Asta Borusevičiūtė from Lithuania has been living in Hamburg, Germany, for five years and has been very emotionally involved, along with the entire country, in the ongoing refugee crisis. "I live on this subject. In my circles, everyone's doing something for them [refugees]. I almost feel guilty for not finding time to help out," the young woman tells DELFI, adding that she plans to volunteer at a charity processing office.
Asta Borusevičiūtė

Borusevičiūtė, 33, was working as a reporter in Lithuania, but switched to public relations and teaching in Germany. She agreed to talk to DELFI in part to provide more balance to how the refugee crisis is being reported on in the Lithuanian media.

What are you doing for refugees and why do you say you cannot get rid of a feeling of guilt?

I must admit that I have so far done little, while everyone else around me is doing really much and voluntarily. A friend of mine is teaching German once a week at a refugee centre. Another friend regularly goes to a charity collection point and sorts out clothes; one day, they had to stop taking charity, because they couldn't process donated things fast enough.

Other people volunteer in stations, they meet refugees, help them find their way around, get assistance. There are many examples like that - people in my environment are very active, they take part in various initiatives, go to rallies against intolerance for the refugees. I keep seeing on Facebook my friends doing something useful, which makes me feel somewhat uneasy for not having done much yet. Hence the sense of guilt, but I am ready to go to a centre nearby and help to sort clothes donated for the refugees.

How has Hamburg changed since the start of the refugee crisis? An exhibition centre has been converted into a major temporary shelter. What's the situation there and around?

I actually live close to this main reception centre which is in the city centre. I see daily what is going on there and, which makes me very happy, I see a lot of positivity. A supermarket set aside an entire floor, installed an internet zone, refugees can surf the net there, people have donated computers. Toiletry retailers invite customers to buy and donate toiletries. People in general organize and infect others with the desire to join in.

Recently, a team of 50 hairdressers offered free haircuts to refugees. Amazing! This Saturday, people are organizing a huge outdoor grill party with events for kids; everyone's invited, refugees and locals. Everything is for free, because there are companies willing to pay for food and drinks. The goal is to bring everyone together rather than segregate the poor refugees and the good Germans with a fence.

Asta Borusevičiūtė
Asta Borusevičiūtė
© Asmeninio albumo nuotr.

On social media, I see people sharing their experiences from the "Invite a refugee for dinner" campaign. Not only do they help people, they have a great time, because among these people who are fleeing hardship there are many who are well-educated, who have interesting experiences.

Is there anyone willing to have a refugee live in their home?

I just saw a news story yesterday about just such an initiative. I think about a thousand people answered the call.

What about yourself?

I thought about it. I do not have the possibility right now as I live in a one-room apartment. If I had two rooms... It's hard to say anything... The first thought was - of course I would take someone in! But would I really... After all, it's not as easy to live with someone, even if it's a person you know. I think such doubts are normal.

You mentioned that, in general, Germans surprised you. How?

From my experience, Germans are very cautious people. When you treat them with a Lithuanian candy, they get suspicious. They try it, but I watch their expression - it seems like something bad is about to happen. But everything is OK, so then they take another one more willingly (laughs).

Back during the Greek debt crisis, they were really annoyed, they complained a lot, but it's completely different with the refugees.

It is possible that Germans were shaken by a neo-nazi anti-refugee rally in Heidenau in August. Media abroad picked this up as a sign that all Germans were hostile towards refugees. At least people I know got angry and took initiative to show that Germans were not hostile at all.

I get a sense that this refugee crisis is uniting Germans, they start taking pride in their country. It's quite unusual - people are proud of being Germans mostly due to achievements in football. What they see now - people donating food, clothes, offering help to arriving refugees - gives them this feeling. There are many social media posts like: "I am proud of my country" or "I am proud of our people".

Haven't you met any sceptics who fear that ISIS militants might get into the country or the strain on public finances?

There are those, too. I recently spoke to a friend who was really sceptical and anxious. I myself sometimes start doubting if the country will manage, seeing the growing numbers of arriving people. But when it comes to the fear of Islam, I don't think there's much of that in Germany.

Those who fear the Islamic State do not need to look for enemies among refugees - so many men from Germany and other Western countries went to fight to Syria! There is a problem, but we shouldn't put that on refugees. There's perhaps more scepticism about whether Germany's generosity might not turn against it; whether the newcomers will not start exploiting the welfare system. I think that caution is a German national trait.

Asta Borusevičiūtė
Asta Borusevičiūtė
© Asmeninio albumo nuotr.

What about Lithuanians in Germany? Do they have different views?

I do not interact with that many Lithuanians so I cannot make generalizations, but I recently had an argument about it with an acquaintance. His arguments were: "Look, those who come are mostly young men that get into fights and cause disturbances, and their goal is to live on benefits." Then I told him: "Hold on, honey, what are you yourself doing here? Where's your wife and family? You also came on your own. You're essentially a refugee as well, only you're a legal economic migrant." I tried to explain to him that if that's his view, he should have stayed in Lithuania rather than live on German benefits for quite a long time. The discussion ended soon.

What opinions do you encounter when you come back to Lithuania - to Vilnius or your home town Naujoji Akmenė?

When I last visited Lithuania, that was before the big debate started. My family does not talk about that very much. And no one has much fears for my own sake - they all probably think that Germany is such a big and powerful country that there will be enough room for everyone. In fact, the refugees might be a lifebuoy. I recently saw a news story about refugees in eastern Germany where, as everyone knows, villages are depopulating, much like in Lithuania. Apparently, one refugee family resettled in one such village rescued a school. It was about to be closed down, but refugee kids filled the classes and the school remains open. I sometimes think that such cases are of relevance to depopulating Lithuanian towns like Naujoji Akmenė.

But one should not perhaps look at this through rosy glasses. There are always those who abuse the system.

Sure, there are people who do not want to work and who exploit the crisis, but I do not believe they make up the majority. Let's look instead at how many want to start learning the language and working as soon as possible, only they are not allowed. True, not everyone will be successfully integrated. There are enough Turkish people in Germany who refuse to learn German. While I was working at the Order of Malta, I met a Kurdish man who had performed civil service. He refused to clean the oven because, in his culture, men did not do that. On the other hand, I am not sure every Lithuanian would willingly do such chores. So I do not wish to idealize anything, but I hope that we will help people in distress and some of them will return to their homeland once the situation is better there.

Hamburg is Germany's second-biggest city with a population of 1.8m and a reputation for multiculturalism. How did you get used to such diversity?

It took time to get used to it, but that's only normal, I think. After all, I had spent most of my life, 28 years, in Lithuania where you hardly ever see a person of a different race. In some sense, I needed time, although I had never been sceptical about other races or other cultures. Sometimes you find yourself sitting in a metro train, hearing a multitude of languages and not a single German word. Welcome to Hamburg! If I started speaking Lithuanian - wouldn't that make for a nice map (laugs). Although it took some time to adapt, I realized that all this multikulti was an enriching thing.

You're an immigrant yourself. What is your personal experience of being an immigrant in Germany?

As a Lithuanian - rather than Pole, Romanian or Bulgarian - I feel well here. If Germans see that you study German, you do not distance yourself, you look for contact, communicate, that you care to understand how they live and live alike, then Germans will be friendly to you, there's a contact.

There aren't many Lithuanians here, which makes things easier for me. Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians have tougher time - they are more numerous and have a not at all impeccable reputation. Unfortunately, Lithuanians must be in the same position in the UK or Norway. In Hamburg, when I say I'm from Lithuania, people usually share their experience of visiting Lithuania, positive reactions. So I'm lucky in that sense.

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