Refugio: The Cafe Bringing Refugees & Locals Together Over Coffee

Welcome to Refugio in Berlin the empowering community
Welcome to Refugio in Berlin the empowering community | © Sharehaus Refugio / Courtesy of Sven Lager
Alice Dundon

Since 2015 Sharehaus Refugio has been providing community, support and a place of refuge for locals, newcomers and refugees. The unique Neukölln-based share house offers more than housing, it also provides its tenants and neighbours with a community that’s built on exchange. Alongside, Refugio Cafe, the fully operational cafe at the bottom of the building lends a unique opportunity to learn and grow together.

Started by Sven Lager and his wife, the idea for Refugio, was born when they were living in South Africa. They wanted to create a home where all people are valued and each person has something to offer, whether it’s a unique and creative talent, or personal insights or cultural input. Sven and his wife decided to start a share house in their community, inviting friends and strangers together to help renovate the home into a welcoming living space. The project was met with overflowing support and so the first Sharehaus was born. After relocating to Berlin they again created a warm, open Sharehaus for newcomers and locals to live and grow together. Two years on and after many lessons and changes, I spoke with Sven about Sharehaus Refugio and the unique cafe concept it houses. Here, volunteers with coffee and hospitality knowledge donate their time to passing on these skills to people living in the house or volunteering in the cafe. It’s a haven for exchanging skills, experience and cultures and through this project, founder Sven, along with Berliner Stadtmission have built an ethos of strength, faith and togetherness.

Sharehaus Refugio creates a strong community amongst newcomers and locals

Can you tell me a bit about what Sharehaus Refugio is and how it was started?

The concept for Sharehaus Refugio started in South Africa, where we worked with artists and communities to create a common space for sharing. When my wife and I moved back to Berlin with our kids we saw the biggest social challenge, but also room for potential, was the refugee crisis. We saw that if we welcome and accept refugees as equals with a valuable input into our society, we could grow together and stronger. In Sharehaus Refugio we created a place where people from all different backgrounds, locals and refugees alike, can help each other, live and share under one roof.

Can you tell me a bit about the community and energy at Refugio?

When we started Refugio, my wife, Elke and I lived in the house with all the other newcomers and locals. For me this was heaven. Many newcomers come from backgrounds and lives that are much more neighbourly and generous, so a lot of talking, cooking, eating, crying and laughing was going on. Most people who moved into Sharehaus Refugio achieved our goals, to speak German, to work or study and to have a multicultural community of friends. There were, of course, conflicts as well, but in the end, they were never religious, cultural or gender-related. Many came down to kitchen rules, trash, noise and of course love, relationships brought very human trouble that made us all learn a lot.

Friends and house residents gather on the rooftop garden at Refugio to share a meal

How has the concept and house grown since its inception?

For the first two years, we built a home and workplace for many. We used the cafe for training and building community, along with workshops about values and ethics, storytelling and by cooking together. Community life was intense and good, cultural and religious borders were overcome and although it wasn’t always easy, we grew in respect. It was also important for us that the Sharehaus Refugio is a place of everyday spirituality and living neighbourly love. This concept might sound simple, but it is a worthy value that needs discipline.

In 2017 we handed the Sharehaus over to a new team after our cooperation partner and host wanted to continue to work alone. It is now different from our original concept because the project is managed from outside and not within but still a place of sharing.

Was it difficult to say goodbye to Sharehaus Refugio?

Yes very, it was our baby and we left too early. But we did not say goodbye to our family at the Sharehaus Refugio, many have remained our friends and that makes it easier. The Sharehaus is a community, not a place.

Can you tell me a bit about who lives in the Sharehaus?

Roughly half of the people were and are former refugees, newcomers, and the other half locals. Mostly younger people but also some families from Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, Somalia, Turkey, Germany and so on.

Community meeting at the rooftop pavilion in Sharehaus Refugio

Can you tell me a bit about Refugio Cafe at the bottom of the Sharehaus?

Refugio Cafe was opened because we wanted more than just a house to live in, we wanted to share and welcome our wider community. There are few places like it and it’s a great place for learning and exchange. It turned out to be a great idea for refugees as well, to be able to host and serve guests from behind the counter and some even trained as or taught others how to be a barista in the cafe. Personally, what I always liked at the Refugio Cafe was how you can hang out and meet interesting people from all different backgrounds and experiences.

It’s such a unique idea, what made you want to include the cafe?

We started the Sharehaus, firstly so we can welcome those who had to flee, now, in our cafe, these newcomers and locals can welcome guests together.

Worker at Refugio cafe

How can people volunteer and who works there mainly?

The cafe always needed people serving, making coffee and helping with organising. The best thing to do is go in and ask the person behind the counter. The volunteers are mostly young people from all around the world, from New Zealand, Australia, Israel, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Canada, France and so on.

What are some of the other community projects you have at Refugio?

From very early on we had great partners in the house, whose work we admired and learnt a lot from. One partner, Querstadtein had already established city tours guided by former homeless, together we developed the idea to let former refugees guide guests through Berlin, it works great and is a big success! Give Something Back to Berlin also started working at the Refugio and what they do for newcomers is amazing. Their music school and cooking classes are a big success.

Participants of Wikipedia for Peace Berlin 2017 on the rooftop of Sharehouse Refugio in Berlin

Looking to the future, what projects are you working on after handing over Refugio?

We are looking for more Sharehauses to initiate or coach. We also started a new learning project called School of Love, which is a platform of learning backed largely by a lot of experience we gained from the Sharehaus.

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