Net Café Reconnects Refugees to Families

Unable to afford calls to their homelands, an enterprising group of asylum seekers in Potsdam set up their own Internet café. The project helps other refugees get in touch with their families and friends.

When the calls home to Cameroon started getting too expensive, Eben Chu's relatives asked if he could just send an e-mail from Germany instead.

They laughed when he told them he didn't have an e-mail address. But since he is an asylum seeker living in a hostel in the city Potsdam, per-minute charges at a local Internet café were a luxury that his monthly government stipend wouldn’t allow.

He decided to do something about it. Through ads in the local papers, meetings with charities and some old-fashioned networking, Chu and group he started, Refugees Emancipation, managed to get his entire shelter in the city of Potsdam online by founding Germany’s first Internet café by and for refugees.

"As asylum-seekers, we are limited in everything," he said. "But we were political activists in our own countries, which means we know what it means to have a social relationship."

Wired with a little help from some friends

Chu’s group was surprised by the number of donations it received from local businesses and charities. The Potsdam hostel donated a converted classroom to house the computers and a Berlin charity stepped in to pay the group’s telephone bill during the first six months of operations. Since then, the Internet café has been doing a brisk business.

"From Vietnam to Afghanistan to Africa to Latin America, everybody’s there and they can get information in their language," said Chu. "This is just wonderful and exciting to most of the refugees."

Connecting with family, eliminating stress

"We’re very pleased about everything they’ve installed here," said one African man. "Before, we had to go to the Internet café at the central station. It also cost a euro, which we didn’t even have." He said the project has helped him get back in touch with his family back in Cameroon.

"With the Internet I can keep up contact with my family in Africa and my friends in the rest of the world. When you sit down in front of the computer and talk to your family, it helps you get rid of some of the stress," he said.

Though the personal rewards can be huge, adopting the new technology hasn’t been as easy for all the residents in the hostel. To bridge the digital divide, the group is planning to offer computer courses. In preparation, several of the refugees already took part in a free computer education course organized by students at Berlin’s Technical University.

Back to school

For many, it was a completely new experience. At first the students were asked what they wanted to learn, Chu recalls. Knowing nothing about computers, they didn't really know where to begin, but "after three months it was just great."

With their new-found knowledge of computers and the Internet, the men and women returned to the hostel and are now sharing what they’ve learned with other residents, showing them how to operate computers, find information on the Internet and set up an e-mail address.

But for most refugees living in Germany, Internet access is still impossible or very hard to come by. Chu said Refugees Emancipation is planning to expand the project other hostels in the region. "My desire is that all the hostels in Brandenburg could have (access to the) Internet," he says. "The Internet is not a luxury. It’s a modern means of communication, which should be accessible."

Katarina Kovarik

© DW-WORLD 2003