co-founder, Welcome to Falkensee; operating partner, ArchiMed
In five or ten years from now, I want to be able to say I’ve been an integral part in welcoming refugees to my hometown.
Throughout his career, Christoph Böhmer has worked in industries in the midst of drastic change. At McKinsey in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he consulted with defense electronics companies as a wave of peace decimated their business models, and with telecommunications firms adapting to deregulation. Later, as a managing director at Biotronik, a maker of stents, pacemakers, and defibrillators, he witnessed the commoditization of medical devices and their markets. “The summary is I’ve been in places that in a matter of years looked completely different,” he says.
After Böhmer retired in 2014, the drastic change happened much closer to home. As the war in Syria raged, violence in Afghanistan increased, and religious persecution in Iran intensified, millions of people fled these countries and arrived in Europe seeking asylum. Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders and the country handled the influx in the orderly and technocratic way one might expect: it used an algorithm to distribute the refugees among cities and towns across the country. Böhmer’s town of Falkensee, a rural suburb on the western outskirts of Berlin, was slated to receive eight hundred.
Böhmer saw this news for what it was: a chance to be on the good side of a historic migration of vulnerable humans. “I said to myself, ‘In five or ten years from now, I want to be able to say I’ve been an integral part in welcoming refugees to my hometown,’” he recalls. In part, he was motivated by cases where refugees in Germany had been attacked and killed by xenophobic citizens—he wanted to do his best to make sure that didn’t happen in his hometown. And, more prosaically, “I was simply curious,” he says, “and I had the time to live out my curiosity.”
In mid-2015, Böhmer joined the nascent volunteer effort to resettle the fifty or sixty refugees in Falkensee. Two months later, as it became clear that hundreds more refugees would be arriving soon, Böhmer was asked to help lead a re-organization of the volunteer group, which became known as Welcome to Falkensee. The name of the group was deliberately vague, because the initial organizers agreed that it should serve anyone who needed help, not just refugees. In addition to providing assistance to a broader population, the openness of the organization preempted any criticism about helping foreigners at the expense of local residents.
As one of the leaders of the group, Böhmer approached the re-organization project as if he were leading a business unit, creating working groups on medical care, local customs and resources, education, transportation, and a half-dozen other topics. Overlaid on those groups was a non-authoritarian decision-making and coordination structure suitable for a grassroots entity. Eventually, the group grew to five hundred volunteers—the largest citizens movement in town. Together, they serve the four hundred refugees currently living in Falkensee and neighboring towns. The town expects to welcome more refugees in the coming months, but the rate of arrival has slowed. While the reasons for fleeing Syria are as numerous as ever, the refugees are largely being held on the African continent or in Turkey and Greece—fewer and fewer are making it to Europe.
Those who have made it to Falkensee, Böhmer says, face at least a year of adjusting to their new environment, both physically and mentally. Today, many of the refugees are on the other side of that transition, going to work or attending school—a hard won normality.
Böhmer has called on his Tuck experience repeatedly during his work with Welcome to Falkensee. “I learned how to tackle a big problem by structuring it into a set of smaller problems,” he says, “and to understand the options, prioritize them, and find a structural solution—either in terms of organization or process.” He also learned to be flexible, because circumstances change and demand new solutions. “The requirements of what we thought we had to do changed over time,” he says of his refugee work, “so we discontinued some parts of the organization and started new projects with new working groups.”
Hundreds of refugees have Böhmer to thank, indirectly, for their new life. But for three young men, that connection is more obvious. One is an Iranian who had converted from Islam to Christianity and was being persecuted in the temporary camp in Falkensee. Another is a Syrian who was being passed back and forth between two German counties that didn’t want him. And the third is an Afghan who fled Afghanistan without his parents and needed a legal guardian. Böhmer and his wife and three children (and three dogs) welcomed them all into their home starting in January.
“They have been with us for almost a year,” Böhmer says. “We have this community in our house: Sunni, Shia, Christian, Afghan, Syrian, Iranian, and we co-exist where the experts said it could never work.”
(Photo by ArchiMed)
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