A new chapter in Other People's Story Books

Despite being child to parents who had both been refugees themselves, that part of their past has never been openly talked about in our house.They told me once in full detail and never since. Once in a while, they would share bits and pieces of memories from all the way from Vietnam to Germany: How my grandmother took my mother to the docks in the middle of the night. The boats. The sea. How my father was captured by the Navy. The “re-education camp”. The second try… the good people at the boarding home they were allowed to stay at. Fellow refugee children they made friends with. Attending school in a totally foreign language at day. Learning that very foreign language in the evenings. Working - and eventually not only being able to make their own living, but being able to make another person’s living as well - in other words, not only having a child, but ensuring a safe and promising future for that child.

That being told, I must confess, I couldn’t imagine how it must be to find oneself in such a situation. If I don’t know their needs and wishes, how could I possibly dare saying that I’m helping with whatever I think that would help them?

If a refugee wishes for work, it almost automatically seems like a matter of impossibility: “We cannot even provide our own people with jobs, how do you think you would fit into that picture?” Maybe, that was a misunderstanding. Maybe, what was meant was rather: “I’m tired of sitting around all day. I want to feel useful again. I don’t want to be helped only. I also want to be in a position of helping others!”

I once helped supplying refugees with clothes. Our group of volunteers carried box after box and it would happen that some of the refugees ask to help us. We would refuse their offers and told them that it’s okay to go rest and let us do the work.

I didn’t realise at that time that we treated them like children, belittling them, taking their integrity and giving them the feeling of uselessness. Out of arrogant goodwill.

So how can we care, without degrading them? How can we help re-establishing self-esteem and self-awareness, instead of belittling them? It’s clear that they know better about their situation than we do, so how can we support them in finding their own solutions and learn from them, instead of imposing our solutions on something that we have absolutely no clou of?

The “beneficiary” model

Unfortunately this dichotomy between provider/ receiver of services is still very common in the non-profit sector. Just look at how funding applications for initiatives supporting refugees are framed. It seems that the moment you define them as category in need- no matter the language variations, you have a problem already.

Curious if our friends in Milano who are now doing many workshops to engage with groups in the city are seeing this kind of differentiation felt at the very level of individuals who are “in need” of care? Ping @zoescope @Alberto_Simonetti, as we were lately wondering how to frame discourse…

It should not be that hard

Hello @dennis, welcome!

You are  a designer – you tell me! I guess it starts by stripping ourselves and others of labels (I am a volunteer, you are a refugee, she is a person in need…) and decide we are all people, and we have got some job to do. If we do that, we can design the capacity of the people we are supposed to help into the action itself. For example, suppose that you want to erect a really large tent or an hexayurt in a refugee camp in Lesbos. How many people you need? If you think of the refugees as resource, you only need yourself to drive into the camp with the materials. Once there, you can ask for help, and chances are you’ll find it!


Hi Dennis,

We see this same problem with many of the short term volunteers in Calais.

A lot of very well meaning people want to come to ‘help’ and ‘care’, but they act in a way that robs the people they want to help of their agency; their freedom to act normally.

When i first started working on the camp i fell into the same trap. I was helping to build shelters, but i was also a little scared for myself: my safety, my equipment, ‘getting the job done correctly’. It was only by standing back from the action and just talking to some of the camp residents who were trying to help us that i found out more about them. Many of them had been engineers or builders before they embarked on their journey to a safer life.

I realised that these people were more qualified than i was, had more reason to make sure the shelter was built well and could be trusted with our equipment because it was of great value to them that we had brought it to the camp.

I had to turn off the switch in my head that was about ‘me’ and truely be there for them. But it could only be done by firstly opening a dialogue, then through mutual understanding and cooperation.

As the day went on the residents who were working with us drifted away (to do tasks like cooking, eating, prayer, preparation for the nighttime, talking to family at home/friends in other countries) and we found ourselves continuing the work as our orginal team. That was the moment that we really started to help them. We could treat this task as a job, we could committ 100% of our time and resources to finishing the job quickly, because that’s why we had come out there. As a result 16 people had a drier, warmer place to sleep that night.

But we could have walked on site, dropped all the materials and equipment off and sat drinking chai and talking to the residents for the whole afternoon whilst they built the shelters themselves and we would have been just as helpful, just as caring, just as useful to the people.

People first, mission second.

It’s a two way street

Hi Dennis,

My comment has little to do with refugees, but this project I did last semester back in New York was about the relationship between the provider and the receiver as well.

The area I focused on was disability. I interviewed a few people on the street who were in a wheelchair, and did a half day experiment rolling myself in a wheelchair. It was quite an experience I have to say. I suddenly found myself shorter than everyone else – both physically and psychologically. Many people offered me help, and of course I told them the truth, but I felt if I were really disabled, I wouldn’t simply say yes because I wouldn’t want to trouble others and would want to be as independent as possible. On the other hand, when I see a handicapped person, and a few of my classmates agreed on this, sometimes I am not sure if I should help him/her because I don’t want to assume that they can’t perform certain actions and offend them.

As time goes on, I realize the unbalance in the relationship between the abled and the disabled. The abled is always the benefit provider and the disabled is always the benefit receiver. Hence, this automatically, like you mentioned, “belittled” the handicapped. Therefore I began to think some solutions that can make the disabled offer something back so that the relationship between these two group could be even. We didn’t spend much time on this project so my answer to my question might sound cheesy.  I focused on wheelchair only, and added a heart-rate monitor on the handle so that the person who pushes the wheelchair could use that time to work out.

Here is the link to the commercial I made for the product. Hope this gives you some inspirations :).  Wheelchair New Generation on Vimeo


Thinking in the right direction

I am no expert, but I think you are on to something @lujia. This idea of everyone being simultaneously care giver and care receiver is the cornerstone of OpenCare. The commercial is cute too!

Imposed Boredom & The Autonomy to Act

Hi Everyone!

Thank you all for your responses! I’m afraid, I haven’t yet caught up with the whole routine, so sorry for my impoliteness of answering late…

We (the project group I’m part of) have been visiting a refugee camp in Berlin and had the chance to get in touch with a number of the people there. It seems like most projects with refugees focus on families and children, whereas the young men are being left out.

How is the situation in other places? Has anyone made the same experiences? If that were the case, we would frame our research around working together with these young men.

Right now, we’re in contact with a group of Syrians, around 25-32 of age, who have given us insights on daily life in the camp but also daily life in Syria and we have spoken about the small moments that create the feeling of home.

Since they are living in these rooms, which basically consist of for walls, no ceiling and four double beds, they themselves had already hacked the space in a way that would make their environment feel a bit more homey (or at least more practical).

Seeing them already understanding the space and having the ideas to improve it, what more could they do and make, were they only given the material and the tools?

Boredom and the feeling of not being able to progress seems to be the biggest problem, so they were welcoming the idea of getting active and being able to do something - anything - and when there’s a result that is useful in their very situation, it’s even better.

At this stage, it’s not about practical matters anymore, but it seems more like a search for emotional autonomy.

Community Garden

Hey Dennis,

there is a community garden called Himmelbeet in Wedding that might be an interesting project for you to check out! Volunteers can just come in during the opening hours and just see what kind of work there is to do - usually always something, from gardening to building stuff to preparing workshops. They have alot of projets going on and would be more than happy to talk to you, I am sure. I believe that some refugees work there too, or would be very welcome at least!

Actually, I just started volunteering there some weeks ago. For their Spring Opening Fest, I helped set up and supervise a little stall for people to make Stockbrot. At first, it was us preparing the bread for the guests and then they would cook it over the fire. However, some of the refugees that were there were very interested in the process, so I started to teach them how to make it. Turns out one of them had been a baker in Syria, which was great, because he showed me some tricks on how to handle the dough more easily and he could translate to the others the different types of wheat and seeds we had laid out to sprinkle on the dough. Others were preparing more sticks or making wood fore the fire. Soon, all the ‘volunteers’ were the ones sitting around the fire and eating bread. Hope this helped you a little!