Words by Jenny Kohn
Before I actually went to do art with refugee kids with Hangar 1 at Tempelhof, I vaguely expected it to feel like I was Volunteering with Refugees. I thought it might make me sad. I thought I would feel sorry for the children living in an airport hangar. I thought it would be heavy.
I wasn’t entirely wrong. To get into the complex, you have to go through a security checkpoint, which was no hassle compared to the bureaucratic hoops the incredible, indefatigable Hangar 1 founders have jumped and continue to jump through to make these playdates happen. But it was a reminder that refugees in Germany are not as safe and as welcome as they should be.
The hangar is cavernous and concrete. Swathes of colored fabric, hung as curtains at the entry way to cabins, provide a measure of privacy and warmth in the hangar’s industrial vastness. It is clear that these are people living in extraordinary circumstances. But first-time volunteers expecting kids who seem like refugees, whatever that means, will be disappointed. These are kids, as energetic and boisterous and loud and quirky as any bunch of kids anywhere. Herding a string of wild ponies might be more exhausting. But I’m not sure about that.
The day’s craft was Hama beads, the small plastic beads you place in patterns on forms and then iron to melt permanently together. The day before the playdate, my wife, knowing how easily besotted I am by small children and animals, warned me not to get attached. No warning could have been more futile, but then it would take a steely heart indeed to resist the plentiful charms of this bunch, who greet strangers by hugging them; who not only speak fluently in German, but break into occasional spontaneous rap; and who readily recognize that in us they have not volunteers but willing captives. One girl, impishly cute and imperious in equal measures, agreed to help her friend with her beads instead of working on her own. Nodding at the two of us volunteers, busily placing different colored beads at her direction, she reassured her friend in a witty German to match the best Berliner Schnauzer: “don’t worry, mine goes fast, I have a thousand mädels working for me.” Another kid, the littlest boy, took a sadistic amount of joy in pretending to eat the beads and watching me jump and scream in horror. Eventually I caught on to what he already knew: if he gestured in the direction of his mouth with a bead, my job was to drop whatever I was doing and tickle him.
I left sporting a manicure expertly applied by one of the girls – she let me pick the color, then went ahead and painted half my nails in other colors, because she wanted to – and with some revised expectations. If Hangar 1 is doing great work bringing joy and light into the lives of these kids, which it undoubtedly is, there is no question that those are returned tenfold. After all, the most popular bead forms – among the boys as well as the girls – were the hearts.