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The godparents helping refugees feel at home

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The godparents helping refugees feel at home
A young refugee from Syria. Photo: UNHCR/S Baldwin
09:32 CET+01:00
More and more refugees are arriving in Austria, including unaccompanied children from Afghanistan. While their basic needs are being met, they often struggle to become integrated into Austrian society. The Local's François Badenhorst met with Connecting People, a non-profit working to help these children and young adults.

Many refugees who arrive in Austria have endured harrowing journeys. Specifically, the unaccompanied minors who travel to Europe from places like Afghanistan, often by foot.

When discussing the care that should be afforded to this incredibly vulnerable section of society, politicians often get caught up purely in material considerations.

Providing shelter and food covers two basic needs - but there are more abstract things to consider as well, such as a feeling of belonging and self esteem. The asylum system in Austria, while humane, struggles to cater for the complexities of human emotional and mental health.

We all know that as human beings we need interaction with a person or people who know us as a name and a face, and not just a case number. It’s arguably one of the most difficult challenges when dealing with asylum issues, because integration goes hand in hand with feelings of belonging and familiarity.

It is this challenge that Connecting People, an NGO situated in the heart of Vienna, tries to address. Since 2001, the organization has been matching underage refugees with a 'godparent' who acts as a guide and a friend.

The Local sat down with Connecting People’s Marion Kremla and Klaus Hofstätter to talk about their work.

In your own words, what does connecting people do?

Marion: We connect refugee minors - who are under-18 - and Austrians who are interested in making contact with these refugees.

One of the things you say on your website is that the asylum system in Austria caters for refugees' physical needs but not their emotional and psychological needs - how important is that to what you do? 

Marion: They are teenagers but in a way they stopped being children at the age of 14. They were pushed into being adults the moment they had to leave - the moment they had to cross the sea, or border after border. And when they finally get here and are safe then they can start being teenagers or children again. 

But, when they arrive here they have no personal relations to Austria and no personal relations to adults. They only have personal relations to refugees like them, only in their peer groups. Peer groups are fine and necessary for a teenager, but to integrate you need to meet people from Austria.

It’s an emotional need to have someone from here who supports you, who can answer your questions and who helps you with all your decisions.

Do the teens who come here have psychological issues or trauma? 

Klaus: I think they have all experienced traumatic events and the fact is that they had to flee from their homes. Normally it is not a voluntary decision to leave your home behind. But normally, the youngsters we deal with aren’t the most traumatized, they are the ones who have arrived here and want to make their lives. I think this a very important difference because even if they are traumatized, it means they have decided to continue living here, to settle.

How do you meet the kids?

Marion: They come to us voluntarily. The concept of Partnerschaft is quite well known among the refugees. If you go to any refugee hostel, you will find underage refugees who say “I want Partnerschaft!” Maybe one of their friends has a godparent and he gets a visit every now and then and goes out with that person. 

The way we get in contact with them is through the carers in their accommodation, they suggest which youth they think is best adapted for a Partnerschaft. The scheme is only suited to those teenagers who are capable of maintaining a long term relationship, of making real contact with someone. Those who are severely traumatized aren’t able to do this - they are just too uprooted.

Once a carer has suggested someone we meet the candidate for a short workshop and then we ask the two questions, they’re very simple: What do you think your partner should be like - a man or a woman - and what do you want to do with your partner?

Klaus: The often say they have to be “nice”. They have a very limited bandwidth of qualifications. They want their partners to be sympathetic, tolerant, not too severe. It reflects very much their experiences with adults and it’s a conscious program. Normally, they want a mother figure. 

Marion: Yes, the newest trend was, “I want a stepmother”. 

Klaus: Because they come from a culture where the aunt takes over the role of mother when the mother dies. So they want a mama.

Why do they travel here unaccompanied?

Marion: We don’t exactly know. But one of the reasons is a kind of migration tradition. What we do understand is that there is a complete lack of any perspective or hope for young people in Afghanistan. There’s no sign of the situation changing in the next ten or 20 years.

So, the family decides that one, at least, should have a chance. And normally they send the one who has the best chance. Personally I'm quite happy that it has become known that you stand a better chance in Austria when you arrive as an under-18. Because then you will have German lessons, you will be able to stay in the country you choose, and not just the first country you set foot in.

Usually one son is tasked with trying his luck in Europe. The youngsters are often unhappy with this decision - it’s really a burden because there are a lot of expectations: find a job, send us money, bring us to Europe as soon as you’re settled.

So I think it’s very different to fleeing from a conflict like Syria where you take your things and run, compared with fleeing from Afghanistan where you leave because you can’t live there anymore.

Klaus: Often they come via Pakistan and Iran, where they’ve been living for years. They go to these places when they’re about two or three and continue to live there until they are 13 or 14. And sometimes they had to work as a child labourer. 

How do they get here? Human trafficking?

Marion: Yes, the usual route is through Iran and in Iran refugees have no rights. So when you’re caught you’re just thrown across the border. No right to go to school, no right to work. And when the situation in Iran worsens they then travel through Turkey, Greece and then from Greece to continental Europe. And this takes a few months.

Klaus: Sometimes years. When the situation in Greece worsened two or three years ago, the flight became longer. It took them sometimes two years to move over from Greece to continental Europe. When they make such a long journey - something changes in these teens. Their inner framework is loosened. There are gangs, there all sorts of dangers.

Marion: When you live a life where the only purpose is to survive, you just think about surviving. You don’t think about ethical values. You survive.

Has Connecting People had a particular success story? A refugee that did particularly well?

Marion: Some are especially gifted and talented. And some start with really nothing in regards to education, they never learned to write, and three years later you find them in high school. It’s really unbelievable.

Klaus: Mojtaba arrived here aged 13. He found a godmother, who really helped him. He had a handicap, one leg was shorter - but she helped him get medical treatment. And now he’s 21, and he’s studying chemistry, biology and political science. And when he gained asylum he was able to bring his family to Austria. He and some friends even set up an association for young Afghan refugees. 

Marion: Three days ago he introduced us to his Austrian girlfriend - so he's pretty well integrated. 

How does one become a godparent?

Klaus: People who are interested contact us and we do information evenings. We’ve done four in the last two months, each with between 15 and 20 people. Normally the people who come here weren’t just magically struck by the idea of caring for a refugee - normally they have known about us for three or four years. 

Our project is not just about helping, it’s about meeting a person face to face and on the same level. It’s about helping someone to get their feet on the ground, and getting to know Austrian society.

How are you funded?

Marion: Through donations and subsidies from government ministries, particularly the Social Ministry.

Klaus: Those account for about one third of our budget, the rest comes from donations.

How many kids have you helped?

Klaus: About 500, since we started. But this year we are doing much more than we usually do.

Marion: It’s increasing exponentially.

Because more people are finding out about it? Or because there are more refugees?

Marion: Yes, we’re getting more refugees...

Klaus: But we’re also becoming more efficient.

What kind of people typically want to become partners?

Klaus: They are very often academic, usually between 45 and 60. I think they are usually the kind of people who say "my career is done; my children are grown up". So, they want to do something that makes sense. That’s the most common pattern. 

Marion: Usually they see themselves as the lucky ones. The ones who were born into a good life. And they say "I am lucky, I have received so much and now I want to give something back”. And there are also younger people who feel this way and want to become godparents.

Has the political climate changed since you started Connecting People in 2001?

Marion: It’s completely different to how it was three or four years ago. With the influx of Syrian refugees, you can see how compassionate Austrians can be. We haven't received a single racist phone call... 

The anti-Islam, right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) has been gaining support in recent years - has that had an effect on the climate for refugees here?

(At this point Katharina Glawischnig, Connecting People's legal expert, jumps into the conversation.) I don’t think so. There’s a sub-section who feel strongly about immigration and refugees and the FPÖ is feeding that and no one will change their mind. I know people my age who vote FPÖ and their parents come from Turkey! They’re voting for HC Strache - but he finds the right words for them. He’s a populist. There’s this idea that “he is one of us! He knows the problems of the normal people!”

Marion: I'm not aware of it affecting the work we do. I am dealing privately and professionally with people who want to help refugees. Those who vote FPÖ feel that poorer countries have wasted their chances. I can't change their minds - no matter what, they will see me as their enemy. I can only concentrate on helping this fractional segment of Austrian society that needs my help.
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