Germany taps tech to help refugees find community, fit in

Sites and apps are popping up to help refugees learn German, navigate the country and meet locals.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Shara Tibken
Katie Collins
10 min read
Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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.

Germans and Syrians have more in common than they realize, Wael Alafandi tells 30 Berliners and tourists as he leads us through the city's historic center.

There's the Ministry of Finance, he points, where East German police, Soviet forces and tanks crushed an uprising of workers in June 1953. Thousands were killed, executed or injured across East Germany. And here's the Topography of Terror museum, which memorializes decades of repression and torture. Hitler's Gestapo and SS once had headquarters in this space. A section of the Berlin Wall stretches for blocks.

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Wael Alafandi, a former journalist in Syria, leads 30 of us on a tour of sites associated with Nazi and Communist oppression. The Refugee Voices Tour compares Germany's past with Syria's brutal history.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Syrians know the same kinds of horrors. More than 11 percent of the country's population has been wounded or killed in five years of civil war. Hundreds of thousands have been arrested or kidnapped by government troops, rebel forces or ISIS. And just as Germans knocked down the Wall 26 years ago, the Syrians leading our Refugee Voices Tour hope they can eventually make their country whole again, says Alafandi, a former journalist from Aleppo.

"There's always hope with us...that we can make a change," Alafandi, 23, tells the group. "This is the point of the tour -- that all of you now will know more information. You will all have to tell others."

We aren't your typical tour group. All of 30 of us (including two CNET reporters and CNET photographer Andrew Hoyle) signed up over Facebook or Meetup to connect -- on a basic, human level -- with refugees who made it to Germany after fleeing for their lives.

Watch this: Road Trip 2016: Refugees in Germany turn to tech to make a new home

"I started going to things like this so I could meet nice people," says Luisa Brenta, who's "over 50" and relocated to Berlin from Italy. Brenta knows what it feels like to live in a strange country with a different language and culture. It's why she looks to meet refugees of a certain age.

"I thought, maybe these people just need somebody to talk to," Brenta tells us. "I'm in a funny position. Because I'm old, they trust me."

Journey's end

Millions of refugees and migrants fled to Europe from the Middle East and Africa last year, creating a humanitarian crisis that's spread throughout the European Union. Hundreds of thousands of them remain stuck in squalid refugee camps in Greece, France and Serbia, blocked from traveling farther by bureaucracy and closed borders.

Many hope to reach Germany.

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Claudia Langeheine (left) was appointed head of Berlin's State Office for Refugee Affairs in August.

Shara Tibken/CNET

Last year alone, nearly 1.1 million people registered for asylum in the country, Germany's Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters in January.

They are the lucky ones, who've reached the end of their journey. But now they have to fit into German society. That involves finding a place to live, learning German, getting a job and embracing a new culture.

Claudia Langeheine, president of Berlin's Landesamt für Flüchtlingsangelegenheiten [State Office for Refugee Affairs], ticks off just a few of the issues her office faces: "The children have to get an education, young people need the right [training] to get proper jobs and young women will live their own lives here in Germany," says Langeheine. "How do you go about ensuring they can, how do you help them become German, meet Germans, and partake in society and culture?"

A friend who could explain things would help. But few Germans have met refugees, and refugees don't find it easy to meet Germans.

Refugee camps and city walls show words of hope, anger

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That's where technology makes a difference. The German government, aid organizations and volunteers have created apps, websites and online resources to help immigrants learn the language, navigate German society and make German friends. The government's Ankommen [Arrival] app, for example, explains the complex asylum process and provides basic German phrases. The HelpTo site helps refugees find language tutors, childcare and trips to the doctor. The Let's Integrate website makes it easy for Germans and refugees to meet each other and become friends.

More than any country CNET reporters visited for our special report on tech and the refugee crisis, Germany and its people are using tech to help immigrants become part of their communities.

First, connect

That's definitely the aim of Berlin's ReDI School of Digital Integration, set up specifically for "tech-interested newcomers applying for asylum in Germany," according to its website. "We realized that amongst the newcomers there are incredible IT-talents eager to learn, who want to contribute to Germany's society and who could help fill the 43,000 open IT-jobs in Germany."

Khaled Alaswad, 25, spotted a Facebook post about the ReDI school not long after he arrived in October. He already had some basic computing skills from his renewable energy classes at Damascus University, and didn't particularly want to learn to code. What he did want more than anything was to make German friends.

"They said there will be volunteers, Germans, and I thought it's my opportunity to meet some locals and talk to them face-to-face," Alaswad says, hesitating slightly as he seeks the right English words. He came face-to-face with Lasse Landt, who had gone to the ReDI building on Prinzessinnenstrasse expressly to meet refugees.


Lasse Landt (left) and Khaled Alaswad met at the ReDI School of Digital Integration and built a website, Let's Integrate, to help connect Germans and refugees.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

"I asked myself, 'How can it be that everybody feels overburdened [by refugees] if nobody has ever seen one?'" says Landt, 37, who coaches startups for investment firm KIC InnoEnergy. "It was really mind boggling."

Landt offered to teach German to Alaswad, who promised to teach Arabic in return. They're now good friends. "Lasse helped me to find an apartment, and he's always with me when I face a problem," Alaswad said. "The friendship means [a lot]."

The two want other Germans and Syrians to make the same human-level connection they did. In May, they and two others cofounded, funded and built Let's Integrate, a website that makes it easy for locals and refugees to meet and talk to each other.

The site works like this: Locals sign up to meet, say, Wednesday at 7 p.m. Let's Integrate shows five pre-approved meeting places, with Arabic and English translations. Once a refugee picks the spot, the site sends everyone the details in German, Arabic and English.

"There seems to be an invisible barrier between the refugee side and the local side, and that is what we wanted to tear down," Landt said.

So far, Let's Integrate has arranged about 250 meetups in Berlin. It will expand to Frankfurt and Hamburg next month.

What do you need?

Ruba Naser, 25, originally hoped to join her brother in Hamburg when she and her husband left their home in Syria. Instead, the government sent the couple to Potsdam (population 160,000), which is known throughout Germany for its culture of tolerance.

She's happy to be here, thanks in large part to Iris Manner, 50, a social worker with aid organization World Vision who's now a close friend. They get together once a week, chat on WhatsApp almost every day -- especially now that Naser's about to have a baby -- and sometimes cook together. Naser, who previously taught Arabic to children in Aleppo, now gives Arabic lessons to Manner and a few others. Manner helps Nasser manage the ins and outs of the country's bureaucracy.

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Ruba Naser fled Syria with her husband and now lives in Potsdam. She's studying German to resume her career as a teacher.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

"I do feel more welcome here," Naser says. "It's not just the paperwork. You could have some kind of social worker who'll work with you. But it's when you have friends to give you the advice, that's the thing."

She also benefited from a new online service called HelpTo. Like on Craigslist, people and groups post items and services they're donating (clothes, furniture, rides or even class tuition). Refugees ask for the sort of help they'd normally turn to friends for, such as childcare, trips to a doctor's office, tutoring or advice finding jobs.

The website encourages locals and refugees to meet in person.

"We realized there is a need for some kind of digital connection to bring it all together," says Sebastian Gillwald, HelpTo's project coordinator. "This is actually where integration [into German society] starts."

Heavy lifting

Nearly every country in Europe has struggled to process the onslaught of requests for asylum they've received. Germany is no different.

Last October, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (also known as BAMF) took drastic action: It ditched the pen-and-paper systems used to register refugees -- different in every state -- and digitized the entire process. BAMF created Germany's first centralized database of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers. In just three months.

"Sixty different software developers worked 18 to 20 hours a day," says Kausik Munsi, head of BAMF's software development. "I slept two hours a night."


The German government's Ankommen app helps refugees adjust to the country and walks them through the asylum process.

Katie Collins/CNET

The new system includes passport scanners, high-res cameras and digital fingerprinting, all cross referenced in the central database. Registering someone now takes two to three minutes instead of days. More important, the government now can approve or reject asylum status in 48 hours. Easy cases can be decided in a day. Asylum seekers previously waited an average of seven or eight months to learn the decision.

BAMF has processed 600,000 applications so far this year, double what it handled in 2015.

The agency also created the Ankommen mobile app to help newcomers during their first few weeks in Germany. New arrivals get detailed descriptions of the steps in the asylum process, and learn about the rights they now have as refugees, as women and for religious freedom.

"It was very important to understand what asylum seekers want and need to know," says Zakia Chlili, project manager for the app.

The Ankommen app has been downloaded 174,000 times, more than any other app designed for refugees in Germany, she said.

Bureaucratic hell

Despite the improved asylum-granting process, German bureaucracy is a nightmare even for those who speak the language. For non-native speakers, navigating a seemingly endless trail of paperwork for social benefits, health care and a place to live can feel like hell.

This isn't an overstatement. Ghaith Zamrik, 19, spent two months chasing down the people to talk to and the paperwork to present just to move into an apartment. The Syrian student needed permission to leave his shelter, a contract with his flatmates, a separate contract between his flatmates and the apartment owners, a letter from the owners saying they're willing to rent to a refugee, and a letter from his bank.

This German youth center helps refugees connect and create

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Someone in Berlin's social office now had to OK everything: He made an appointment, arrived at 7:30 a.m. for his 10 a.m. meeting -- and found a notice to report to a different building. He took a bus to the new location and waited until 1 p.m., when he was put on a bus back to the first building. He finally got approval at 4 p.m.

In response, he and five other Syrians applied the skills they learned at ReDI School to create Bureaucrazy. The app, still in development, will translate the most essential forms into Arabic and English, provide a map of important places in Berlin, and include a list of frequently asked questions.

"If the app was available then, I wouldn't have had to figure out all this information," Zamrik says.

Germany's bureaucracy is so complex, Zamrik thinks locals would want to use Bureaucrazy too.


No European country has received as many requests for asylum as Germany, according to the UN. That fact -- combined with news of violent crimes, like the wave of sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year's Eve -- has sparked a backlash against Chancellor Angela Merkel's "open door" policy.

Earlier this month, the right-wing Alternative for Germany party ousted Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party from power in Berlin.

"If I could, I would go back in time to be better prepared for the refugee crisis in 2015, for which we were rather unprepared," Merkel said in a press conference after the election.


CNET reporters (from left) Katie Collins, Andrew Hoyle and Shara Tibken traveled across Germany to see how the country and its people are using tech to help newcomers understand and become part of German society.


For sure, the country didn't have enough people to teach German.

That's where language-learning company Babbel stepped in. The Berlin company normally charges $6.95 a month for an annual subscription to its mobile app service. Refugees can study German for free. Babbel also hosts workshops for locals wanting to teach German to refugees.

"Why do it?" Babbel CEO Markus Witte asks. "It was completely obvious we wanted to do something, needed to do something."

Unfortunately, Arabic and Farsi aren't among the 14 languages Babbel teaches. If you don't know English, you can't learn German with Babbel. Witte says adding Arabic will cost more time and money than the 450-person company has right now. "It's not trivial to crank out an Arabic-to-German course," Witte said.

Still, many refugees do know English. So to get the word out at the peak of the crisis, Babbel sent two people to Berlin's Bundesallee refugee registration center every morning. They handed out registration codes the refugees could use to register and download the app for free.

"Here in this building for a few months, there were people from Babbel showing refugees how to use the apps, and so they can show their friends and [have] a snowball effect," says Langeheine, head of Berlin's State Office for Refugee Affairs.


An exhibit at the East Side Gallery shows photos of the devastation in Syria.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Today, Babbel works with government agencies, aid organizations and shelter owners to distribute registration codes and show refugees how to use the app. Babbel has handed out more than 12,000 free registrations since January.

Our Refugees Voices tour wraps up two hours later in Gendarmenmarkt, one of the prettiest squares in Berlin. Violinists and cellists fill the air with chamber music while sitting in front of the Konzerthaus, on the edge of the square.

"It's a nice way to tell [Syrians'] story to the rest of us and, hopefully, remove this fear of refugees that some media and political parties are trying to spread," says Houria, a 27-year-old Algerian who's in Berlin for a local software company's graduate program and didn't want to provide a last name.

We thought so, too.