“A smile to greet you is often more important than a new pair of pants”

Tanja Schmieder © Christoph Hartmann (DR)

Refugees at the Cologne/Bonn hub © Federico Gambarini

When refugees arrive in Cologne, at the airport or at the main train station, Tanja Schmieder and other helpers are immediately on hand – voluntarily and quickly. On our site-Sternzeit, the 41-year-old talks about her work and her motivation.

On 21. September 2015, the first train carrying refugees arrived at Cologne/Bonn Airport – at what is known as the turntable. Since then, a train has been arriving every four days – with people who have mostly taken the route through the Balkans and come directly from the Austrian border. Tanja Schmieder and her team, the "City of hope Cologne" group, have set up a clothing closet at the airport in just a few months. In order to quickly provide the refugees with the most basic necessities before they continue their journey. Many of them are brought to refugee shelters by bus. Some travel on on other fist.

"Our goal is: no guest leaves our premises with wet feet," Tanja Schmieder tells this site in an interview.de. Everyone should get socks and shoes, emphasizes the 41-year-old in conversation with Hilde Regeniter.

"I do all this from the bottom of my heart"

The help makes her happy herself, says Schmieder, who used to work as a key account manager in a commercial enterprise. "In my old job, it was all about money. The refugee work has changed my thinking, and completely different values are important to me."Schmieder has hung up her old job. In addition to her volunteer work at the hub, she now works full-time at a Johanniter refugee home. "I do all this from the bottom of my heart," says the mother of a five-year-old son.

Also because the feedback she gets comes from the heart. "The reaction to our help at the airport is: ‘We are happy to have arrived in Germany and to be warmly welcomed here,’" Schmieder stressed. That’s why she wants to teach the volunteers one thing in particular during their orientation: A friendly greeting. "A smile to greet you is often more important than a new pair of pants."

"Some come with bite wounds"

Many of the people arriving at the airport are highly traumatized. Schmieder tells of parents who have lost their children on the run. "Some come with bite wounds because farmers in Bulgaria set dogs on them."Some stories are particularly memorable for the helper. Like those of a Syrian father with his five children. All five did not want to take off their wool caps under any circumstances. Because all five were wounded in the head by a barrel bomb in Aleppo. "For some, the stitches were still in the wounds."

An estimated 300 volunteers work at Cologne/Bonn Airport. But many refugees are also stranded helplessly at Cologne’s main train station. Those who continue on their own from the airport are accompanied by helpers to the main train station. And the volunteers also take care of those who arrive at the station day after day and night after night from other directions. "After all, any one of us could find ourselves in a situation where we need help," Schmieder says. "Then it’s good to have someone who says, ‘I’ll help you get on your feet’!’"

"Responsible was a minority"

Tanja Schmieder has been on duty for refugees at the main train station many nights in recent months – including on New Year’s Eve, when the assaults on women happened that are the subject of heated debate in Germany. Tanja Schmieder remembers noticing that there was a lot of chaos. The situation was very confusing and very distressing, also for the refugees. "Something like this must never happen again and the perpetrators must be held accountable," Schmieder demands.

The 41-year-old now warns against right-wing sentiment against refugees. "According to police, not only refugees were responsible for the attacks, but also Germans and, among others, a U.S. American. Organized crime groups are also at the main station every night. "A minority was responsible and that must be made clear," Schmieder emphasizes. Many refugees were ashamed that such things had happened, the helper reports.

Waiting room urgently needed

The threatening situation on New Year’s Eve brought one thing home to Schmieder once again: Helpers urgently need a protected room where refugees can wait for their connecting trains. The actual waiting room at platform 1 of the station has only 23 seats and is actually not only intended for refugees, but also for normal travelers. Therefore one is hand urgently on the search for emergency accommodations.

A model project in cooperation with the Archdiocese of Cologne was a "nice experience" there. The vicariate general had opened its conference rooms to let refugees spend the night there. Nevertheless, Schmieder emphasizes, "The best case for us would be to have a large room that is also equipped with sleeping facilities. So that people don’t have to sleep on the floor – as they do in the General Vicariate."

"Anyone can help"

At least private commitment provides a remedy. After a Facebook appeal, 33 people from Cologne spontaneously put up their guest rooms for the refugees. "You take in the refugees overnight and after breakfast it’s back to the station," Schmieder explained.

In general, volunteers can do almost nothing without Facebook. They organize themselves via a Facebook group, and there those who want to help themselves can also get information – at the hub at the airport, in the clothing warehouse, as donors of food, clothing or money, or as helpers at the main train station. "There are plenty of opportunities," says Tanja Schmieder."

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