Working with refugees was probably one of hardest experiences in life till now, and it is still a struggle. But I feel like every struggle, every problem and every uncomfortable situation is teaching me something, something fundamental. Working here has destroyed all my illusions, it bursted my bubble: Being a European student, being a white male, growing up in times of peace and being born into a loving family seemed very natural to me, and now it is not anymore. But I am convinced, that it is exactly our duty to face the horrors of war and its victims in order to understand what our luxurious life in the West causes. For this reason I would recommend anyone to confront yourself with that, to reflect on your life and to let your bubbles burst.
First, I was shocked. Then I tried to understand but it was hard. And to understand, I tried to image the situation of a refugee: Image a complete normal life, where you are happy and sad sometimes, just as life is. Suddenly, everything changes with political decisions. Sometimes there are no warning signs, it can happen overnight. And then comes the anarchy: Laws, social order, moral, everything you believed in is falling apart and the only thing you can thing of is your survival and the survival of everyone you love. This extreme situation these humans face brings our the best or the worst out of a person, in any way, you become extreme, frightened and desperate. If you have the possibility, and even if it is only the slightest opportunity to flee this situation, you will take it. And this is just the beginning of a long, long journey. Even the end of this journey, when you thought you finally arrived, doesn't mark the end of the struggle; It is the beginning of another episode full of problems, hardship and helplessness.
To conclude, it will take a long time till you will be able to life a normal life again. And even when you’ve accomplished that, the nightmares might haunt you still. There are people you’ve lost. Places you can never go back. And feelings, which will never be the same.
Realizing this helped me a lot to understand all those stories, it help me to reconstruct situations and to be emphatic, even though I’ll probably never fully understand. But of course, even with all empathy, you are still allowed to express your opinion when you think something is wrong - Which can be very difficult: There is a special group of refugees amongst the others, which are Yazidis. They were minority in Iraq, since they aren't Muslims and are very much focussed on their own communities - till ISIS declared them as a main target and did horrible things to them, unspeakable and absolutely brutal. I had various uncomfortable conversations with some of our Yazidi inhabitants, which were so traumatized and didn't wanted to have to do anything with Islam ever again. It is very hard to explain someone, who lost big parts of his family and his old live because of self-declared Islamic fundamentalism ( which is in fact not muslim at all in any way), that not all Muslims are bad. Rational arguments don't work mostly, and they would argue with horrible stories, which you cannot relativize anyhow. In this situation, it is very important that you do disagree, it doesn't help if you always support a traumatized or vulnerable person, especially if their opinion or mindset might manifest and radicalize them.
As most volunteers have no professional, psychological skills, it might be useful at this point to give them the contact of someone professional, who might help them better. Therefore, working with vulnerable groups requires a strong network of different support groups, such as psychologists, legal experts, social workers and pedagogists. Having this holistic approach towards these youths helps most and can even prevent difficult situations. If your organization is too small or cannot provide the means, I would recommend to locally connect and to create external support opportunities.
Working with refugees, as well as with other vulnerable groups is extremely demanding, and at the same time very rewarding and necessary. Here is a little listing of possible dangers I have identified in working with refugee youths and children:
Being in this hopeless situation often leads to the desire to strongly connect with religious or political groups, as a compensation for the missing social support. Radicalization can be prevented with good social work, with intensive care and constant support.
- Mental diseases and trauma
Especially when you are not a professional, mental diseases and trauma will leave you very helpless. Here it is very important to acknowledge that this condition is a pathological one and cannot easily changed and healed. Don't take things personally and don't feel responsible for things, which need professional solutions.
- Apathy and lack of motivation
Very commonly, most refugees face apathy and a lack of motivation due to various factors. Try your best to motivate your clients, but be aware of their difficult situations and traumatic experiences, don't expect too much.
- Negative impact on yourself
Dealing with refugees means also dealing with horrible stories and fates, which can have a lasting impact. Thus, it is very important for youth workers to reflect and discuss constantly what they feel and how they process their daily work. Exchanging thoughts and experiences can also be an indefinite source of motivation and inspiration!