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?