Note: This is a reflection for our church newsletter based on my volunteer work with asylum seekers and refugees over the past 2 months. I am not sure whether it is perhaps too honest for the congregation, so I may tweak it before it goes to press. Truthfully I struggled with many aspects of my work with asylum seekers, and this is my honest self-reflection on my experience.
Most of us can sympathize with the asylum seekers who come for assistance with paperwork and finances on Thursdays – after all, most of us are immigrants ourselves. You surely remember how difficult it was to learn a new language, how complex the paperwork was, and how scary it was to bravely venture into the concrete jungle of the KVR and face down the unfriendly employees to get the right stickers in your passport (I still break out in a cold sweat when I go past the KVR building!). This is exactly the situation many of our newer refugee brothers and sisters find themselves in – with the big difference that the process is more complicated, the odds of being granted permission to stay are much lower, and the stakes are much higher. That’s why many of us who have “made it” into Germany and gradually found our bearings here feel a particular sympathy for those currently struggling to find their way.
But while I was eager to help, I also have to be honest: I was nervous about volunteering with asylum seekers! I’m not a social worker, I thought, and I know literally nothing about the German state’s various social programs and immigration processes! And anyway, I’m a foreigner myself, with mediocre German skills and a funny American accent. How can I possibly help anyone, I thought?
Each Thursday morning, a small handful of refugees stopped by with stacks of papers, bills, forms, letters and paperwork. I found it an extraordinary challenge to sort through the complicated cases, with their financial and procedural complexities. Sometimes the paperwork wasn’t complete, the situation was unclear, or the numbers just didn’t add up. The African approach to handling massive amounts of paperwork and is, umm, well, umm, not so very much like mine, and involves a crumpled, wrinkly stack of official communications and a rubber band. I normally consider myself a fairly competent person, but on Thursday mornings I was often left scratching my head in total and utter confusion. How should anyone, never mind a refugee brand new to Europe who can’t read or speak German, ever manage to figure it all out? Nevertheless, each week, in a busy morning, we wrote many letters, made phone calls and photocopies, and filled out 12+ page forms, at least making a serious dent in the amount of paperwork and administrative effort needed for each person to secure food, housing, and child support in Munich.
In addition to the practical challenges, I also found myself confronted and challenged on a personal level. The experience forced me to reflect more deeply about what it really means to support asylum seekers – not just theoretically, but personally. I sometimes became bewildered and frustrated as I relayed messages between (for example) a very animated, recent Nigerian refugee with broken English and a stern German bureaucrat speaking in the nearly-incomprehensible Bavarian dialect, often wondering just how I had ended up in the middle of the situation. And I confess: I found myself hesitating the first time I signed my own name to a letter to a German office on behalf of a refugee sister. Was I ready to commit myself personally to her? Was I ready to make an official statement of my personal and political support for refugees? Did I want my advocacy on the record, as it were? I decided in the affirmative – but it took a few minutes of internal wrestling. I was also personally challenged with the realization that caring for a sister or brother in Christ can’t be limited to the scheduled hours of 10-12 am on Thursday mornings. I worried about some of our brothers and sisters, talked about their cases with my husband over dinner, and thought about them during the day. And I learned that refugees sometimes need help unexpectedly and on short notice, because deadlines and emergencies arise, and they can’t wait for Thursday. This posed a dilemma for me: was I ready to give up some of my personal freedom and space in order to care better for someone else? I realized I had a lot to learn about wisdom, balance, and healthy boundaries.
In my journey at Peace Church over the past years, I’ve been constantly stretched, challenged, and changed by encounters with brothers and sisters from around the world, many from cultures and situations very unlike my own. Helping on Thursdays was yet another new experience for me. It offered both the blessing of being able to help others (in a small way), as well as the challenges that come with something so difficult and new. My hope for our congregation is that each of us will continue to prayerfully consider what new things God is calling us to – and let us each ask for the courage and grace to be willing to allow ourselves to be changed by our encounters with one another.