Give Something Back To Berlin: Tackling the expat divide

Give Something Back To Berlin (GSBTB) is an urban organisation, set up just over two years ago, that’s aim is to strengthen social cohesion throughout Berlin. When new creative talent and refugees began to enter the city, there was becoming something of fallout- between old Berliner’s and the new cohort coming in.  Together with social organisations, GSBTB, enables the two groups to mix through social programmes, activates and music projects and hopes to close the rift.

Berlin, Germany- The term Gentrification has become something of a buzzword  in Berlin. People evicted from their homes as they can no longer pay the soaring rent due to the flock of the now notorious ‘creative hipster’ that comes to the city in search of a cheap property  haven. Young people fly in from all over the world to study, explore and live in the new creative Mecca. It’s not hard to see why expats have now become public enemy number one, as they float through the city uninterested on the effect they’ve created on some communities that have been displaced.

In 2012, a spontaneous Facebook page was created by two Swedish expats, a DJ and a Journalist, addressing the rising tensions in the city and from there GSBTB  flourished. Euroviews went down to their office to ask project manager Lucy Thomas, about its mission and future goals.

If there are tensions between two groups, locals and expats, are you just not escalating the feelings by forcing them to be together?

“No, we see it as a process of sensitising these ‘old Berliner’s’- it has to be done slowly. There’s still a lot of political and social problems here in Berlin (some extremely poor areas and some becoming too rich) so by helping expats get involved in projects, the locals won’t feel to pressured and slowly but quietly they will fit into the cracks of German society. We want to create a natural gravitation; inviting people to come and meet, we merely facilitate.”

Is this not wishful thinking?

“Well not always, sometimes the expats don’t even make it past the two year mark. They come, start up their business or whatever, see the huge competition and move elsewhere. Global migrants also coming in are no different; people all come to Berlin to do the same thing- usually something creative so by nature people should be able to get along. Through our education programme as well, for example we teach people about the wall, the European Union, and English we hope people want to become more socially aware and enabled.”

Is this a German problem then you have to tackle?

“Sometimes Germany is inherently less open to some people and nationalities, but on the whole especially Berlin, people are becoming very open minded. More than anything we see this is a social opportunity, to actively engage and change people- I mean Berlin especially, has this unique ability to be divided and wonderfully welcome at the same time.”


The ethos sounds great but what have you actually done?

“Well we’ve carried out over fifty extremely varied projects, with over 400 volunteers from 35 different countries- these include musical programmes, and we once had a project as well where volunteers built a sensory wall at an elderly home in Kreuzberg. Our first project was one of my favourites, collaboration with a project called ‘Streets of Berlin’ in which we made a documentary about young Iranian’s living on the streets. Media attention has also been flattering, as now German, Swiss and UK media are beginning to promote the potential social good of integration in their cities.”

How are you going to stay sustainable and not run out of steam a couple of months down the line?

“Well we’re very careful with our projects we create, it’s easy to paint a picture of ‘this is great and this is going to happen’ but with most of short term projects we strive for longevity in the sense people will want to come back, mix with one another and maybe go on to do something of their own. Also many of the people have great skills and talent anyway- sustainability, sensitivity and education are my mantras!”

Lucy project manager with a GSBTB volunteer.
Lucy, project manager with a GSBTB volunteer.

But, is there no one else doing this?

“Well oddly enough, no, before GSBTB there was no other organisation of these sorts trying to do something with the huge potential that is floating round the city, especially on a level with Berliner’s themselves. We’ve also developed our own volunteering projects based around language, food and music.”

How exactly do you stay afloat financially?

“Well we’ve applied for twelve difference funding applications from various organisations, including the ministry for migration and refugees. We’ve also been nominated for so many social awards including a social impact Lab (SAP) scholarship for social innovation, and they come with financial rewards. But one of the problems is that because we’ve hit the ground running in such a short space of time, people assume we’re already funded- at the end of the day we still have no real money, none of us take a salary.”

What about influence on a political level?

“Yes, there’s also interest at government level, so we get funding from the Berlin council and we’ve applied for EU funding from a German foundation that invest in small social organisations.”

But then, do the government organisations not influence GSBTB decisions and moves?

“Well the politicians have finally realised they need to get involved with issues like refugees, more in particularly economic migrants, at some level.  More than anything they want to help and get engaged in the problem, yes, using it for their own political means but at least doing something helpful in the process, a change to some that hold a complete no rhetoric to refugees.”

Has it been successful so far?

“Oh, I’d say absolutely, in fact we have too many volunteers at the moment, for each position we receive eight applicants- we’ve almost outgrowing ourselves. I’ve just spent the past week writing up another block of projects and it is go, go, go!”

Well thank you for speaking to Euroviews!

Check out the Give Something Back To Berlin website: 

*Picture courtesy of Give Something Back to Berlin