Gaming with Refugees

Playing games is an "international language" that builds bridges between cultures. What better way to welcome and befriend the hundreds of refugees who have become my neighbours in Berlin, Germany. Join me to hear their stories, as well as the new stories we create as we spend time together.

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Homesickness

Berlin has been my home for most of the past 25 years, but last summer, we packed up our things and put them all into storage, where they will stay while we spend one year in North Carolina. When we return, we will be moving to the Southwestern corner of the country, near Basel, Switzerland, for our new jobs.

Needless to say, it was very difficult to say goodbye to so many friends we have made. But it was most difficult to do so with our refugee friends, as those relationships have been ongoing during their entire time in the city.

We had been through so much together with Refaat and Loris (see "How it Began Part 2" in this blog series). They had their second child, a son named Josef. But on the same weekend as his birth, Refaat learned that his teenage sister back in Syria had died, because she was unable to get the medicine she needed, due to the war. We attended a Syrian Orthodox funeral service with Refaat, and afterwards, went to the hospital to see his wife and new son. It was so difficult to see the joy of their new baby robbed from them by the tragedy that has repeated itself over and over in their home country.

But we were able to help them raise the support needed to bring his father to Germany to join the rest of the family (he had remained in Syria with his daughter, who had been too sick to travel). And the daughter of Refaat and Loris was doing very well in her daycare: the teachers loved her, she was kind to all the other children and teachers, and she learned both English and German to go with her Arabic. She loved to snuggle with my wife, who was like an aunt to her. And Josef quickly grew into a curious, energetic brother with a mop of curly black hair, just like his sister's.

After almost 4 years, however, we now had to tell them we were moving away from Berlin. It was the hardest thing I've had to do, and they both wept openly.

It was equally difficult to share the news with Razwan, the teenage Kurdish boy with whom I initially had connected through Chess. I had played games with him and his brothers often, and had enjoyed many meals with his family, whose mother always had room for me for dinner, even though she already had her husband and 7 children to feed! And now, she too had tears in her eyes when her son explained to her that I would not be coming so regularly anymore. I told Raswan that I wasn't very good at goodbye's, and he hugged me and said, "Me too."

From gallery of jeffinberlin


The last person to say goodbye was my older friend, Nurreddin, who had become like part of our family. My sons enjoyed greeting this big teddy bear of a man with hugs when he came to our home, and he spoiled them with his amazing Syrian chicken and rice dishes. That last night, I also invited our French neighbor, who like Nurredin, had studied Philosophy and was an excellent Chess player, and we spent our after-dinner hours playing the game that brought us together.

From gallery of jeffinberlin


When I first moved to Berlin after college, I loved everything about the city. I think now that it was because it contrasted so starkly with my childhood in small-town Iowa and the isolation I felt there. But as I ponder the homesickness I feel now, it is rooted in a longing that no longer has anything to do with the city itself.

I just miss my friends.
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Wed Jan 15, 2020 5:37 pm
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Three years later...

Having W. Eric Martin post a link to this blog reminded me that I had not updated it in quite some time.

My work and friendships with refugees in Berlin has been continuing, even if my writing about it has not.

One reason for not writing so much about it here on BGG, is that I've spent much less time playing games with refugees, and more time helping them with more urgent needs. I've helped adults with their German class homework, and I'm helping many of the teenagers and children with their homework in every school subject. I'm also actually going to take courses next month to become CELTA certified to teach English as a foreign language.

I've still brought games occasionally, including a game that I designed and was released in Poland last year, called Jedzie pociąg z daleka. The children really enjoyed that one, and begged me to bring it back, which I did several times.

I also had success with Ticket to Ride New York, which seems taylor-made for bringing together non-boardgaming children and youth for a quick game.

The refugee camp also built an outdoor large-scale chess board and bought those large, plastic chess pieces, and I believe I'm the only one at the camp who ever uses them, dragging them out of storage to play with my now-teenage friend, Raswan, who I taught the game 3 years ago (see my previous articles). Raswan is doing great and is involved in all kinds of things. I also taught him how to play basketball, but soccer and Kung-Fu are his favorite sports (he is on club teams for both). He is also doing well in school and I just attended a showing of several short films he was involved in making. He was an actor in one, and a writer/director in another, all filmed during various school holiday "film camps." His whole family came to the premier across town, along with many friends.

Another friend, Nourredin, who taught me how to play better chess, is also continuing to learn German and take other courses to find a new career in Germany. He was a philosophy teacher in Syria and even wrote a book (and is working on another), but they are in Arabic and he will have to find other ways of supporting himself here. He comes to our house often for dinner--sometimes cooking delicious chicken-and-rice dishes that my sons can't get enough of--and capping the evening with a couple games of chess. I only defeat him if he warns me when I am about to make a mistake, which he often does.

I have a new friend in Hamza, a teenage boy I have been taking to the hospital on the other side of Berlin every week after he had an important foot operation. Unlike many teenagers, he is easy to talk to and we have a great time sharing and laughing during the hour-long ride each way through Berlin traffic. He is Yazidi, which was the ethnic/religious group that ISIS was trying to wipe out. Hundreds of his people from his hometown were murdered in cold blood and dumped into mass graves, sending the rest of his people fleeing on foot. He came to Germany with his older brother 3 years ago, and was only joined by his mother and father and another sibling last year. His remaining 7 (!) older siblings remained in Iraq with their families, but are still living in temporary tent dwellings. His family are friendly, and I enjoyed sharing photos of our families with his father, when they invited me to eat with them. I have helped Hamza with his homework as well, as he has missed a lot of school, but we have yet to play any sort of board game.

Many of the refugees are finding apartments, and the camp I visit will be taken down in a year. I'm trying to make the most of my time while it is still there to connect with as many of the refugees as possible, so that we can continue to be in touch when they find a more permanent home.

In particular, I am trying to engage some of the teenage and preteen boys who are having to go through puberty on top of adapting to a new culture, and experiencing prejudice from teachers and other students at school. It's not easy, as smartphone games seem to be their preferred form of escape from their real-world challenges. It's difficult to get them interested in any kind of board game--or any other interactive activity, for that matter!

I'm still there every week, though, and sometimes I just sit next to the kids as they play Fortnight. Hopefully, just being present will open doors at some point with those I have not yet been able to engage.
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Tue Dec 4, 2018 3:19 pm
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Games That Tell Refugees' Stories - FULL ARTICLE

The refugee crisis in the Middle East is no game. There are no clear rules, the information is untrackable, there are hidden variables that lead to utter chaos, and there is no endgame in site.

And yet, tens of thousands of refugees were welcomed into Berlin—my adopted home city—during the past year. As they have taken up residence in makeshift shelters and previously abandoned buildings all over Berlin, I find myself connecting with many of them through the shared language and experience of playing board games.

When we play games with anyone, we share each other’s stories. The game itself is not required to tell a story, it simply sets up the beginning, and determines when it will end. My already multicultural game nights are only the beginning to ongoing stories—relationships that go beyond meeting up to play games.

As I have volunteered at the refugee shelters near my home and the church where I work, it has been a privilege to play games with them, and through this shared language, learn their stories and begin relationships that have now gone beyond playing games together.

These are their stories, told through the games that made this possible.

Chess
Nuradin is an older man who fled here with his wife, who suffers from diabetes. He greets me with a hug and a kiss, always followed by “I miss you!” in heavily accented English. He was a philosophy professor in Syria, and is an excellent Chess player. I tell everyone who comes to watch us play that he is my teacher, and he smiles as he studies the board, not allowing my compliments to distract him.

During graduate school, my roommate and I taught ourselves basic Chess strategy, although I have rarely played it since discovering “German games” and I am far from a grandmaster. It is fascinating for me, at this stage in my gaming life, to rediscover the beauty of this game. And there is also something exciting about playing the game with an Arab man. After all, Chess may never have become the world’s most studied board game had it not been for the Arabs, who, after conquering Persia, adopted the game and brought it to Europe. In fact, they still refer to it by its Persian name, Shatranj.

Nuradin believes strongly in tolerance for all worldviews. Although he is Muslim, he has read the Bible and western philosophers such as Kant and Kierkegaard. But Chess is a war simulation. We advance our pieces, as each of us positions ourselves to take control of the middle territory. I think about the advances and retreats taking place this very moment in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Then there is no more room, and multiple pieces are captured. The death toll rises and the table next to the game board fills up with casualties. The board remains clean, devoid of actual bloodshed. Even so, I can’t help but project the images of my friend’s ruined city, Aleppo, onto the white and black squares. Can anyone win this game? My friend shakes me out of my daydream with a warm smile, as he says to me encouragingly, “You are getting better.”

Trex
Integration is a two-way street. When I meet Fayez, I teach him helpful German words and phrases, but I also try to learn his language. And it goes beyond language: when I engage someone from another culture, we are both changed and enriched. I ask Fayez what his favorite game is. For the next half-hour, he can’t stop talking about a partnership card game called Trex. He speaks about it as if he were speaking about his family. That is where he learned the game, and he is always seeking out people to play it with him. Playing Trex is one of the few things that makes the drab walls and bunk beds of the school gym disappear, and the pain and destruction of war fade—if only for a moment. A game of Trex with good friends makes him feel as if he were home again.

Turkish Checkers or Dama
While I play Chess with someone at another shelter, Amed and his friend borrow another Chess set to play on the table next to us—except they set the pieces up randomly, and move each of them the same way.

When we are finished with our game, I watch Amed’s game intently. “What are you playing?” I ask, using gestures, as he cannot speak English or German. They tell me it is called Dama, otherwise known as Turkish Checkers, according to the internet search I make when I am back home. After Amed finishes off his opponent, I challenge him to the next game.

I have to play it, however, without knowing the rules. I can only go by what I have observed. I make a move, he shakes his head. I gesture another move and raise my eyebrows inquisitively. He nods. I’m not just playing a variant of Checkers—it’s become a game of deduction for me. Furthermore, I’ve had to scrap my strategy multiple times because my plan was unknowingly outside the rules. This puts me at a disadvantage, of course.

This is my opponent’s life. In a foreign land, Amed is learning by doing. Even though there are many who are helping the refugees in navigating the rules to registering, filling out forms, and finding better accommodations, they are still on their own in having to deduce many of the cultural rules, especially the unwritten ones.

I am able to make a few clever moves, but Amed finishes me off in a matter of minutes. I ask for a rematch. I won’t give up, and neither will he.

Hey, That’s My Fish!
It is not enough for me to go to the refugee shelters on my own. I want to share my experiences and give my friends the opportunity to have some of their own. The appeal of boardgaming, after all, is making memories through shared experiences, and my gaming groups are already very multicultural—sometimes as many as 8 different countries on 5 continents are represented.

Aaron is a game designer from the United States who decided to work from Berlin for a month. He designs digital games for a living, and has begun to design “analog” board games as well, and that is how he found our game designer’s group. I tell him about my experiences with the refugees, and he takes me up on my invitation to help with a gaming café I have initiated for them.

We make coffee and tea, set up some games on different tables, and I go to the shelter down the street to help them find their way. Soon, the room is packed, and I am thankful I have Aaron to help me. I get my Syrian friends started playing simultaneous games of Chess, then introduce the German classic, Lotti Karotti to several children, and I teach Aaron Hey, That’s My Fish to play with a mixed group of Afghans. Co-designed by Berlin friend Günter Cornett, it’s one of those games I know that I can teach without being able to use words. They catch on quickly, and play the game all afternoon with Aaron. We are both exhausted when they leave, but enjoy the time we spent with them, even if our communication was often limited to moving pieces on game boards.

La Boca
I want to encourage more people to step out of their comfort zones and connect with refugees through shared interests. I want to show them how easy and rewarding it is for everyone. I write invitations on various Facebook pages and report on my experiences on Boardgamegeek.com. A gamer named John from the United States writes to me and says that he and his sons want to get involved. They do not have refugees in their neighborhood, but they do have a German au pair, and they want to send board games for the refugees.

Ali is one of the only teenagers in the shelter in my neighborhood. He is not really interested in games or competition. He wants to fit in. He cherishes the times he is allowed to visit a local high school and interact with German teens. A friendly extrovert with a warm smile, Ali greets several teens as we walk together on the sidewalk outside, and they answer enthusiastically, “Hallo Ali!”
I find out later that he speaks great English, but he chooses instead to struggle through German because he is determined to master it. He knows his future depends on it, and he has much more of a future ahead of him than the older people in his shelter.

The two of us play La Boca, sent by John and his sons. It is a partnership game, and we play it cooperatively. It is also a communication game, and it fits the bill perfectly as a fun activity that exercises his increasing German language skills. John’s sons have written personal letters to give to refugee children who might play the games they sent. They are in English and German, translated by the boys’ au pair. I give them to Ali, and he is touched by the letters and photos of the boys, and he takes them home to practice reading German.

Tsuro
I bring games to a local youth club every other Sunday afternoon, where they host a “Café Without Borders.” I sit at a table with a mixed group. Susanne and Per are Berliners, but she is originally from western Germany and he is from Sweden. They have lived in Berlin only slightly longer than refugees Abdul and Bilal, who also join us. I ask if they would like to play Tsuro, one of the games John and his boys sent me. They oblige, but after a few rounds, it is clear that no one wants to knock another player out of the game. We decide spontaneously to play the game cooperatively instead. We try to keep as many of us on the board as possible until the last tile is placed. The Tsuro board looks like a big puzzle that has just been completed, and we look at it for a moment with satisfaction before we go back to our pre-game conversations.

All of us came from different places, yet here we are, trying to put together the multicultural puzzle that is modern Berlin. And we are choosing to do it cooperatively. I meet at this same youth club every month with scores of volunteers from the neighborhood who tirelessly work to help individual refugees with integration and paperwork and also provide opportunities for the community to connect with them. It is clear that, even with extensive government aid, the refugee effort in Germany would be unmanageable without the cooperation of so many volunteers.

The influx of refugees has, in fact, had a wonderful side effect: it has helped the rest of us get to know our neighbors and learn to work together for a common cause. It makes me wonder, I think aloud at the café, what else we are capable of accomplishing if we can continue to work together.

Crokinole
I help my wife and several people from our church with a craft and music time at another shelter. Most of the children are excited about the opportunity to paint and make beaded jewelry that they can use to decorate themselves and their rooms. Some of the children, however, are a bit stir crazy, as there are no playgrounds in the area, and many of the parents here do not venture out except for official appointments or to buy necessities. Some boys get aggressive with each other, and I have to separate them several times. I improvise a flicking game using a paper football, and we have wheelbarrow races down the hall. I also ask the director if they have any board games, and she tells me that they did, but that the pieces go missing. I have the idea to make board games out of common materials that can be easily replaced.

Later, as I am picking up some things at the hardware store, I see a leftover white square masonite board for 2 Euro. It’s the perfect size for Crokinole. I take it home, drill a hole in the center, and draw concentric circles using a permanent marker. Then I take out two colors of plastic bottle caps I’d been saving for children’s game design workshops. I bring the game to the shelter the following week, and it’s a hit. The kids can’t stop flicking the bottle caps towards the center, and they sometimes keep flicking them across the room. If they lose any, however, they can simply ask the kitchen for more.

It is often difficult to find space in which to play at the various shelters, yet this is essential for the children’s development. The games we play with them every week, whether board games or improvised role-playing, give them the opportunity to experiment, test and adapt in safe environments—all of which will be vital training for the challenges they face in the future.

Piece o’ Cake
One day, I finally decide to introduce one of my own games to Chess buddy, Rustam. He has shared much of his life with me, and I want to share a part of myself—a game that I’ve created. The rules are easy to explain and he grasps the strategy. At the end of the game, he smiles and tells me that it was a good game, but he is ready to play Chess again.

He is young, but his world is already filled with enough newness. His future is unclear and the rules he must learn to survive are so many, that playing the game he knows is a welcome reprieve.

And, just as with all the games I’ve played with refugees over the past year, it is a connection: both to his new friends in Berlin, and to the people from home who taught him the game, many of whom are still left behind.
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Mon Oct 31, 2016 1:12 pm
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Games That Tell Refugees' Stories - Part II

Here is another excerpt from my article for Counter:

http://boardgamegeekstore.com/collections/counter-magazine

Turkish Checkers or Dama
While I play Chess with someone at another shelter, Amed and his friend borrow another Chess set to play on the table next to us—except they set the pieces up randomly, and move each of them the same way.

When we are finished with our game, I watch Amed’s game intently. “What are you playing?” I ask, using gestures, as he cannot speak English or German. They tell me it is called Dama, otherwise known as Turkish Checkers, according to the internet search I make when I am back home. After Amed finishes off his opponent, I challenge him to the next game.

I have to play it, however, without knowing the rules. I can only go by what I have observed. I make a move, he shakes his head. I gesture another move and raise my eyebrows inquisitively. He nods. I’m not just playing a variant of Checkers—it’s become a game of deduction for me. Furthermore, I’ve had to scrap my strategy multiple times because my plan was unknowingly outside the rules. This puts me at a disadvantage, of course.

This is my opponent’s life. In a foreign land, Amed is learning by doing. Even though there are many who are helping the refugees in navigating the rules to registering, filling out forms, and finding better accommodations, they are still on their own in having to deduce many of the cultural rules, especially the unwritten ones.

I am able to make a few clever moves, but Amed finishes me off in a matter of minutes. I ask for a rematch. I won’t give up, and neither will he.
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Sat Aug 27, 2016 9:27 pm
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Games That Tell Refugees' Stories

I recently wrote an article about playing boardgames with refugees for Counter Magazine (you can download and read the full article using the link at the end). When I was asked to do the article, I wanted to somehow write something different than I have previously posted. This article frames the stories of some of the refugees I have met--as well as the stories we have written together since--by using the boardgames we have played together. Following is an excerpt:

Chess
Nuradin is an older man who fled here with his wife, who suffers from diabetes. He greets me with a hug and a kiss, always followed by “I miss you!” in heavily accented English. He was a philosophy professor in Syria, and is an excellent Chess player. I tell everyone who comes to watch us play that he is my teacher, and he smiles as he studies the board, not allowing my compliments to distract him.

During graduate school, my roommate and I taught ourselves basic Chess strategy, although I have rarely played it since discovering “German games” and I am far from a grandmaster. It is fascinating for me, at this stage in my gaming life, to rediscover the beauty of this game. And there is also something exciting about playing the game with an Arab man. After all, Chess may never have become the world’s most studied board game had it not been for the Arabs, who, after conquering Persia, adopted the game and brought it to Europe. In fact, they still refer to it by its Persian name, Shatranj.

Nuradin believes strongly in tolerance for all world views. Although he is Muslim, he has read the Bible and western philosophers such as Kant and Kierkegaard. But Chess is a war simulation. We advance our pieces, as each of us positions ourselves to take control of the middle territory. I think about the advances and retreats taking place this very moment in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Then there is no more room, and multiple pieces are captured. The death toll rises and the table next to the game board fills up with casualties. The board remains clean, devoid of actual bloodshed. Even so, I can’t help but project the images of my friend’s ruined city, Aleppo, onto the white and black squares. Can anyone win this game? My friend shakes me out of my daydream with a warm smile, as he says to me encouragingly, “You are getting better."

To read more, download Counter Issue 73
http://boardgamegeekstore.com/collections/counter-magazine
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Wed Aug 24, 2016 8:38 pm
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DIY

Last time, I wrote about the incredible hospitality shown the refugees by Berlin volunteers. They have been joined by all manner of local institutions in trying to offer opportunities for the refugees to take part in the cultural offerings in Berlin, including free admission to parks and museums, and concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic and other bands.

Some German game publishers have joined the effort to integrate the refugees as much as possible into German cultural life by including Arabic rules in their game boxes.

German designer/self-publisher Steffen Mühlhäuser of Steffen-Spiele even designed a collection of 5 games using 32 wooden blocks numbered 1-4 in black and white entitled, appropriately, FIVE!. The games are packaged in small, easy-to-carry boxes and include rules in Arabic, Farsi, and several other languages. There is a 5-in-a-row variant, a “shell game” variant, a blind bidding game, and a more strategic tower-building game. And the pieces (16 in each color) can also be used to play Checkers on a normal checkerboard. Steffen funded the project through StartNext, a German crowdfunding platform, and anyone working with Refugees could apply to receive the games, free of charge, to play and hand out as gifts. The children have enjoyed playing the various games (and we even made up some new ones with the pieces), and were excited when they received their own copies of the game to continue playing when I am not there.

Board Game: Five!

One of the children gave me a handful of his string candy after we played FIVE!.

Ever since the beginning of the year, I have been spreading the word on gaming opportunities with refugees to all my Berlin friends though Facebook, Meetup.com, and emails. One of my friends who has her own game publishing company also wanted to help. Karin Janner’s company, Spieltz, produces games to be used by other firms for public relations purposes, such as Ludo or Checkers sets with their corporate logos on them. She gave me some black and white Ludo paper game boards that can be colored in by children, and we filled several bags with different colored pawns and dice to include in the sets.

When I took them to the shelter to my weekly game time with the children, they were excited to be able to personalize their own game boards with colored pencils, and choose the colors of their game pieces. Even after that, some of them were surprised that they could keep the games. I quickly found myself in the middle of a group hug.

From gallery of jeffinberlin


I even ventured into my own DIY project for the refugees. One of the problems that many of the shelters face is that game pieces from donated games are easily lost or taken. I decided to make a game that would use pieces that were easily replaceable. When I teach game design workshops for children, I often use plastic bottle caps as game pieces, because everyone has them. At the local hardware store, I was able to get a square sheet of leftover white coated masonite for just 2 Euro. I cut a hole in the center, drew concentric circles with a black permanent marker, added 30 bottle caps in 2 colors, and I had a home-made Crokinole board to give to the shelter! When I brought it to my next game time, both kids and adults couldn’t stop playing it. Even a man who was sweeping the floor had to put his broom to the side for a few minutes to flick the bottle caps for a few games! And if they lose any game pieces, they can simply find replacements by asking the kitchen staff or any of the other refugees who have empty bottles.

Board Game: Crokinole
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Sun Jun 5, 2016 11:50 pm
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A Café without Borders

I have been privileged to work with refugees in three different parts of the city over the past year. For the past several months, I have focused more on the neighborhood where I now work, and where my sons go to a bilingual school.

I have written before about the extraordinary volunteer effort in Berlin, and it never ceases to amaze me (and it is fortunate for the German government, which underestimated the resources needed for the effort). From what I can tell, every neighborhood in the city has an organization of volunteers who sacrifice their time to help at the shelters, help refugees to get the required paperwork and find better accommodation, take groups on excursions, and even invite them into their homes. They also meet regularly to plan these activities and share feedback with each other. The refugee work has actually helped me build relationships with many new people in the neighborhood that I would not have otherwise met. It made me wonder aloud what else we could accomplish for the good of our neighborhoods if we continued to work together like this.

Berlin is often known as a “city of villages,” broken down into districts, which are, in turn, divided into unofficial “Kieze” or neighborhoods. Most of these neighborhoods are practically self-contained, each with their own groceries, bakeries, schools and kindergartens, public spaces and cafes. These divisions are idea for assimilating a large number of foreigners. The neighborhood where I live, for example, can easily care for the 200 or so refugees who live in the school gym down the street. It’s probably much different in the smaller towns in southern Germany, where the population could suddenly be doubled, and the refugees might live in a facility more segregated from the rest of the community.

The location of the refugees in the middle of our neighborhoods encourages volunteerism, as we can’t help but interact with them. And once a connection is established, we greet each other and converse on the street just as we do with everyone else who lives here.

Many of the neighborhood initiatives have started café times to encourage further social interaction between residents and refugees. Some of these even invite the refugees to cook with the Germans. This results in some excellent cuisine, as well as a common activity around which to bond. I’m not a good cook, however, so I bring board games instead.

In the neighborhood where I work, there is a Café ohne Grenzen (Café Without Borders) every two weeks. We sit together with refugees who come from many different shelters, do crafts with the children, eat cake and drink coffee and tea. We Sometimes, people bring musical instruments, and a spontaneous intercultural jam session breaks out. And we play games. There is a foosball table in the café (which belongs to a youth club), and I bring Chess and several board games I can teach without needed to use words. Hey, That’s My Fish and Tsuro have been favorites.

Board Game: Tsuro


The neighborhood cafes—and the games I bring—have helped give the refugees a respite from the walls of the emergency shelters. And they have helped the Germans from the neighborhood, who have been more hesitant to visit the shelters, to engage with the refugees in a more familiar setting.

Again, I have to wonder aloud, if these community cafes—and bringing together people through board games--could possibly continue, even after the crisis is over?
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Mon May 30, 2016 6:00 am
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Good Intentions

When I began this blog several months ago, it was my intention to report on my experiences on a weekly basis. Unfortunately, I have realized that I just did not have the extra time to keep up. If I wanted to write more, I would have to spend less time actually helping the refugees and playing games with them. Naturally, I chose instead to spend the time in the work, and not reporting on the work.

I do think it is important to keep people informed, however, and an update is long overdo.

As with this blog, I began the refugee work with good intentions. And just like this blog, not all plans work out the way I first envisioned them to work.

But allow me to backtrack a bit…

In February, I was regularly bringing games to the school gym near our house that had been turned into an emergency shelter, and inviting refugees to play with me and each other. Chess was the most popular game, as many of them knew the rules. It also gave the men an interesting pastime, and fascinated the children who watched us (and then wanted me and the others to teach them the game).

When I spoke to one of the directors of the shelter, she told me that, while there were many volunteers offering programs and activities, many of them were focused on children, mothers, and families. Chess was an excellent way to engage the men and the fathers (and through them, the children).

There were few places to play in the gym, however. I was not allowed to set up on the tables upstairs that served as a make-shift cafeteria, because they wanted to reserve those for eating and drinking only.

Downstairs, the gym was separated into two spaces by a large curtain. On one side were the families, on the other, the single men and those whose families were not yet in Germany.

Each side was filled with bunk beds. They had initially been set up in perfect, military-style rows. Soon after the refugees moved in, however, they reorganized them into “homes” and “villages.” It was fascinating to see how they grouped the beds together, hanging bed sheets on the sides to create rooms and homes for their families and friends. These homes were also grouped together into villages, one for each people group. “Here are the Syrians,” one friend showed me, “over there are the Iraqi’s and there are the Afghans.” Each village had a small public space in the middle that was created by moving the beds to create the homes. The Syrian public space had a table and a few chairs, and it was there that we played Chess.

Board Game: Chess


As we played and talked in a combination of broken English and a few German words, others poked their heads above their bed-sheet-walls to see what we were doing, and some of them joined us.

Language was a huge barrier. In fact, the only language we all spoke fluently, was the language of games. Oftentimes, others would drop by, take a look at the board, and offer suggestions for the next move to either me or my opponent. I am not the best Chess player in the world, but I decided that was probably a good thing. After what they had been through, playing against me was a much-needed confidence booster.

I play (and design) games for two basic reasons: I enjoy the social time through a shared activity, and I also enjoy exploring the space of the game itself. And as I made new friends through our shared experience, it also rekindled my fascination with the gamespace that Chess offers.

Several weeks later, the German volunteers built partition walls to give each family and group more of a sense of privacy. Naturally, these were again arranged in perfect rows with long corridors in between—but no more public spaces. Again, I thought it was fascinating to see the values of each culture in the way in which they create living spaces: the Germans valued individualism and order, while those from the East placed a higher value on community and shared spaces.

Needless to say, this made it more difficult to find places to play games. Fortunately, a building around the corner used by our church was also available for me to start a game café once a week. And I also felt that it might be nice for the refugees to have a change of scenery, and for me to have the opportunity to show hospitality.

Board Game: Chess


I made flyers and posters and advertised every time I went back to the shelter. I also told gaming friends about the idea, and invited them to join in. One of the guys from my Monday night playtesting sessions, a designer from San Francisco visiting Berlin for a few weeks, offered to help.

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came by early and help me set up and brewed the coffee and tea while I went to the shelter to make one last invitation.

Board Game: Hey, That's My Fish!


18 refugees came that first day, including a woman and 4 children. I was thankful to have Aaron there to help out, especially as I only had a couple of Chess sets! I taught Aaron Hey, That’s My Fish and he taught a group how to play. They played it 3 or 4 times in a row! That was the game that began my search for “games you can teach by showing, without the need to use words.”

Board Game: Chess


The following week, however, only 3 refugees came. And the 2 weeks after that, there was only one attendee. I was not interested in numbers, and I enjoyed the one-on-one talks, especially with several of the men who spoke English.

One of them, Fayez, even taught me his favorite game, Trex, a compendium card game (one plays a different game each hand, determined by the dealer, then scores are totaled).

A teenager named Ali also came one day. He was not interested in games, but he enjoyed practicing his German and drinking tea. I later discovered that he actually spoke English very well, but he insisted on conversing in German because of his determination to learn and attend German school. He was visiting a school on some days, and several of the German teenagers we passed on the street greeted him enthusiastically, which he enjoyed, as there are not many other teenagers in the shelter.

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and his gamer sons from the U.S. decided to send me a few games to play with the refugees after seeing the Geeklist. When I was talking with Ali, I brought out one of those, La Boca, and we played it together—not for points, but to practice German in a fun way. John’s sons also wrote letters, which were translated into German by their German Au Pair, and I gave copies to Ali to practice his German reading.

Board Game: La Boca


Unfortunately, however, interest in attending the café faded, and I stopped offering it. I still went to the shelter, but was only able to spend a few minutes conversing with different individuals, which was still interesting. I have never felt that time I’ve spent with the refugees was wasted.

In one of those conversations, an Afghan man told me he didn’t play board games, but he enjoyed a sport that involved a dead goat. Apparently, the players ride horses and try carry or drag the goat to their goal. Perhaps if I designed a board game based on this theme, I could manage to get him to play?
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Wed May 25, 2016 1:16 pm
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How it Began..Part 2, The Story of a Refugee Family

Last year, German cities and towns of all sizes began to take in refugees, the majority of whom came from the war-torn countries of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. To be fair, not all German communities were receptive to the changes, especially the smaller towns where refugees would make up a larger percentage of the population. But many realized that their fears were misplaced when they got to know their new neighbors. It is difficult to fear or demonize someone you actually meet face to face and spend time with. Furthermore, local police have reported no increase in crime in the areas where refugees live.

Many of the refugees came to Berlin, Germany’s largest city, but the first shelters were often isolated from residential areas. I remember a conversation with a friend in which we wondered aloud how we could help them, but we did not even know where they were or who to contact. My friend remarked that we could probably go about our daily routines without ever knowingly coming into contact with a refugee.

Then we found out about two buildings located about 5 minutes by car from our house. One building was emergency housing for unregistered refugees, and the other was longer-term housing for those who had received permission to stay longer. The neighborhood was planning a festival for the families there, and we went with the German pastor of our church to find out what we could offer (these particular buildings were operated by an evangelical organization). We decided to do a weekly kid’s club with music, games and crafts.

Then one Sunday morning at church, our pastor asked us if we could translate the service into English for some guests. They happened to be a Christian Syrian family. Afterwards, we found out that they were living down the street from us, and we invited them to spend time with us the following Sunday.

Refaat and Loris were in their early 20’s and fled from their homes in Damascus several years ago. They lived in the country for some time, where they had their first child, but when Refaat was called to enlist in the army, they made the decision to flee the country. When Germany announced that it would take asylum seekers, they decided to go there.

Once, an upper-middle class family, most of their money and assets had been destroyed or spent on necessities, whose prices had soared. The banks had long been closed, but they needed cash to pay off those who could get them to Germany. Organized criminals and other opportunists have been taking advantage of the Syrian war, charging high prices for seats in crowded boats and promising riches to those who reached Germany.

“In Germany, you will get 2,000 Euro and your own house!” they would tell the desperate people.

One of the directors of a local refugee home told me this was why some of the refugees complain about the food or their accommodations. “They paid a lot of money to these ‘refugee travel agents,’ and they were promised much more than we can give them,” he said.

Loris sold her jewelry to get some of the needed cash for the trip. She showed me her wedding photos that displayed her wedding band and beautiful diamond engagement ring. Then she showed me her hand, completely unadorned. “We had to sell everything we had left of value,” she said.

In early September, Refaat and Loris first made it across the border to Turkey with their 10-month-old daughter, Teresa. There, they paid for a boat to take them to the Greek Island, Kos, just 4 miles from the Turkish coast.

In the middle of the night, they were led along the beach with 52 other refugees under cover of darkness. “We were afraid to make any sound, because the Turkish authorities would stop us.” They had been promised two boats, but when they arrived, there was only one, 7 meters (23 feet) long. When some of the people protested, the guide took out a pistol and told them, “You can get in the boat or you can go back.” Refaat wanted to turn around, but they had already paid and they wondered whether they would be shot before they could expose the lie to other potential customers.

All 55 people piled into the boat, and it began to sink. As water poured in on all sides, the people panicked and threw everything they could overboard—even their own life vests. The boat stabilized in the water and they started out across the short but dangerous Mediterranean Sea. The man with the gun simply pointed across the water and told them, “Go that way!”

For four hours, they huddled together as the boat rocked on the waves, the small motor making the only sound, the stars revealing nothing but endless waves. Refaat and Loris sat close together in the middle of the boat, clinging to their baby daughter, trying to keep each other warm. Finally, they found themselves on the beach at Kos. “Some people cheered and some people cried,” Loris said.

It would take almost a week before they would be able to get off the island, however. During that time, they ate very little. They often fed Teresa with uneaten cookies normally served with coffee at the outdoor café. The refugees were often chased off the main streets of the tourist island. “The people did not want us there,” Loris said.

They eventually made it onto a ferry to Athens, where they met a “refugee travel agent” who said he could get them to Germany. After taking their money, he secured fake Greek passports for them. They were to pose as Greek tourists, and he bought them new clothes to wear and had Loris’ hair done. He sent them back on a ferry to another Greek island so that they could fly from there to Germany. He told them that the passport control would be much more lax at the small island than at Athens’ main airport.

During the flight, Loris said that they were too frightened to speak. They were on a plane full of Greeks, and simply nodded whenever they were offered something, praying that they did not agree to purchase something they could not pay for.

They finally arrived in Munich. From there, they took a bus to Berlin, with only 50 Euro left in their pockets. They threw away their fake passports at a rest stop, fearing what would happen if they were discovered. They thought that Berlin would be the best place for refugees, as it was the largest city in Germany. But the processing center has since become infamous as one of the worst in Germany. Bafflingly unorganized, refugees cue up in the middle of the night without even a guarantee that they will be given an appointment the next day.

Refaat and Loris were fortunate to be given vouchers for a small room with adjoining bathroom and mini kitchen at a hostel. Like many opportunists in this tragedy, however, the hostel charged them (i.e. the government) more than anyone would normally pay for such a room, and months later, would even force them to leave in order to place more refugees there and earn more money from the state.

After a day together in the city park, they invited my wife and two sons and I to visit them at the hostel, where we sat on a makeshift couch made out of mattrasses, and Teresa gave us wide smiles and blew us kisses while Refaat made a enough chicken and rice to feed several families.

Soon after that, the hostel forced them out and I helped them move to another small guest room offered to them temporarily by friends from another church they had attended. We would have taken them in ourselves, but we had been living in a small 2-room flat since the summer, when our regular apartment had flooded.

A week later, someone offered them a small—but complete—apartment. I helped them move again, and they held their breath as they waited in line at the processing center again to get permission to live there.

Finally, they were given permission, as well as a 3 year visa, and they could put the processing center behind them for awhile. Next would be German kindergarten for Teresa and language school for Refaat and Loris, and finally, the job center (Refaat was a dentist in Syria).

During all this time, we have become like family. We spent American Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve together. My wife went door-to-door with Loris when she was sick, until we could find a doctor who would take her. And we’ve prayed together, especially for the family they left behind in Syria, including Refaat’s father and younger sister, who both suffer from diabetes (his mother and two brothers are in other locations in Germany now).

So, there is relief, but still heartache, as they worry about their family and friends, as they see reports on the destruction of their homeland on television and on the internet, and as they face the long road to integration in Germany.

They know they are fortunate to have a home, however small it is, and they want to help others. When they are given clothes or other supplies they do not need, they find other refugees to give them to. Refaat told me that he played a lot of Shatranj (Chess) when he was in school, and would love to help out with the gaming groups I’ve started for the refugees in our neighborhood.

It is encouraging to know that, even as evil and brutality seem to spread so easily and attract so many, love and caring for others can also be contagious.
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Sun Feb 28, 2016 1:18 am
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How it Began...Part 1

Refugees have been arriving in great numbers in Berlin for months.

It was August, I believe, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that the country would allow those fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan the opportunity to come here and apply for asylum. An unprecedented announcement responding to an unprecedented crisis--and one photograph of a child's body washed up on a Turkish beach that could not be ignored.

And so they came, making the short but dangerous crossing across the ocean from Turkey to one of several Greek islands, eventually arriving on the mainland, then marching through countries full of unwelcoming residents and hostile police forces.

Finally, they arrived in Germany--physically exhausted, their finances exhausted. And what they found here was beyond what anyone could have expected. Droves of volunteers awaited them, greeted them with smiles, with hugs, and with help of every kind.

"We love you, Germany!" is not something the world is used to hearing, yet it was suddenly spoken everywhere in broken English and plastered onto makeshift signs.

The world has been told, never to forget what happened in this country 70+ years ago. Let us hope it does not forget what is happening now.
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Mon Feb 22, 2016 11:07 pm
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