When Daniel Schöning moved to downtown Iserlohn, Germany with his wife, he never thought that he would end up founding an organization to help hundreds of refugees. But as he settled into his new home directly across from a refugee camp, over time, he got to know his neighbors.
“They always asked us for some [simple] help, like, ‘where can I find a doctor,’” he said. As more people moved into the community, Daniel and his wife came up with the idea of other local families “adopting” refugee families to help them acclimate to life in Germany. By the time the refugee crisis was in full swing in 2014, Daniel and his wife had already established LebensWERT Iserlohn e.V., an integration organization which roughly translates to “Livable Iserlohn.”
“We couldn’t cover all the refugees which came, but we had the system [in which] we paired about 800 or 900 refugees with about 100 citizens,” said Daniel. “There were like 1200 refugees coming to [Iserlohn], so it was quite a bit of the overall number.”
Because of his organization’s work, Daniel was selected to participate in the Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange (WCTE), a program that brings together Americans and Germans who work with refugee communities. This year, 41 participants are traveling to each other’s countries to exchange ideas about best practices in welcoming and integrating refugees.
Through WCTE, Daniel traveled to Anchorage and Boston, while other German participants visited Charlotte and Montgomery County, Maryland. Daniel said he was struck by what U.S. cities were doing—given the German stereotype that Americans don’t care about refugees. He was particularly impressed by Anchorage’s program which teaches refugees and migrants about the U.S. political system.
“They want the refugees to be able to understand how the administration works and also how they can get involved. How they can raise their own voice,” said Daniel. “It’s something I’d really like to see in our city. ”
This isn’t Daniel’s first time learning through cultural exchange on a Cultural Vistas program. A baker by trade, he spent 18 months living in Madison, Wisconsin and interning in a German bakery after graduating from trade school. He says this international experience was crucial to him getting hired to teach at a vocational college at the young age of 22.
Teaching baking is still Daniel’s day job. Despite its growing size, running LebensWERT is something Daniel and his wife do on a volunteer basis. Sometimes his work intersects— as when he taught a baking class designed for refugees at his vocational school.
In general, LebensWERT has become more focused on job training. The needs of the refugee community have changed the longer they live in Iserlohn, from getting furniture for their new apartments to finding sustainable employment in their new city.
Though Daniel’s organization has helped hundreds of refugees adjust to living in Iserlohn, he rarely considers his accomplishments because there’s still so much work to do. Being invited to attend WCTE made him realize how much the city appreciated his contributions.
“It makes me feel good to know that we’re making a difference by helping people and doing something for our community,” he said. “I have two kids and I want them to live in a community where people know each other and care for each other. I think they see an example of how to do this.”
Inspired by what he saw in Anchorage, Daniel hopes that, in the future, refugees will feel connected to Iserlohn and care about the city as a whole. “I hope that they are interested in getting a political voice,” he said. “That they get [involved] in the city and make it a better place.”
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