Survival stories: fresh start

Over the past year I have met many people who have sadly lost everything and are now trying to start again. The challenges they face and the coping strategies used to overcome them are well worth sharing because we can gain inspiration and ideas for strengthening our own resilience, thereby increasing our own capacity for happiness.

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Saturday’s final of the Eurovision reminded me that exactly one year ago I was enjoying last year’s Song Contest in the host city of Vienna. The week-long visit included numerous stadium visits, EURO-clubbing, hanging out with the UK Contestants in our hotel bar, a little sight-seeing and a whole lot of fun. In between all this, whilst recovering in the luxury double-king-sized bed ordering room service, we watched the news to see what was going on in the real world. Most of it was about the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Europe and I was dismayed to see hundreds of large tents going up in Austria to provide shelter for the refugees arriving in their thousands every day. If Austria couldn’t afford proper accommodation then what hope did the rest of Europe have? At that moment I decided that this was an all-hands-on-deck matter and that I would do whatever I could to help. I got back home to Berlin and signed up to „Refugees Welcome“ an organisation placing refugees in homes and flat-shares with people all over Germany. A few days later a young, pregnant, Nigerian woman arrived on our doorstep. She’d just spent several days in hospital because she was bleeding after spending 48 hrs in the back of a lorry from Greece and she desperately needed a safe place to recover before registering with the authorities. With just the clothes on her back and a few items in a plastic bag she walked into our lives and turned everything we thought we knew, completely on its head..

For sure, my life has changed since then and one year later I am working in a refugee camp near the Czech-German border that provides overnight accommodation for up to 5000 refugees at a time. I live nearby the camp in a very small, simple hotel room with no facilities – no more luxury 5-star hotel for me! In the absence of a mini-bar my „fridge“ is a bag that I hang out of my small window to keep a few basic food items cool and in the evenings my colleagues gather together around an electric kettle to cook pasta to be served in one big Tupperware pot that gets passed around with a spoon. (Actually I exaggerate – we each have our own spoon). But you know what? We couldn’t be happier. I feel stronger than ever and better able to cope with what life throws at me (and there is always something to deal with!) and I put it down to the people I have met on this journey, not only the refugees but also the thousands of people helping refugees and also each other.

The impact of 1 million people arriving in a country has been remarkable and we have Angela Merkel to thank for giving an entire country the opportunity to renew their faith in humankind. Everyone I know is involved in helping; donating clothes, teaching German, volunteering at one of the hundreds of emergency accommodation, hosting dinner parties and starting up innovative projects to grow friendships and support integration (for example, my project training refugee women to cycle :-) Through these activities we overcome fears and prejudices that exist in ourselves and in our communities. We have learned to trust our fellow human beings again. The very people often described as cockroaches and scroungers in populist media are actually good role models. They are sources of strength and voices of reason because they posses an extraordinary capacity for picking themselves up off the ground time and again after experiencing some of the worst circumstances life can throw at a person. The challenges they face and the coping strategies used to overcome them are well worth sharing because we can gain inspiration and ideas for strengthening our own resilience, thereby increasing our own capacity for happiness.

There will always be a few idiots (and worse) in any group. However - and just as with any group of people - the vast majority will be kind, generous, funny, talented, intelligent, thinking and caring people. And it is these people’s stories I want to share. The stories of normal human beings. No amount of books or articles could help me see things so clearly for the first time so I really recommend you to stop reading right now and sign up to a volunteer project to help people in need. Or start up your own community project because you won’t regret it. I will be sharing the stories of my new friends and how, despite enormous amounts of tragedy and sadness, we are getting back in touch with the things that really matter.

Katie Griggs

Manager, Home for Refugees in Berlin

Working life began aged 14 in a local pub kitchen on Saturdays followed by a position as waitress at Pizza Hut one year later. Part-time work (WHSmiths, Somerfield, HSBC) continued throughout A'levels and University before landing a full-time position at Richard Branson's newly launched Virgin Finance company in Norwich. A few years later London was calling: a job in marketing at Sky TV awaited. After another few years there, it was time to move away from corporate life so the Amex-card, the car, the phone and laptop were exchanged for a bicycle and second-hand computer. Ten years of self-employed work followed - in London and Berlin with a portfolio of clients in organisations with a social, cultural and environmental focus including Greenpeace, an electric car company and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Then in 2015, 100,000 refugees arrived in Berlin requiring all-hands-on-deck. That included working in several huge emergency camps, hosting refugees at home and setting up Cycling Lessons for Ladies: providing cycling tuition for women refugees in the milder months and in the Winter preparing food together for homeless people at an emergency shelter. So far over 14,000 meals have been prepared as a team. In 2017, a diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of 41 meant there was even more to learn about life (and also time to launch a fundraising initiative "Cancer Care for Aleppo"). Returned to work at Friends of the Earth, as a project manager of environmental projects designed by refugees to finish that project. October 2018 started working for Berlin government managing a home for refugees.