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'Berlin Airlift' Airport Becomes Emergency Refugee Shelter

  • Henry Ridgwell

With its vast semicircular terminal, Tempelhof airport in Germany — made famous during the Cold War — was said to be the largest building in the world when it was built by the Nazis. Now, Berlin authorities have brought it back into service.

Three-thousand refugees occupy four cavernous former aircraft hangars. Simple boards have been erected to give some degree of privacy, and side rooms have been converted to nurseries and dining halls.

"We are an emergency accommodation,” said Maria Kipp, a spokesperson for Tamaja, the agency providing the refugee housing. “But what happens in reality is that we have people who should already be in long-term accommodations and should have way higher standards than we can actually provide here.”

City authorities admit that the accommodation is far from ideal, but say the numbers arriving in the city require urgent solutions.

FILE - German policemen register refugees at the rail station in Freilassing, Germany, Sept. 14, 2015.

FILE - German policemen register refugees at the rail station in Freilassing, Germany, Sept. 14, 2015.

The cramped conditions mean new migrants are submitted to strict health screenings. Outside, VOA spoke to Hussein Alawayeh, who fled Damascus last year with his wife and daughter.

He said they have been suffering in the German refugee camps for five months, and are hoping to find something — anything — better than what they have.

But Zahir Ahmed of Pakistan praised the staff.

“The atmosphere here is very nice,” Ahmed said. “People are showing respect and care.”

Airport’s origins, controversy

Tempelhof was a lifeline for West Berlin when the Soviet Union blockaded the city at the beginning of the Cold War, and American aircraft flew daily sorties to bring in supplies.

The airport was closed in 2008, triggering a battle over its future.

Berlin city officials recently voted to extend emergency housing onto the vast airfield in front of the airport; but, just two years ago in a referendum, Berlin residents voted against any development.

FILE - A shelter houses thousands of refugees inside a hangar of the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin, Germany, Dec. 9, 2015.

FILE - A shelter houses thousands of refugees inside a hangar of the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin, Germany, Dec. 9, 2015.

Others disagree with that vote.

Georg Classen of the Berlin Refugee Advisory Board wants to see money spent on proper apartments for the refugees, instead of on “these shabby shelters."

And so what began as a powerful symbol of the Cold War has become a battleground for rival visions of how to solve Berlin's migrant crisis.

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