Module 6Voices of Community Based Service Providers

Future Hopes and Perspectives Reported by the Service Providers

M-6-Refugee Service Providers.jpg

Challenges Reported by the Service Providers

Interviews with people from organizations and institutions that were actively engaged with providing services to refugees offered information about the experiences host communities have had in resettling refugees. The interview partners represent academia, nonprofits, volunteers, and government officials. They identified similar experiences such as recognizing the need for inter professional and volunteer support to address the large influx of refugees, since established organizational structures were simply overwhelmed. They also recognized the need to explore new ways to design and implement provision of basic resources and services for refugees and local residents.

There were many challenges. The changing needs and evolving processes of refugee resettlement meant that collaboration, clear communication, and flexibility were necessary. Different world-views, agendas, priorities, and access to resources affected the ability for service providers to implement policies and provide for constructive integration for all in communities. Diligence, perseverance, and the ability to have constructive conflict were necessary.

It was inspirational to listen to persons who have been working on the front lines of refugee resettlement in Germany. They demonstrated their willingness to serve their communities. They have welcomed refugees and helped them feel safe in a new country. They have had to dealing with shifting political sentiments towards refugees and foreigners. They have needed to find ways to care for their own health and wellbeing in times of stress and uncertainty. And, at the end of the interview, most of the service providers wanted to appeal to others to work together for peace.

The following interviews with service providers offer their experiences, challenges, wishes for the future, and messages to others about how they have dealt with the consequences of war and violent conflict, and the search by refugees for safety and shelter in their communities.

Experiences Reported by the Service Providers

Professor Dr. Bettina Völter, Dean of the Alice Salomon Hochschule

Professor Dr. Bettina Völter, the Dean of the Alice Salomon Hochschule in Berlin, Germany has been integrally involved in the refugee resettlement in Germany. She represents a historical tradition of social action by the Alice Salomon Hochschule(ASH), founded by Dr. Alice Salomon - who is often referred to as the “Mother of Social Work in Germany”. [See A Brief History of Alice Salomon.] The university is located in the eastern section of Berlin and collaborates with local residents; and, along with offering academic degrees in a variety of disciplines, it also provides social services and educational programs to a diverse population. When large numbers of refugees sought safety in Germany from war in the Mideast, the ASH again demonstrated its well-known tradition of social action in the face of discrimination. Professor Dr. Völter explained:

We are politically active, and it comes from our history… A refugee center was established in our area in 2013. There were a lot of right radical demonstrations against this center, and this caused a lot of worry. The demonstrators worried the neighbors and refugees. The refugees who were living in the center were afraid, and because of this our former president of the college said that we needed to become active… and she organized instructors and students to provide a watch at the shelter 24-7.


Along with providing a 24/7 watch to protect refugees, the ASH faculty and students organized a “walking bus” to assist refugees to travel throughout the city safely. They also worked to provide housing, childcare, contact with educational systems, and prepared a variety of courses on campus designed especially for refugees. Professor Dr. Völter shared:

We have very informed students. They are very adult, and they know how to offer help and be supportive. They did amazing work. They counseled us, they did tutoring work, they tried to have contact with refugees, they helped design storefronts, they did a lot of amazing work.

The Alice Salomon Hochschule demonstrates how academia and community programs can interact to support communities in the process of transformation. [See video]  [See Transcript]

Hanne Luhdo with Neighborhood Development Project

Another example of social action is provided by Hanne Luhdo from the nonprofit, Die Platte Lebt, in Schwerin, Germany. She manages social programs in an area of Schwerin that has many people out of work, many living on social security, many single parents, and an increasing number of Ausländer(foreigners). She recognizes the need for responsive and constructive personal and professional social involvement to create safe communities. She shared: “In Germany, there is a huge wave of willingness to be helpful, and this is also in Schwerin. What is special for this area is, I believe, that many volunteer organizations have located here.” She added: “The community needs to be coordinated so that they can inform each other, exchange information, and share skills with each other.” [See video]  [See Transcript]


Claus Oellerking, Volunteer Service Provider

The numerous volunteers who stepped in when hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived in Germany in 2015 are another example of the social action provided to address the refugee resettlement in Germany. Established social agencies were overwhelmed and, although they initially thought they could handle the quickly changing refugee situation, they soon learned that they needed help from the community as a whole. Claus Oellerking, from Fluchtlingshilfe in Schwerin, helped organize volunteers to step in. He shared:

We started with 25 volunteers in August 2015 as far as I remember, and in November we had more than 350 (people) who were volunteering in different fields…. I'm looking for words to describe the positive energy we had at that point of a time. There was so much willingness, and so much openness, and so much interest in the people who were coming.


They organized food, shelter, clothing, and furniture, and realized that these could be shared with refugees and other persons in need. Oellerking described the initiative: 

The refugees who started to settle in our town, they had clothes, but they didn't have furniture. So we tried to make the city, the administration, support us in opening up a place where you can donate furniture and you can buy it for little money. Not only for refugees, but for all people with little money.

The volunteers started social cafes and a “Sunday School” to teach language and to serve as cultural centers for refugees and residents of Schwerin to meet. Oellerking explained the “Sunday School”:

It sounds a little bit like the Christian Sunday school, but it's just a place to go on Sunday to learn your mother tongue—which is Arabic for the kids… This school has become a place where parts of the Arabic community in our city—not only the Syrian community but also people from Morocco, Eritrea, Tunisia, Egypt and many Arabic speaking countries—meet on Sundays when they bring their children to and from school.

[See video]  [See Transcript]

From these examples, it is evident that it takes a community to transform a community.

Ulrike Seemann-Katz and Kristina Borgwarth, Refugee Council Service Providers

Other key service providers include the established agencies designed to implement refugee policies. Ulrike Seemann-Katz and Kristina Borgwarth, from the Refugee Council in Schwerin, deal with asylum issues such as how to file for asylum, and what to know regarding one’s legal rights and responsibilities. They advocate for refugees’ health care needs and care for the welfare of the refugees. Seemann-Katz explained: 

The Refugee Council works for human rights, and the work is about all things in life, because human rights touch.... Human rights touch everything — everything in life. It's about school. It's about living and housing. (It’s about) working and… Asylum and politics… and health—healthcare.


Advocacy can be complicated because of the many stakeholders involved. It can be difficult to notice how individuals, families and communities may be benefitting from the day-to-day work. Borgwarth described what success with her work meant to her.

Sometimes it's so hard for us because we feel it's so useless in what we try to do. When we can help, like this child, for this heart operation, that's really a big success. But it’s also a small success just talking to people. The people in the camp are happy that there is a German person who comes and just joins them and listens. Just listen. This is also success. [See video]  [See Transcript]

Deputy Mayor Andreas Ruhl, Dimitri Avramenko, Ulrike Just: Schwerin Government Service Providers

Another critical aspect to address regarding refugee resettlement is the role of government and how policies are implemented at a local level. Andreas Ruhl, the Deputy Mayor of Schwerin, Dimitri Avrmenko, an Integration Specialist, and Ulrike Just, who provides integration training, discussed their experiences as governmental employees. Aurmenko explained that migration has not been an uncommon experience in Germany: 

Germany has always had different experiences with migration, for example, the Second World War. There were guest workers here then. And earlier in our history, after the wall came down, we had people from Russia and the Eastern European countries coming here. 

Deputy Mayor Ruhl shared that the German government was willing to accept refugees, even when other European governments denied refugees permission to stay in their countries. He said: "We could be very proud of what we did and how we did it. If integration will work, we will see that in 10, 15 or 20 years.”

Once refugees arrived, the government focused on providing for their basic human needs. Aurmenko emigrated from the Ukraine in 1996 and had positive experiences with resettlement. He emphasized: “I believe that the people who have come here feel like they have a home, that they can find work, and they can participate. [See video]  [See Transcript]

Mario Freytag with Government Training Program

Another government program that assists resettling refugees is the Vocational Training Center in Schwerin that is directed by Freytag. Recognizing the need to develop vocational training programs for refugees so they could eventually enter the job market and to foster the integration of refugees into the larger community, Freytag developed an interdisciplinary-focused curriculum to address the unique needs of refugees. He explained: 

We teach theoretically what we will do practically; but we are also teaching the German language, and we're teaching math in another way, and we are also always facilitating them with social workers, and with other experts. The team that we work with is interdisciplinary.

Since refugees have come to Germany from many different countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, the training must include preparation for integration into Germany society. This involves a multicultural approach to understand both an individual’s and a group’s cultural perspectives. Freytag explained: 

We build groups together that take responsibility for themselves and practice what they bring to integrate into the German culture. We have to do this in small steps that they will apply when they are at home. We want to be respectful, we want be honest, we need to be on time, and we have to look out for each other.

In addition, the program is designed to assure that the refugees will also gain skills necessary to help rebuild their countries after war, should they return to their homelands.

I think when young people are busy and they have something to do that has a purpose, then they have a positive way of being here for a long time; and then if they go home, they can go and help build their country again. They can bring the skills that they have back to that country.

The training is collaborative in nature and includes building relationships along with practicing respect for each other as central to the process. Honesty and clarity about the opportunities and limitations of living in Germany with refugee status is important. Freytag added: “We only promise what we can deliver since they have been hurt so many times.” This demonstrates a sincere and practical attitude to providing refugees a means to prepare for their futures. [See video: Freytag with Government Training Program; See Transcript: Freytag with Government Training Program]

Challenges Reported by the Service Providers

It was inevitable that the recent large influx of refugees into Germany presented numerous challenges. Some of these challenges required new ways if thinking about community, new methods of organizing resources along with creative initiatives to coordinate efforts of diverse groups of stakeholders. The service providers described various challenges from their vantage points. 

Professor Dr. Bettina Völter, Dean of the Alice Salomon Hochschule

Professor Dr. Völter, from the Alice Salomon Hochschule, recalled that government officials debated the need for new initiatives that were not specifically designed to service the refugee population as in the past. She shared: 

We invited the mayor to our table at the school…. Our regional government said, ‘we don't really need you, we'll take care of this’. We told them they should ask us at the college to let us know how we can be helpful…. The regional government (eventually) did that,… They asked us directly for what they needed. So we met, and we took a look at how to address needs in the social area so we could actively become a part of this.


Because of the crisis nature of the situation in 2015, there were no evidence-based practices to rely on for guidance. Völter clarified: “This was an emergency situation, and there were many social workers who didn't have any type of training so we tried to help those who wanted to work with refugees.” She continued: “So there were many spontaneous things that developed out of this crisis; and at the same time, we were working very systemically.


The challenges spurred creativity and opportunities to work with other disciplines. There were many discussions, trust developed, and new ways of connecting with each other at the university evolved. "At the same time, there was always tension.” Völter shared:

There are people from the right side that want to make you look like fools, then there are those on the left side that are never satisfied.” However, she was steadfast when she remarked: “I stand up for what I do. This is purposeful….We address important issues. We meet important people. We are always challenged to address discrimination and misunderstandings. [See video]  [See Transcript]

Hanne Luhdo with Neighborhood Development Project

Some challenges with refugee resettlement had to do with providing housing and opportunities for refugees to interact with people from the host community. Luhdorecognized the challenges that arise from impoverished living situations. 

There are many refugees that also live here because in this area of the inner city there are empty apartments…. This is not always good because there's a high concentration of refugees here…there are conflicts between all the different people who are already here having a deficit in receiving social services…. It’s difficult to motivate community members to get active. Many feel depressed and have lost interest, and so this is hard work. [See video]  [See Transcript]

Claus Oellerking, Volunteer Service Provider

Another initial challenge was how volunteers could engage with established organizations that erroneously said they did not need any help. They thought they could do it on their own. Oellerking shared a common experience:

My wife and I plus quite a few other people were trying to connect with established organizations like churches or social organizations to do some volunteer work. We offered our willingness and energy. Really, at that point of time, we did not find the people or organizations to connect with. The answers were like “yes, we know there is maybe a problem but we don't need help.

And it was obvious that they needed help because of the number of refugees pouring into the country.


The interplay of academia, nonprofit organizations, and volunteers was crucial for the communities to address the uncertainty of the refugee situation caused by global conflict that was beyond their immediate control and to stabilize their communities as best they could during a time of immense change. Flexibility and openness was needed because the refugee situation was constantly evolving. Oellerking explained: “Our organization, our volunteers, and all these challenges changed. We tried to follow up or adjust or assume what should be the next step and things like that. It was an incredible experience.”[See video]  [See Transcript]

Ulrike Seemann-Katz and Kristina Borgwarth, Refugee Council Service Providers

For agencies that relied on clear international and national policies to guide their work, it was challenging to deal with shifting political directives and interpretations of laws. Borgwarth, explained the dilemma: 

It's very hard that the Dublin system…. We have a common European Asylum System; in theory we have one, yeah. In the end, every single country has its own asylum laws—like Germany for example, or France, Italy. They all have their own because these common European Asylum Laws are not laws. It's like an agreement, but a very soft agreement.

Because of the intensity of the work, it was also imperative that staff members take care of their own health and wellbeing. Borgwarth offered the reminder: “We need to be healthy, otherwise we can't help people. If we get mental issues because of all these troubles and of all these emotional stories, we can't do our job anymore.” [See video]  [See Transcript]

Deputy Mayor Andreas Ruhl, Dimitri Avramenko, Ulrike Just: Schwerin Government Service Providers

The local government, as the stakeholder responsible to implement policy, had challenges also. With the large number of refugees that arrived to the community the government needed to provide a variety of services, such as kindergarten for all children, education and training, basic necessities to live, work opportunities, legal protections, outreach services — especially for women and girls. The Deputy Mayor reported:

Ninety percent of the refugees are unemployed and they're living on welfare. They are getting social welfare. We do have a real problem finding places in kindergartens and programs in school for them and to offer the needed number of places there.

Resettlement costs money and the local governments often acquired debt. The Deputy Mayor reported a debt of approximately 200 million Euros at the time of the interview. The government was also responsible for its own messaging about migration while addressing discrimination and violence from anti-migration political factions. The Deputy Mayor expressed his concern: 

Another problem is a political problem. We do have, if you like, an anti-migration party that is the second strongest party in our federal state. It’s called Alternative For Germany (AFD), and this gets attention within the society.


Finally, there was a general message indicating the need to consider the needs of refugees and the other residents of the community. The integration specialist Just shared a reminder that, “Integration is not only for the refugees. It's for everybody.” [See video]  [See Transcript]

Mario Freytag with Government Training Program

From a vocational training perspective, Freytag identified day-to-day challenges along with system-based challenges. Refugees were adjusting to their new life situation and often dealing with the aftermath of traumatic experiences while living in war zones or fleeing countries. He said:

Many of our participants who are refugees are fighting with trauma because they left their country. This is a very special kind of trauma, and we want to facilitate their healing—being aware of that trauma when we train them. We are aware of their trauma history. We want to give them skills so that they can be happy; and, sometimes, people aren't ready for that. Sometimes they only experience small pieces of happiness.

Therefore, refugees often came to school with the need to learn while, at the same time, needing to find constructive ways to manage traumas, concerns, worries, (false) expectations, and the like. Freytag related:

The experiences of those who are refugees now are unimaginable, and you have to really listen, and let it work in you. And there are many different experiences that a person will become touched by—for example, that their wife couldn't be saved, that a man who comes here cannot fill out the questions because he doesn't understand the language, or they were raped while leaving their country, or they have horrible experiences with a smuggler.

From a systems perspective, gaining access to field internships for refugees was a necessary component of the training curricula; and it was challenging to find them appropriate field placements. The employers and refugees had to be willing to address cultural and religious differences. Employers and refugees needed to be open to differences and be able to communicate well. Finally, Freytag shared the ongoing challenge of dealing with the large amount of administrative tasks. He said: “The greatest challenge in Germany is the bureaucracy.” [See video]  [See Transcript]

Future Hopes and Perspectives Reported by the Service Providers 

Professor Dr. Bettina Völter, Dean of the Alice Salomon Hochschule

Professor Dr. Völter reflected on what she would want refugees in her community to experience. She comprehensively and empathically summarized her wishes as follows:

For the refuges in Germany or in this community, I would like them to be included so that they really have a sense of belonging, that they can participate in our communities, that in all their difference they can maintain their integrity, that they can participate with us and at the same time bring what they have brought with them.

As Dean of a progressive university in Germany, she wished that her administration, faculty, and students continued to gain awareness of racism and its effects on communities. 

I would wish that we have a mixture of a lot of different people from all different ways of living—students, professors, administration—so that our colleagues can learn directly from each other, that we stay open, that we look and see what structural racism is, and how that affects people. I think we need to learn a lot in this area—although sometimes I think we're quite far along, but at the same time there's a latent or unconscious way of excluding other people.

[See video]  [See Transcript]

Hanne Luhdo with Neighborhood Development Project

Luhdo hoped that more people would become involved with each other to create vibrant neighborhoods. She emphasized: “We have to talk with people. We have to get them excited about our projects. We want to get them out of their apartments. We want to help them move out of their depression and resignation”. She also wished that the wider community would value the strengths and resilience of people living in a lower socio-economic area.She said:

We need to explain to people that although there are a lot of problems, there are also a lot of strengths and advantages. [See video]  [See Transcript]

Claus Oellerking, Volunteer Service Provider

Oellerking stressed his wish for community members from all backgrounds to be willing to reach out and build relationships with each other and to work together to integrate and transform the community.

If the community is going to start working on a concept of integration, it should be a concept which gives all different groups in the community the opportunity to participate—like refugees themselves, voluntary organizations like ours, the professional social organizations, the administration, and maybe 100 different stakeholders. Get them together to start evolving and developing a concept.​ [See video]  [See Transcript]

Ulrike Seemann-Katz and Kristina Borgwarth, Refugee Council Service Providers

As advocates for refugees, Seemann-Katz and Borgwarth shared a human rights perspective that included the rights of refugees to be seen as citizens despite nationality, that asylum laws should not be decided by politicians alone, that the ultimate vision of being a “global citizen” could take root instead of the focus on borders and individual nations that separate people from each other. Both echoed the following points: 

It's not about color, it's not about identity, it's not about religion, it's not about the race, it's about human beings. Or how you call it? Human rights, very important… We are one world. Yeah, and we are humans. We are all humans.

[See video]  [See Transcript]

Deputy Mayor Andreas Ruhl, Dimitri Avramenko, Ulrike Just: Schwerin Government Service Providers

From a governmental perspective, there was a wish for more federal support to local communities who are implementing programs with limited financial resources. In addition, there was a wish that the focus of care could include all persons in the community and that the needs of people based on their citizenship status or economic status would not be stratified as to who would be more deserving of resources and support from the government. The Deputy Mayor pointed out: 

We should not put all our energy towards the refugees; we have to still keep an eye on the families who have been here for about 20 years and are living in poverty. It shouldn't be that the money we invest is only for one group and not for the other one.[See video]  [See Transcript]

Mario Freytag with Government Training Program

Freytag shared similar wishes to those who focused on human rights and human connectedness. He wished people could leave countries and titles behind and recognize the person who is sitting in front of them. He said:

... Then every person would be seen and noticed and valued, and their needs would be recognized.” He also hoped that people and the government have learned how to integrate in a way that will foster a healthy, culturally diverse community, so people can move forward together. [See video]  [See Transcript]

Service Providers' Messages for Others

The service providers were asked to share a message to students who would access this website course. They were invited to offer any final insights that would, in some way, summarize their experiences, challenges, and wishes for the future.

Professor Dr. Bettina Völter, Dean of the Alice Salomon Hochschule​

Professor Dr. Völter stressed the importance of the Germany/United States relationship. She also emphasized the importance of learning with and from each other. She expressed her belief that peace grows by practicing openness and curiosity. She closed the interview by saying:

We need to have a peaceful world. We need to have a world that we live in together, where we're tolerant of each other, where we open the barriers when we can, and where we can be, at the end of this, happier—so that we don't just focus on our land and on our money. Young people who can exchange ideas and learn from each other, to become surprised at what makes us curious, that's what I value; that's how I grow. [See video]  [See Transcript]

Hanne Luhdo with Neighborhood Development Project

Luhdo also underscored the need for peace and to find constructive ways to deal with conflict. She recognized that change takes time and that change involves and affects everyone. She said:

We need to find ways to talk with each other, we need to deal with conflict, we need to try to understand the other person, and we need to have peace and save this planet so that we can bring people together.

[See video]  [See Transcript]

Claus Oellerking, Volunteer Service Provider

To have a sense of community and a possibility for authentic connection, Oellerking would wish to ask people to take little steps to become more open minded and more “us-centered” rather than “me-centered”. He encouraged people to become involved with the world, and said: 

To have a good community and a community that is alive is an effort… We have to look in the eyes of the people… So, be open-minded and act with acceptance towards others… Be open, travel, talk, smile, dance.[See video]  [See Transcript]

Ulrike Seemann-Katz and Kristina Borgwarth, Refugee Council Service Providers

Seemann-Katz and Borgwarth would want to invite people to be more open-minded and not to just think of themselves as apart from the whole world. They believed that getting all people to the table to speak and share in decision-making is also important for peace. Borgwarth summarized:

Be more open minded, not only about your own country, also about the world…. We have the same border issues like you have with Mexico at the moment. … And we need all persons together at one table to create law.[See video]  [See Transcript]

Deputy Mayor Andreas Ruhl, Dimitri Avramenko, Ulrike Just: Schwerin Government Service Providers

Although there was not time in the interview to specifically address a message to others with the deputy mayor and other government employees, one could posit that an overriding theme in the interview was the importance to assure a community that all persons have the right to be afforded dignity, respect, support, and protection. [See video]  [See Transcript]

Mario Freytag with Government Training Program

Freytag emphasized the importance of openness and curiosity--both as individuals and as a community in his message: 

Be curious always, no matter how old you are, no matter where you're from because curiosity is what our children live every day and it is what allows us to learn…I am curious about what we can create, what we can do, what we can accomplish. I'm curious about how many of us working together might make the world — hmm, maybe not more peaceful, but maybe we can contribute something. [See video]  [See Transcript]

Transforming Community Conference (1).jp
Transforming Community

Learn More

© Copyright 2018-2020 Transforming Community: Social Work with Refugee Resettlement and All multimedia rights reserved.