Sunday, 23 April 2017

#ISV2017 "What Else Could we Do?" - Post No. 2

To read post no.1 about my study visit to Berlin follow this link:
3 young children who shared their stories with us - the boy in the red hat had been living in the centre for 2 years.
On our second day of the study visit, we had the opportunity to visit a refugee centre in Moabit. None of us had any idea what to expect when we saw that on the programme as we have no experience of such centres in our areas. This was an old school building that had become empty as a result of falling birth rates in Berlin. Now it housed 260 people. 
On our walk to the centre we passed a memorial to the local Jewish people who had been transported to concentration camps during the war, the fact of this being right beside the refugee centre made it very poignant.
Our purpose was to meet up with a young trainee teacher who was offering extra language classes to the children in the centre as an after school activity. 
The first thing that struck me as we entered the building was the fact that there were security guards positioned at the entrance, we had to sign in and the thought that someone living there has to do that every time the enter or leave struck me as feeling like a prison and definitely didn't feel like a homely environment right away.
The building looked, smelled and felt like a school, there were lots of people milling about, mostly men hanging about the entrance smoking, children sitting along the corridors playing on tablets or chatting to friends and women with small babies pacing the corridors. It was noisy.
The room where the student teacher was holding German lessons was a bright, colourful room with lots of evidence of play and children - there were games and toys on the shelves and larger pieces of play equipment around the walls. There were only 3 children in the room and they were all very different ages - ranging from 12 to 6. They were full of energy after a morning at school and wanted to be moving about the room. We watched as they played some games with the adult and then we chatted to them about their backgrounds etc. The student teacher explained that she never knew how many children would turn up for each session and as it is voluntary they could wander in and out during the time as well. They could also be at very different levels of German and some might only have just arrived a day or two earlier. The 3 children were keen to introduce themselves in German to us & tell us a little about themselves. Being children they automatically said things like "my name is ..... and I am .... years old' so when it came our turn, Ian went first and followed their lead with a "I'm Ian and I'm 33 years old", of course the rest of us had to follow suit or we'd have looked churlish!! We did tease him about that afterwards of course.
While we talked to the director the children built a castle.
We were delighted that the director was about to join us for a brief chat about the work going on in the refugee centre, he was an amazing person, very young and yet so passionate about his job and the plight of the refugees in Berlin. He was a social worker who had fallen into the role of director when the previous one left and after 2 years was burned out after working 24/7 in the centre but he wasn't leaving to do something easier, as he had decided to move to a role in a local school working with refugee children in their aferschool programme.
He spoke with such passion about how it was so important to make sure anyone moving into Berlin was given every opportunity to integrate into society and allowed to contribute in a meaningful way to local life etc. He was frustrated by lots of the problems he had encountered during this time working in the centre and the many hoops people had to jump through to access the most basis of entitlements. 
The idea is that people spend up to 3 months in such centres before moving out into a more homelike setting but one of the boys we spoke to had been living there for 2 years. This child spoke of not getting to sleep until 3 a.m. because of the noise in the centre each night. 
As the director pointed out was it really fair to the children in the centre to be expected to attend extra language classes after a day at school when they should really be playing? He was also concerned that whilst at the centre children were catered for almost all day and therefore parents had no expectation to look after their own children and this became a problem when they moved out of the centres and most if not all of this support was withdrawn. He was very concerned that families were depending on young children to provide them with their future in Berlin - the pressure on the children was too much, they had to act as interpreters for their parents and were being robbed of their childhood.
The biggest issue in his eyes was the complete disempowerment of people while living in the centres - they had no cooking facilities so even this basic skill was taken from them.
We had an opportunity to see around the centre to have a look at the facilities on offer to the residents. 
No matter how hard anyone had tried, this was still an institutional building and could never be seen as a home in any way, shape or form. I began to feel very sad and emotional as we walked through the building and you realise that life has to be really terrible where you come from if this is seen as better option. The volunteers who work hard to help make centres a better place were incredible, we met people who ran the clothing bank where residents could come to pick out new clothing, they had it set up like a proper shop and I was struck by the dignity they were trying to give people back as they had to choose used clothing. 
The volunteers had worked hard to make the clothing bank feel like a proper shop. 
There was a canteen but it could only hold 30 people so most have to eat in their rooms, meals are provided and as you can imagine aren't of a great standard or even the type of food most of the residents are used to eating.
There were 3 toilets in the building, so you can imagine what they were like and 6 washing machines but no driers for the whole building. I could only imagine how damp the rooms must be as people try to dry their washing.
We were humbled to chat to a young man from Afghanistan who at 17 was living in the centre alone and seems so sad and lonely yet was adamant he didn't want to go back home. Sadly as Afghanistan is viewed as a 'safe' country he is most likely to be sent back soon.
We heard about retired doctors who were volunteering weekly to offer a drop in clinic for residents and how one resident a tailor from Syria was helping to teach sewing skills to others in the centre. 
We later learned that this activity had almost been withdrawn from the plan as there were issues with the director now being available to meet us and a worry that it would be 'too much' for us. However all of us agreed that this had been such a worthwhile part of the programme and that it really needed to be part of it and future study visits too - we could never have understood the barriers the children were facing without seeing where some of them are living. All I could think was, how is a child supposed to concentrate at school when they have been awake until 3.a.m? I was also very struck by how vulnerable the young children wandering around the corridors unaccompanied were, they were very trusting and willing to please adults. 
Once again, though we heard the phrase "what else could we do?" from the staff and volunteers who were doing their best to make an abnormal situation as normal as possible. 
A massive thanks to all who made us so welcome at the Moabit refugee centre and the British Council DE for organising the visit.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.