"Negative attitudes do not help": Work experience on a refugee camp

Maren Gockel has been working on a refugee camp in Germany since October 2015. She is one of the first alumni of “International Master’s in Sociolinguistics and Multilingualism” and agreed to give us an interview on her work experience in a multilingual and multicultural camp of asylum seekers.

Can you describe briefly the camp where you are working?

In October I started to work in a camp located in the Western part of Germany. It is one of the bigger camps and can host approximately 1,000 refugees. The camp is an institution where refugees stay for 4 to 12 weeks before they are sorted into different municipalities.

Who are the asylum seekers that have arrived or are still arriving in the camp you are working in?

The asylum seekers in our camp are from all over the world. We have a few refugees from Bangladesh, India, Russia, Algeria, Marocco, Ghana, Nigeria, Eritrea, the Balkan States and China, but most of the asylum seekers flew from Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

We have single men as well as families living in our camp. In January our first “camp-baby” was born, a cute little boy. Since then we had four more newborns, which is always special and very emotional.

What are the responsibilities of volunteers in the camp? What are your responsibilities?

At the moment we do not have many volunteers working in the camp. Most of us are salaried and work 8 hours a day. Some of the employees work at the canteen, where our residents can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. Others are employed at the health facilities and the Kleiderkammer, where the asylum seekers can get donated clothes and shoes. The camp also has a kindergarten for children aged three to twelve. The biggest section, however, is the section Betreuung, where I worked from October till March (now I work in the administration, but I will describe the responsibility of the Betreuung because they are the ones in direct contact with the refugees). The main responsibility is to take care of the refugees. We welcome them when they arrive in our camp and are responsible for sorting them in their rooms by arrival and enter them in our computer system. Furthermore, we help them in their daily life, e.g. give out hygienic products, disperse them their pocket money, give out games and books, manage the local mini shop, control the refugee-workers, play football or open the club where they can play billiard and table tennis. In general, we help the asylum seekers with their daily problems, solve conflicts and try to make their stay as comfortable as possible.

Can you draw some conclusions about the society's willingness to accept refugees from the actions of individual citizens in the town you are working in?

The camp where I work is located in a very rural area and at the moment we do not have to deal with demonstrations or right-winged attacks. The local football club, for example, invites 10 asylum seekers every Monday to join their training session and also offers coaching for the children in the camp. Furthermore, some citizens of the town organized several bus tours for different refugees to show them the area and invited them for coffee. Of course, there is also some negative press, but in general, I would say, that the town accepts the refugees even though when the first plans about the camp were discussed, many of the inhabitants had some reservations and were scared. We could use more volunteers so we can offer more activities, but due to the fact that the next big city is far away, it is difficult to find these volunteers.

What is the background of the volunteers? Are there any people with migration background themselves? What is the main motivation of the volunteers to aid the refugees?

The volunteers, e.g. the local football or ice hockey teams do not have many people with a migration background. However, many of my co-workers have a migration background. They understand the asylum seekers not only linguistically but also culturally, which is really helpful in our daily work. Many also fled their native country some years ago, so they can relate to the current situation of the asylum seekers.

I've heard that many asylum seekers are very supportive in refugee camps: doctors help patients, some people do the cooking, put up tents, etc. How much of that have you observed?

I have to agree with this. Most of the asylum seekers are very helpful, friendly and try to help in the camp. Refugees who can speak English or sometimes even German quite well help with the communication with other refugees. This is especially helpful for me, because I do not speak the migrant languages like Arabic, Kurdic or Farsi. We also have a few refugees who work for us for 10 Euros a day. They clean the outside of the camp, help in the canteen and work in the camp-laundry. Last week some of our refugees participated in a local 'cleaning-campaign', in which the town where the camp is located in, got cleaned, e.g. scattered trash was picked up.

What is the general atmosphere in the camp?

In general, the atmosphere in the camp is good. Of course, we also have chaotic and crazy days, but most of the time it is peaceful. One thing I notice is that it really depends on the weather. If the weather is nice, the atmosphere is always better and, naturally, more joyful. People are outside, playing and dancing and are in a good mood. If the weather is bad, we have more problems. People are complaining, asking about the next transfer and we have a rise in theft and violence.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work?

It is very challenging to work with so many different cultures and sometimes also the language barrier is difficult. Also, it can be very hard to stay objective or to not take things home with you. Sometimes the asylum seekers tell stories about their journeys or show pictures from their families and their native countries. Often you see and feel the emotions of the people and this can be very challenging. I am a very emotional person, so to stay neutral or sometimes to not start to cry is difficult.

It is also challenging to tell people about my job. The attitude of many people in Germany in regard to asylum seekers is getting worse and worse, so I often get negative responses. At first, when I started my work in October, many people were very proud of me and said that it is important to help refugees. Nowadays, many people ask me if I am scared to work in the camp as a woman or if it is dangerous. I am not scared and it is not dangerous. I also often have to tell people that most of the asylum seekers came to Germany because they want protection, because they want to feel safe and not because they want welfare or want to spread the Islam. These discussions are very tiring, and sometimes it happens that I do not want to tell people about my job because I already know that it will end in a big discussion about politics, religions and fear. However, then I think that I actually need to have these discussions because I work at the base, I know that most of the refugees are nice people who only want to live in peace and in a secure environment. I need to stand up for them because if I cannot do it, who can or who will? So, the most challenging aspect of my work is probably the discussions I have with people outside of my work because of my work ;).

What is most rewarding in your work?

I think it is important to contribute to the task of helping refugees. To know that I help, that I make a difference, even if it is a small one, is very rewarding. In addition to that, the gratefulness of the asylum seekers is incredible; to see small children, women and men smile and to hear a whispered “Danke/Thank you” is amazing.

What skills and capacities did you need to develop?

The first few weeks were really difficult for me. It was hard to understand the needs of the asylum seekers, to talk to the ones who did not speak any English and to find my place in a very multilingual and multicultural team. SoMu actually helped me a lot in the latter because I was already used to a certain extent to adapt to a multicultural environment. However, I still needed to develop certain skills, for example to communicate with people who do not speak any of the languages I speak. That was and still is very difficult. I also needed to learn to distance myself from many of the stories the asylum seekers told, because most of them were very emotional, and it was difficult for me to handle them.

Your work requires a lot of psychological and physical strength. What helps you to aid others?

As I mentioned before, this work is very emotional. Therefore, it is important to always have someone to talk to. I have to say, we have a very good team and there is always someone who listens and gives you back your strength. Also, the thankful smiles of some of the asylum seekers help, and if I see new scenes in the news from Syria or even from some country boarders, I know why I am doing the work. Because it is important, because it is my responsibility, because I cannot let the people suffer and due to the fact that I cannot change the bigger picture or world politics I have to start in the small, e.g. in the camp where I work.

What advice would you give to a young person aspiring to become a volunteer like you?

Do it! It is not only very rewarding work, it is also really important. The current migration-crisis is not easy, but negative attitudes do not help. We can only manage it if the whole society works together. It is a task not for a few chosen ones but a task for everyone; for you, for me, and of course for the asylum seekers themselves. So, everyone who wants to help, who wants to contribute should do it.

Anything else that you would like to tell people and I haven’t asked about?

Right now, refugees are painted in a very bad light, not only because of individuals being criminals but also because of the terroristic attacks happening in Europe, like most recently in Brussels. These attacks are horrible and frightening, but we should not let these attacks lead our life. To travel is important, to have an open mind is important and to stand up against terrorism is important. Furthermore, refugees should not be held responsible for these attacks. Responsible are terrorists, who also torture the native countries of many of the asylum seekers.

In Germany, we had horrible news about refugees harassing women in Cologne and other cities in Germany during and after the New Year’s Celebration. This, of course, is not acceptable and the offenders and abusers need to be punished very strictly. However, it is important not to generalize. Many of the refugees I met were also horrified by the news, ashamed to be thrown into the same pot as the offenders and scared because of the negative attitude towards refugees in the media, on the streets and especially in the social media. While there will be always negative examples, we should not forget that many of the asylum seekers fled horrific scenes and saw things we cannot even imagine. They fled from their homes and are not here to bring a religious war to Europe, like some right-winged politicians argue. Most of the refugees just hope for a future in which they have a safe, secure and peaceful life and I see it as my responsibility to help them to find this peace in Germany, be it for only a few weeks, some months, many years or even for the rest of their lives. Of course, this also includes helping them to understand the German system of values, to encourage them to learn the German language and to support their process of integration if they are granted asylum. In order to be successful in integrating the refugees who are granted asylum, the whole society needs to work together, starting with the education system, local companies, local clubs and also neighborhoods. We should not be afraid of the foreign, but should embrace it, should learn from each other, help each other and create a society in which no one has to feel threatened because of his or her origin, language, religion or sexual orientation. 

Thank you so much for your responses! Above all, thank you for the work that you are doing!