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March 17, 2016

The Role of Dialogue in Accepting Refugees into our Communities

During the introductions that opened the meeting, Kathleen Kanet described the long association she and the Network for Peace have had with Monika, dating back to the mid-1980s. Monika and her colleague Ute Wannig were founders of an organization in Germany that was the predecessor and inspiration for our project in the U.S.

Virginia passed around the dialogue guidelines we use to begin all meetings and these were read aloud.

To begin her talk, Monika said she would speak from her perspective as a sociologist and a member of a church-related commission on refugees. Germany has accepted and cared for a million refugees during the recent crisis as desperate people fled to Europe from the Middle East and beyond.

Monika organized her talk into four parts. First she pointed out the difficulties of conducting dialogue with the newcomers when they not only did not speak German, they also were not fluent in English or French. Translators in languages such as Farsi, Urdu, and Arabic were required for communication, creating a risk of misinterpretation. This was frustrating for both traumatized refugees who wanted to speak about their experiences, and the officials and others who wanted to get them settled. It was particularly difficult to get in contact with women because they wouldn't come out of the shelters provided for them.

However, there were Germans who found other ways than speech to show their welcome. They distributed items like clothing, toys, furniture, and repaired bicycles as symbols that demonstrated their wish to dialogue.

Second, she discussed ways the German government found to settle people throughout the country. Refugees were placed in communities according to the community's size. For example, in the suburb of Frankfurt where she lives, about 100 refugees were settled. In some other places, the shelters are very big: One former warehouse houses 2,000 for example; an old airport, 4,000.

Each community is responsible for providing housing. Volunteers working in church parishes and in community centers provided refugees help in getting the resources they needed.

It became apparent that there was a need for the volunteers themselves to receive support. They needed outlets to express their irritation about the situation without being judged. They had feelings such as "people are not grateful," "people are not punctual," "people are not respectful." They needed help to reflect on what the reasons for these behaviors might be and what their expectations were. In workshops, the volunteers did exercises in how to address their own habits of thinking.

Third, what can be the role of dialogue with people not directly involved? There needed to be spaces where members of the general public could be informed and given an outlet for expressing their concerns. In some places, mayors provided residents with information in advance of the arrival of refugees and an opportunity for them to express their worries.

The media was helpful in some cases in creating openness by describing some of the ways people welcomed the newcomers. Some media outlets were not so helpful, for example radio talk shows where the focus was the burdens being created and not the solutions found.

Christian churches spoke about the virtues of openness. New thinking about what communities can do developed. Unexpected spaces were found for housing. There were 100 Apartments discovered and available for refugees after a call of the dean of the catholic parishes in Frankfurt was made.

Fourth, is it possible to dialogue with people who strongly object to the policy of accepting the refugees? How can you dialogue with people who are shouting or burning shelters? Among those who are objecting are people who feel that their own needs are being neglected at the same time that services are being offered to the refugees.

Some NGOs are trying to bring together refugees with these others who are in miserable conditions, without stable homes or jobs. They want to create solidarity among such people instead of the social splitting that so often happens in situations where people see each other as rivals for resources.

Following Monika's talk, there was a moment of silence for participants in the dialogue to reflect on what she had to say before beginning their comments.

There was much sympathy among the participants for the emotional stress on both the givers and receivers of help. For the givers, they wondered about the difficulty of maintaining empathy in the face of the probable anger and feelings of humiliation of the refugees. One asked how the dialogue could bring givers to realize they not only give but receive something in the transaction.

One person sympathized with resistant people shocked to find a whole colony of strangers in their "backyard." On the other hand, one person mused about how hard it would be for the refugees to leave their own culture behind and adopt the "mindset" of the new place.

This person also said she heard "on the radio" that instead of the refugees being made up of families as pictured in the media, the crowds of migrants were actually military-aged men. (Monika reiterated that this was not the case.) Another person asked, "Is ISIS behind this?"

One person reflected that outside realities have forced this situation on both the givers and receivers. She said Pope Francis showed the way by bringing one family to Rome. Something new is going to be created. Germany will be changed.

The son of a Holocaust survivor said that his father, if still alive, would be touched and pleased to see changes in Germany that allow the welcoming of the refugees. Because there was a question about how the resettlement was organized, Monika explained that in Germany churches and NGOs provide social services under contract with the government. The government provides funding for services. Local communities, too, got money from the government in order to fulfill their role.

The welcome movement was a social movement that created its own dynamics. There were already churches offering asylum and other organizations reaching out to the refugees. These efforts were amplified by newspaper coverage and the movement thus caught on.

It was very chaotic. Professionals and volunteers worked to exhaustion. Volunteers required supervision, training in immigration law and seminars on causes of the flight. Educators and others were called out of retirement to meet the demand. (Retirement at 65 is mandated in Germany.)

There was a question about jobs for the refugees. Monika explained that according to German law, they were not allowed to work for 13 months. NGOs have advocated for a change in this law because it creates psychological problems for people and a black market in jobs

Once again language is a barrier. People who have had job skills in their own countries suffer a loss of status because they cannot use them in the new context. However, most of the refugees do not have much education or professional training in the first place, and the German job market calls for skilled people. This is also a problem for Germans without special qualifications.

Corporations initially were interested in providing money and support for the newcomers with the idea that the youth could replace the older German workers who are retiring. Germany is an aging society. Now that it is clear that the migrants will need much education and training before they can participate usefully in the German economy, corporations are less interested.

Personally, Monika said, she feels it is urgent to find support for young women to get job training. It is not easy to reach them, however, since most are of Muslim background and their movements are restricted.

In answer to a question about whether the refugees could stay in Germany indefinitely, Monika said that it is possible to apply for asylum for the rest of one's life, but as a rule if the situation in a person's country changes, she/he must return to her/his place of origin.

In answer to a question about the causes of the flood of refugees, Monika said that the camps for them in Lebanon and Jordan were in desperate shape. The UN cannot keep up services for so many. Also smuggling of persons has become hugely profitable industry. But there is not one cause the situation in Syria is of course causing an exodus of people fleeing the war. But others come from other war-torn areas Eritrea, Afghanistan, Libya.

When Macedonia and Austria began refusing entry to the refugees the situation was eased in Germany.

Here were some thoughts from the final go-round ending the meeting:

--Thanks so much to Monika for her clear and informative talk.

--Should we be making more noise with our government to help?

--I would love to see our government do something. I wish we were a more welcoming country.

--As Monika talked, I marveled at the generosity of the German people and thought of the refugees in this country who are being kept in detention camps and of Central American children who are sent back home to places where there is a good chance they will be killed.

--How we treat the other is how we treat the stranger in ourselves.

--How can we ensure that people in the global South have healthy lives.

--I am amazed at the organization in Germany in working toward assimilating refugees into their country.

From Monika I am impressed by the procedures you use in your dialogues.

*Prof. Dr. Monika Treber, PhD. in Sociology, Goethe University Frankfurt/Main Prof. & Rector of Catholic University of Applied Social Sciences in Berlin during 1999 2013. Member of the lay- council of the archdiocese of Berlin, commission on Refugees and Migrants



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