Refugees in Europe, GeTMA Berlin and TAM
Center for European Studies
Reaching out to Refugees
Last summer the U.S. media focused a great deal of attention on the refugee crisis in Europe. The main point of interest involved the Syrians fleeing civil war at home: the crossings, the shipwrecks, the flight towards Europe. During this time, we repeatedly listened to and read news stories drawing attention to what many called the biggest migration crisis since World War II.
One of the TAM students opined that it certainly was not a crisis. We were instead witnessing multiple crises which had all been brewing for some time. There was nothing new, nothing unforeseen. Just a series of political missteps and policy failures in the face of terrible hardships far away.
It’s complicated to look back and think about what could have been done to prevent a current challenge. And one wonders if the only possible outcome of that kind of speculation can be criticism.
Instead of hypothesizing, I was curious to know what individuals in Europe were doing as refugees arrived. One German colleague in Bremen told me he had “adopted” a teen-aged refugee named Mohammed. I said “Oh, he lives with you?” No, my colleague explained, I take him out golfing and help him with his English and German language skills. Another guy I know in Berlin regularly visited an old department store, which had been repurposed to house refugees, and he gave German lessons there. Another one shuttled day-old baked goods from restaurants which could no longer sell them to a facility outside Berlin where refugees were housed. A professor from Hannover said that her university had sent out an email asking speakers of certain languages and dialects to volunteer their services in assisting refugees without German-language skills. They built a database including the names and contact information for people who had the language skills needed to provide translation services. An American in Paris told me that his son made sandwiches at his elementary school every Wednesday. Teachers and parents then distributed the food later in the day to refugees living in nearby temporary shelters. Most of these people said they felt compelled to do something to help the refugees arriving in their countries.
Next, I found two University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill undergraduates who had recently been in Paris. One was an American guy who spoke Arabic and French. He had spent a summer providing legal assistance to Syrian refugees seeking political asylum in France. Another was an Italian-British woman who had volunteered to help refugees while studying at Sciences-Po Paris. She found out what refugees needed and then brought donated items such as blankets, socks and coats to them.
The undergrads were really intriguing when they talked about how their volunteer work had impacted them in the long term. The Italian-British woman said that working to help the refugees showed her what really mattered to her. It “made my heart sing,” she said. The American said when he got home from Paris, an immediate family member died unexpectedly. His loss was eased, he explained, when he thought about the Syrian refugees he had met in Paris who had also endured the death of family members coupled with the loss of a home, all possessions and a native country. In the context of the enormous hardship borne by the refugees he had come to know in Europe, he felt less devastated and better equipped to cope with his own terrible circumstances.
All of these stories interested me a lot. But the most compelling story I heard was Christian’s. Christian Wilhelm works at the Humboldt University in Berlin.
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