A city opens up

Even before the first refugees arrived, a welcoming culture was ready in Münster-Sarmsheim. In the meantime, the community has welcomed 140 people – and many citizens have had more active contact than ever before.

Text: Benno Stieber
Photos: Jochen Sand
Published in Enorm-Magazin 06 / 2016


When you ask Nicola Frowein what is most urgently needed for setting up a refugee initiative like hers, she says with her calm, resolute voice: “Patience and humour”. Google’s translations, for example, are often the only way to communicate with newcomers: The other day she wanted to recommend sage tea to a woman in a refugee shelter for her cold via Whats app. She still doesn’t know what the automatic translation assistant has made of it: “In any case, all the men in the dormitory laughed a lot”.

Münster-Sarmsheim, two small towns united to a so-called associated municipality between Rhine and Nahe. When in autumn of 2014 the first refugees were accompanied by reports of xenophobic protests and arson attacks, Roland Beek, Nicola Frowein and a circle of alert citizens wanted to help make things run differently here. They organized preparatory evenings for interested citizens and searched for local apartments for refugees and they founded WIMS, “Welcome in Münster-Sarmsheim”. Soon the first refugees came from Syria and Eritrea, and shortly afterwards many more came. And it occurred what in many places happened: Idealism turned into practical help in life.

Roland Beek sits in the kitchen of the Froweins with a cup of tea. He tells of the beginnings when “twenty helpers only tampered with four refugees”. For the four they quickly had an apartment, furniture and clothes. They took them to the festivities in the village.

With 140 refugees now living on the outskirts of the village, it is no longer that easy. He has learned a lot, Beek reports. Teenagers came from Morocco, they had relatives in Bonn, they didn’t want to be integrated at all. Or Zacharia, who had already become a friend to many in the village, suddenly left because he had found a job somewhere else. Small and sometimes bigger disappointments, with which also the helpers had to cope. “These are just normal people who come to us.”

Now the refugee shelter is a former hotel on the outskirts of the city. The original integration concept with everyone owning his own flat in the middle of the village has terminated. But the circle of supporters has lost nothing of its momentum. Because something has been achieved that is perhaps much more difficult. The fugitives have changed Münster-Sarmsheim. A good example of this is the clothes-bank.

The core of the community is a posh village square. A bakery is still located here, many winegrowers and one or two guesthouses. But supermarkets or even shops could never make it here. Only a few months ago, the local bank closed its branch and switched completely to cash machines.

“Our luck” says Judith Thorn. The elegantly dressed woman stands in the middle of tons of clothes. T-shirts, shirts, children’s dresses, jeans and jackets pile up in the former store rooms. They turned the safe into a changing room with a curtain at it`s front.

Don’t call it “dressing room”, Judith Thorn makes clear. This is the “clothes-bank”.  It is there for everyone, no matter whether you are refugee or not. For a small donation everyone gets clothes here. And because many draw their money at the machines in the lobby of clothes bank, the inhibition level sinks to have a look. Everyone in the village is there, bringing clothes and helping out, says Thorn.

“The refugees are meaningful for our village,” says Philipp Erdmann, who is currently setting up shelves in the clothing bank. “Ya know,” he says in this Rhein-Hessischer Singsang, “we have lived here in the village for forty years and I`ve never had so many contacts as now. Erdmann trained as an integration pilot and learned how to treat fugitives with respect but without false shyness. He lets the semi-assembled shelf be a shelf for a moment and tells us a story: From his father, who escaped from Pomerania after the 2nd world war and had wished to return to it all his life. That had always burdened him, his son. “I would like to contribute a little to making these people really arrive,” he says.

Back in the kitchen of Nicola Frowein. Mohammad Altaian and his wife Noor are here for tea. They were among the first to arrive here. In Aleppo they had a textile factory with 42 employees. Noor speaks English fluently, Mohammad can communicate in German. Their four children go to school and kindergarten, and the initiative was able to find them an apartment. For the Froweins, they have become friends. Henriette, Nicola Frohwein’s four-year-old daughter, has pushed herself onto her mother’s lap. She asks a question that is also asked by adults:  “Mama, how much longer is Mohammad a refugee?”

June, 15th 2016, 13:00 pm

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