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Somali asylum seeker volunteers in local German fire brigade

Yusuf puts experience gained from two conflicts to good use as a volunteer firefighter in Fürstenwalde.

Somali refugee and volunteer firefighter Yusuf, 37, dons his uniform at the fire station in the town of Fürstenwalde, eastern Germany.  © UNHCR/Christian Mang
Somali refugee and volunteer firefighter Yusuf, 37, dons his uniform at the fire station in the town of Fürstenwalde, eastern Germany. © UNHCR/Christian Mang

When people are in need of help... I am in the right place to provide it.

 In the vehicle bay of Fürstenwalde-Mitte fire station, a young volunteer checks the gears of a large fire engine. Yusuf Abdirahim, a 37-year-old asylum-seeker, knows what he is doing. He has been a member of this brigade for almost as long as he has been in Germany.

Volunteer firefighters like him come to the station in Fürstenwalde, a small town an hour’s drive from Berlin, for training once a week. An instructor named Sebastian is asking each of them to explain how the equipment functions.

Yusuf has already completed a basic training course called ‘Truppmann 1’, but before he can go on his first real rescue or firefighting mission, he must pass more exams and improve his German. In emergency situations, knowing how to communicate effectively can mean the difference between life and death.

However, Yusuf is no stranger to danger, or to working in the service of others.

Born in Somalia, he and his family fled the conflict to Yemen when he was only 11. There, he attended school and started a family before joining the Yemen Red Crescent Society in 2011, for which he distributed medical aid.

“When people are in need of help at a certain time and I am in the right place to provide it, this makes me happy,” he said.

Then, in 2014, Yusuf was forced to flee again, this time to escape being forcibly recruited into Yemen’s own conflict. After a long journey, he arrived in Germany in July 2015 – but his wife and two children are still trapped in Yemen.

With his experience as a volunteer, it seemed natural for Yusuf to put himself forward for service in Germany. When his German teacher suggested the idea of the volunteer fire brigade, he jumped at the chance. It has also helped Yusuf. Not a man who likes to sit still, the voluntary work challenges him and helps to ease his worries about his family for a few hours. Today, his German is better than his English and he can talk with his colleagues freely.

And he has already played a key role. Last year, the local fire brigade was repeatedly called to accommodation centres for asylum-seekers in Stahnsdorf and Oranienburg because residents were accidentally setting off the fire alarms. Yusuf was able to explain to them in Arabic and Somali how the alarm system worked, as well as where the assembly points and escape routes were in case of fire. In fact, he has made such a difference that the ‘Ohne Blaulicht’ (Without the Blue Light) project, organized by the Brandenburg Fire Brigade Association with government funding, will now be extended to other accommodation centres.

Jörn Müller, fire chief in Fürstenwalde, has been happy to welcome Yusuf and other newcomers into his brigade. “We are grateful for their support,” added Hans-Ulrich Hengst, Mayor of Fürstenwalde.

Hartmut Ziebs, President of the German Fire Brigade Association, is also a strong supporter of Germany’s 3,000 refugee firefighters and the positive impact they have had, calling such integration efforts “important and meaningful”.

The country’s voluntary fire brigades, with their 1.1 million members, are deeply rooted in German society, especially in the countryside. They have the ability to form bonds between newcomers and locals unlike any other organization and are a place to learn German and establish contacts that can help new arrivals find work and become financially independent.

Yusuf will receive his new firefighter’s uniform, a sturdy, sand-coloured protective suit with red reflective strips that is tailored to his measurements. The firefighter in charge of allocating uniforms adds a helmet and safety boots to Yusuf’s equipment – an investment in those members of the brigade “who have proven themselves”, he said and smiled.

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