By OLGA SYROVA, Associated Press
BERLIN (AP) — Twenty-three-year-old Leila, her husband and two small children spent their first week in Germany in a temporary shelter, an austere but desperately needed haven after a traumatic flight from Syria that began when her husband was told to fight for the government.
Among an expected 800,000 asylum seekers flowing into Germany this year — some four times last year's count — she and her family shared a small room built in a converted covered tennis court in downtown Berlin during their first week in the country in August, furnished with three Ikea bunk beds, a small table and a small closet. They received three meals a day in a common room for the 300 refugees in the facility, and bathrooms were shared.
The setup was basic by European standards, but for Leila, who cannot forget the bodies littering the streets of the Syrian city of Aleppo, it was a fresh start.
"We were so afraid, before we came here," said Leila, who requested that her last name not be used for fear of retribution against her family still in Syria. "Now we feel comfortable because we are treated well ... We feel safe here."
The surge in migrants and refugees to Europe from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and elsewhere this year has sent countries scrambling to come up with housing — both temporary for those awaiting the outcome of asylum applications, and permanent for those allowed to stay. German authorities say they have 45,000 spots in temporary facilities for new asylum applicants — excluding tent settlements that have been hastily erected — but they need as many as 150,000.
Many European countries face similar problems, but none greater than Germany. Europe's richest economy attracted 43 percent of Europe's 400,000 asylum applications in the first half of the year — more than double the number in the same period of 2014.
The converted tennis court where Leila and her family are being housed was supposed to be closed in May, but it has been kept open to help deal with the flood of newcomers. Funded by the city, it is run by the Berlin City Mission, a Christian nonprofit organization, and staffed largely by volunteers.
Elsewhere in Berlin, portable shipping containers have been converted into small stacks of apartments to accommodate 2,400 refugees around the capital. At one in container village in southwestern Berlin, which is just opening, colorfully painted containers offer comfortable space for 300 refugees. It boasts single rooms with shared kitchens and bathrooms on each floor, as well as small flats for families, and even accommodation for the disabled.
In government and non-governmental projects around the country, former military barracks are being converted to housing, disused nursing homes are being refurbished and even small tent cities are being erected. Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has already doubled the financial assistance available to local authorities to 1 billion euros ($112 billion) and has called a meeting with state leaders in September to discuss the refugee situation further.
Some Germans have taken matters into their own hands. Last year, Berlin resident Jonas Kakoschke decided with his roommate to house a refugee in her place while she was spending six months abroad.
Kakoschke helped the refugee, a Mali-born man from Senegal, learn the language, get his paperwork done and eventually find his own apartment. Now, with the online project "Refugees Welcome" that Kakosche and his roommate founded together, they help find private placements for more new arrivals, by matching ages, language skills and other criteria.
"Many refugees say they don't have direct contact with local population and our project helps them with that," Kakoschke said.
Through July, they say they have placed 64 refugees across Germany and 34 in Austria in private apartments. There's also been reports of people across Germany who have taken in refugees on their own, but it is not clear exactly how many.