Germany and refugees

Tuesday March 29, 2016

This was the first real day. Sunday and Monday were travel days. I am continually amazed that I can travel half way around this globe; And, it was a long haul.

Today we navigated our way on bus and “U” (subway) to the Cologne University of Technology Arts Sciences.

We met with Thorsten Schlee, Gerd Sadowski from the Social Work department and Anna Kress from the Cologne Refugee Council. 

Our discussions flowed from number of refugees in Cologne (13000 in last few months), housing (they live in 24 gymnasiums around the city), integration issues (they expect everyone to learn German), citizenship process (can take years if you are not a UN sanctioned refugee), nationalism (Is is okay to say you don’t want anymore foreigners without sounding nationalistic “You don’t want to declare what it means to be German because it hearkens back to German sentiment in the late 1930’s”). What does it mean to be German?

Germany is overwhelmed with the amount of people they need to “process”. This creates people arriving in Germany and waiting for what can be years to get a permanent resident status. With that status comes full healthcare beyond alleviation of pain and medical emergencies, and guarantee of education. Currently, those who have sought refuge outside of the UN determination of refugee may not be able to enroll their children in public education. A child might spend years in Germany without schooling before the family has been given asylum status. “A parent can bring their child to a school. But that school can say they don’t have room. But if you have residency, the school has to take that child.”

Human Right article #26:

1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

If you do not arrive with refugee status, have been denied asylum, but determined to be unable to return home (no passport, no means of returning) you are given a limited version of asylum. You won’t be able to invite your family to resettle in Germany for two years. You must wait 3 months before getting a job, cannot make more than $64,000 a year, and for the first 15 months you will be the last one to be hired after a search for German residents has been exhausted. Your healthcare will be limited to pain alleviation or emergencies.

What are the challenges?

Housing, safety.


“A housing building was burned before refugees moved in”…”Someone threw a grenade at a housing unit. The grenade didn’t go off, but I don’t know if they knew it wouldn’t or not.”

The security is run by a private agency that subcontracts out for fire protection. There is some concern about the level of training of these guards.

What would help?

More control on the local level. The federal government determines where refugees are placed. States determine the housing and the education allocation. But the community is the one that is affected and should have more of a voice.

Community voice: could we have better prepared the communities for the arriving refugees ?

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And end to war?

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Day Twenty-four


I fly out today. One last meeting with a member of the ministry. Truth is, I’m not ready to leave. It hasn’t felt like three weeks. My work doesn’t feel done. I am going to miss the people I have been incredibly privileged to meet. It has been an amazing opportunity and I know I have been fortunate. There is a pride in Iceland that many express. I would too.

For me, Iceland, the land, feels ever changing: erupting volcanoes, glaciers developing and receding and developing, steam rising from the ground, plates constantly shifting, geysers shooting high into the air.

For me, Iceland, the land, feels timeless. Last night in a hotpot at the public swimming pool, sitting around talking to an Icelandic man the mechanics of geothermal energy, I watched families with small children bob and laugh, teenagers sit in steaming water playing chess on a Styrofoam float, an older man greet another with a friendly nod when he entered the hotpot and sat next to him. “We only talk to each other when we are both sitting in the hotpot.” It was 8 pm on a work night.

For me, Iceland, the country, feels old. Its history dates back much further than mine. Elements of its culture remain evident in its buildings, holiday celebrations, food, language, and a bit in their life perspective “þetta Reddast” (It will all work out in the end).

For me, Iceland, the country, feels young. One foreign born resident called it child-like. “They are innocent”. Her tone was the same as a man I met who moved to Iceland over a decade ago. He said, “I don’t want them to get hurt and lose their spontaneity, their trust.”

But, this is Iceland. It has survived volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, glacier sized floods. þetta Reddast.

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Day Twenty-three


Tuesday, December 15, 2015, my last full day in Iceland.

I meet in Kopavogur. We sit around a table. It is morning, dark, and candles on the table are lit. This I find to be common in my meetings, lit candles. When I met three weeks ago with my colleagues, we were all new to this program. Now, in just a short time, the program manager speaks calmly with confidence. “We will do this. I believe we will do this well.” I do too.

On to the second meeting. It starts with a hallway meeting between me and the Fulbright Director. Weeks ago she looked confident, and today she remains looking confident, helpful, interested in connecting people together, and as kind as she was from day one.

The meeting. It is with various members of a number of ministries and agencies who are coordinating the program. “Now that you have seen all the towns and municipalities, how are we doing?” I believe you will do this well.

The Fulbright director and I walk a short way. We find a table. We talk about Fulbright grants. A member of the Ministry of Welfare joins us. We are ending our work together. When we are on the sidewalk I say goodbye  to the director. I know that she has helped make this happen. I am very grateful. For her, I am one of many Fulbright recipients with whom she meets as part of her work. For me she was a conduit to this adventure.

Then to a meeting in an old building turned cafe. Front line workers and managers. We meant to talk about solutions but ended up sharing stories, then discussed the differences in asylum seekers and refugees and the global nature of human migration and the futility in isolation, and then back to the imaginary lines that defines one as an asylum seeker, one in search for work, and one as a refugee.

Having not solved anything in this meeting, I head to City Hall and meet social workers. We don’t even try to solve anything. We turn to one member of the meeting with a look that most of us know and have given. It is the look you might give a driver who meets your eyes, and you both know she is about to fall asleep at the wheel, and you know you will watch her crash as you stand by helpless on the sidewalk. It is the look that says, you will burn out soon, and when you do, others will pick up where you left things, and continue to try to fix that which can’t be fixed.

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Day Twenty-two

This was the plan as requested from the Red Cross in a nearby Municipality:

9-9:15 Short introduction where I tell the participants about my experience and field of research. Short introduction of participants.

9:15- 10:15 Trust in Communication– how do we earn the trust of people that have survived dictatorship and/or war (In this regard talk about both asylum seekers and  refugees)

10:15- 10:30 Break

10:30- 11:30 How to set boundaries (here she wants information on boundaries with other professionals, with refugees, and also between professional life and personal).

11:30-12:15 lunch

12:15-13:00 Syrian culture, main characteristics and how to work with cultural differences

13:00- 14:00 Effects of PTSD and other stress related illnesses on parenting skills

14:00-14:30 Language learning and the importance of native language

End this training and go to meeting with educators, headmasters, program managers with a representative of the Muslim community.

The day as it unfolded:

Arrived at red cross training. Two Albanian families were in the news for the past few days. They had sought asylum about ten months ago and withdrew their application after concluding that they would be denied. The flights for asylees out of the country are, like many international flights, at early times requiring late night trips to the airport. By law or policy, out-of-uniform police escort the passengers to the airport. This trip, unlike hundreds of others that year, was chronicled by the media. This created an image of a small child with a teddy bear leaving his home in the middle of the night. Reporters contacted people involved in the family’s case for asylum. Stories were presented in the next day news outlets, and a public response started. What is a complex issue of laws, policies, international migrations, poverty, collapsing governments and economies, and desperate hopes for a better life, better health, new beginnings, was mixed with heart-tugging stories and  a compassionate nation, became sound bites and out-cries.

For these workers it is feeling blamed for factors they must battle everyday. One worker raised her hands in the air, “Where are the cameras when the hundreds of other families are flown out because they don’t meet asylum regulations?” This is not new for countries. Each country finds a way of balancing their state welfare needs and abilities with those who seek a better life. There are some stories that are clear: running from persecution, barely making it to the new country alive. Then there are the countless others who don’t fear for their lives but search for a better one. How does a country evaluate their right to stay? How does a country decide if they can meet the needs of some when millions of others wander through the globe seeking a place to call home. Who should be responsible for the millions who now find themselves without a country?

The training then changed. It was now about their feelings: impending burn-out.

The problem with helpers is that they spend their life in jobs where they expect to be helpful. One does not help to feel good about helping. One is driven to help because the alternative is not an option. But it does make one feel satisfied when someone is actually helped. Thus the core of the problem: I help because I believe in helping. I feel good about my work when I can fix your problem. There is much that can not be fixed when working with people, especially people who come to you with such great need.

How do you continue to compassionately work with others when what you do every day doesn’t fix the problems?

You focus on the process, not the outcome. I can not grant these families asylum. I can not provide them the home, job, and community they want. But I can walk along side them, bear witness to their journey, remind them of the strengths on some level they know they have, and be with them until my road with them comes to an end. Is it as satisfying as fixing their problem? Not in the least. I have felt more competent and satisfied calling a doctor’s office for a non-English speaking client than hours I have spent being present with someone’s pain and fear.

The workers talked. Being front line workers is hard. But that doesn’t describe it. You listen to stories of violence, cruelty, dreams, loss, hope, loneliness. The ones you are trying to help plea with you. The plead is in their eyes, the way they describe their story with care in hopes that you will understand the significance of each detail, that in understanding  these details you will find ways to help. The plead is in their voice. And perhaps most painful, the plead is in the exhaustion visible with each movement: their fingers fumbling for a piece of paper with a phone number they believe will get them closer to someone who can help, the way they tug at their clothes that are stretched and worn, the way they nod when you tell them that “it” won’t happen. It: that event/application/person/time when everything will be all right.

Being a helper is really painful when they ask you directly for something you know you don’t have to give. Some try to soften it with little pillows of hope. But for most in need, it may be more helpful to be direct and clear: No, it will not happen.

This became the day. Through discussion and role plays and meetings with people who need to be at the table when front line workers get blamed for global problems, we moved through this day.

This is an average day for the workers; it was a news story for reporters. It was a reminder to viewers that some of us are luckier than others. It was an example that “there is never a humanitarian solution to a humanitarian problem–the solution is always political” Antonio Gueterres, 2008.


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Day twenty-one


A group is sitting, discussing their thoughts about the imagined differences between Icelanders and the Syrian families.

“We mostly are atheists I would say.” But you have a national religion I say to him. “Some of  us go to church on Christmas and Easter. Some of us are religious, most of us are not.”

How does one accept another’s culture or religion when either feels compromising of human rights?

“We women are Viking women.” She laughs. “We are strong.”

Iceland has been ranked by the World Economic Forum as the top country in gender equity for seven years in a row.

In Sunni Muslim practice, it is common for women to wear a hijab (a veil covering her hair, ears, and neck. It is a symbol of modesty.

“I don’t know how Icelanders will deal with that.” What if wearing the hijab doesn’t feel oppressive to the woman?

She shakes her head, “I don’t know. Just because she doesn’t think so, doesn’t mean it isn’t”.


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Day Twenty


I met a professor of Geography who said he gave a lecture to his colleagues about the geography of Syria. Through the history of its deserts and mountains, and water source he described a history of people, culture, and conflicts. This must be very helpful in understanding aspects of these families for those who know little about the area, I say. “Actually, I am teaching hospitality now and that helps me much more.” He described the hotpots public swimming facilities. “We learned from hospitality that some accommodations were needed in the showering area.” Accommodations? “Yes, for example, we learned Americans are bashful.” Bashful Americans? “Before you can go into the swimming areas you must shower naked with soap. The showers are open and a staff member is there to assure proper washing.” Ah, yes. Bashful Americans. “We put up little curtains. We can do little things like that for these families.”

Hospitality studies over  Geography is more relevant/helpful to preparing for forced migrants. It certainly takes a team.

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