out to the residents of Munich.

Syrian refugees reaching out to the residents of Munich.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It was a kind of Welkomkultur in reverse -- the refugees inviting Germans to come to them, to feel safe and secure around them and to embrace opportunities for friendship. People stood to with them, hugged them or just stopped and took photos. The atmosphere was upbeat and positive.

In Munich, Welkomkultur is alive and well, giving us a sense that the Syrian men we met have nothing to fear from their new neighbors. But that's not the case everywhere. There's a notable backlash against Chancellor Angela Merkel's open door policy and her insistence that "We can do it," which has fueled the rise of the hate-spewing, ultranationalist AFD party and plain old-fashioned Nazism.

A little girl examines an exhibition about the war in Syria currently displayed on the Berlin Wall -- a reminder that both Germany and Syria have experienced turmoil in their recent histories.

Katie Collins/CNET

No one is more aware of this than Peter Rausch, 57, from the Black Forest. He turned his four-star hotel in Bautzen, near Dresden, into a refugee shelter. Rausch received death threats and had 250 to 300 people, a mixture of neo-Nazis and locals, protesting outside.

"They thought their quality of life would be affected negatively," he told me.

Today at the hotel, the tension has died down, and while there's a dispiriting bleakness to the place, there are pockets of ambition and generosity to be found among the residents, many of whom must be going out of their minds with boredom.

Rausch made no attempt to hide from us the damage some of the refugees have done to his property, or the fact the police were called to deal with an issue with residents while we were there. But then he also gets on well with many of the refugees, who call him chef and sit and smoke with him in the reception area. Intensely practical and not a bit sentimental, he points out that just like all humans, "some are nice, some are arseholes." It's evident that for some, he harbors a genuine fondness and respect.

Brothers in a foreign land

Tucked away in the belly of the hotel, a group of Pakistani men who arrived together are bunked in a dorm rather than be split up into their own rooms. It was late afternoon and there wasn't anything to do, so perhaps we were a welcome distraction. But nothing could have prepared me for the hospitality we nosy reporters received as we poked our heads around their door.

These Pakistani men continue to room together at the Spree.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

They'd been languishing in semidarkness when we entered their room -- the curtains drawn and the lamps low -- but they immediately sprung up to welcome us. The sofa was cleared and a tray of drinks was prepared. The men, some with better English than others, told us of their pain at being separated from their families and of the bond that had developed between them as brothers who arrived together in a foreign land.

Just as we were made to feel welcome in Munich by the refugees with banners, and in Bautzen by the refugees with Pepsi, so too was the case in Berlin. We took a tour led by Refugee Voices, which guided us around the city center and introduced us to elements of Syria's history that have parallels to the German city's own turbulent past.

The refugees were excellent tour guides, but they were even better hosts during our dinner. At a restaurant owned by one of their family members, they brought 20 or so of us platters of crispy manoushi bread flavored with za'atar and moreish baba ganoush accompanied by mint tea. We enjoyed the kind of hospitality Middle Eastern culture is famous for, right in the heart of Berlin.

It was, as my fellow tourgoer Houria -- who didn't want to provide her last name -- put it later, "a very rich experience." She wasn't talking about just the food. 

Throughout the trip, I was treated with kindness and warmth by people who, like me, were mostly muddling through their 20s and trying to put together the best life they could.

And even though we were in a country that was foreign to all of us, their hospitality and willingness to form a connection -- along with their smiles, hugs, handshakes and dancing -- gave a warm sense of welcome.

I felt it everywhere.