When it comes to refugees, German foundations can do more and better


Susan Hennessy


Living in Uganda between 2013 and 2105 and now in Berlin has given me a unique insight into attitudes of citizens and the responding governments and agencies of two countries which opened their borders to those in need. In recent months, Alliance has featured responses from German foundations to the refugee crisis. While these highlight individual positive stories, the whole picture is much bleaker and though much of the fault for this lies with the state, foundations have a critical role and responsibility too.

Two years on from the arrival of over one million refugees, it appears that the government is now adopting an unofficial policy of deterring more refugees from travelling. Impossible requests are made of them.

For example, a 48-year old Syrian Engineer, who fled Aleppo was asked for his secondary school certificate. An Eritrean woman, who crossed the desert, was asked for her divorce papers. Impatience is shown when the right boxes cannot be ticked. Flexibility is not common.

What’s equally worrying is that, as a result of continuing bureaucratic deficiencies, siblings, partners, parents and grandparents who were accepted into different arrival centres remain separated. This has taken away the dignity of Germany’s newest residents.

Writing in the June issue of Alliance, Axel Halling, a programme coordinator of the European Community Foundations Initiative spoke of a very positive outcome for Ghayat Svied, a Syrian refugee, who ‘by chance, discovered the office of the community foundation in Kalk, and took part in its mentoring project’. While this is wonderful, I query why it happened by chance, rather than as planned outreach. Chance is playing too big a part in the fate of many.

Another case in point: in one home for refugees in Berlin, a pregnant woman was refused permission for her Munich-based partner to stay with her, even though she had a spare bed in her private room. It was only when a midwife insisted that her partner remain did the home grant him permission to stay the two nights until (and not after) the baby was born.

At the same home, wifi had not been installed for over a year, despite budget approval, as management feared the legal consequences of illegal downloading and streaming. Yet, the internet is how refugees communicate with their dispersed loved ones, how they learn about support services, how they work on improving their language, how they find a job or apartment.

What German foundations should do
German foundations are actively engaged in efforts to integrate refugees but they can and should do much more. One tangible way would be for them to fund training of German civil servants on solutions-based thinking and on treating clients with dignity.

Philanthropy could also help tackle underlying problems such as the ability to work. Last month Alliance published an interview with Michaela Wintrich of the Hans Weisser Stiftung, a foundation which assists vulnerable youth in Germany, including young Germans and refugees, to access the workforce.

The foundation’s work is admirable and innovative, but it is too localised to have the large scale-impact it deserves. Investment by foundations in scaling up promising initiatives and lobbying of state and federal governments for more flexible working regulations could help change the picture.

At present, refugees whose status is not confirmed (or who have been denied refugee status but not deported) cannot work legally. Yet research at the University of Oxford has shown the economic value of permitting refugees to work.

Professor Alexander Betts, the Director of the University’s Refugee Studies Centre notes that ‘when they are given the right to work, access to capital, and educational opportunities, they are likely to have the greatest impact.’ Volunteers are liaising with employers to create hiring opportunities for refugees, only for the state to later disallow working rights.

Improving communication between the various actors is another area in which German foundations could take the lead. A quarter of those invited to a recent Berlin community dialogue to discuss refugee issues were themselves refugees, but no translation was provided, and few of the native German speakers spoke slowly or clearly. The very people who mattered in the room, could neither listen nor contribute.

Elementary errors like this are occurring because the responsible agencies are not asking the simple question – how could we do this better? Who has done this before?

What do refugees need, and have we actually asked them? Are local governments liaising sufficiently with foundations and civil society, to gain much needed insights about intercultural participation? Could the European Community Foundations Initiative, which is focusing on learning and knowledge exchange, partner with international development agencies who have worked for years on intercultural participation?

A positive result of the Berlin meeting mentioned above was that local government representatives recognised that while support networks existed for refugees, refugees were not accessing them as a result of communication or knowledge barriers.

Acknowledging mistakes is a great start but there is much more to be done if Germany is going to fulfil its responsibilities to refugees. Let’s be open to a more critical self-assessment and ask harder questions of ourselves.

Susan Hennessy is a Berlin based organisational development advisor currently developing a participation-led management system review for Berlin refugee homes.

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *