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Interview #3: Ulrike Seemann-Katz and Kristina Borgwarth, Refugee Council Service Providers

[Interviewer] I'm very interested in hearing your stories. Listening to your voices about your work with people who have flown from their countries, left their countries, because of oppression, violence, and whatever else. So, I would just like to start by asking you to share a bit about your project here, and what you do.

[Ulrike] The Refugee Council works for human rights. And the work is about all things in life, 

because human rights touches.... Human rights touch everything—everything in life. It's about school. It's about living and housing. Working and...

[Kristina] Asylum application.

[Ulrike] Asylum Application is very important.

[Kristina] Asylum and the politics as well. Kind of marketing and public relations as well. That's what actually, a little bit....

[Ulrike] It’s also health, healthcare and such things.

[Interviewer] So it's about all of life?

[Ulrike] Within the rights, yes. The rights are different between Germans and people from other countries, and especially refugees. For refugees especially.

[Interviewer] Ulrike would you be willing to share a bit about those differences?

[Ulrike] Yes. If you come here and file for asylum, then you have no rights. You have to live in a lager.

[Interviewer] Like a camp.

[Ulrike] Like camp, yes. And you have... you cannot work. You are not allowed to work. You get less money than other people who have no money. There is no health insurance. The region in Germany has to pay for the healthcare. They often say no.

[Interviewer] Okay, so they say no to typical healthcare. Is it just for emergencies?

[Kristina] Yes, it's just for emergencies. I always explain like this. The dentist, for example, if you don't have any health insurance; they just throw out the teeth. But you will not get any new fillings because the filling is extra. So, the refugees who live in a camp, for example, if they have to go to a dentist, they throw out the teeth or tooth, but they don't get any new filing because it's about money. Because they don't have normal health insurance. It's only emergency.

[Interviewer] Only emergency care.

[Kristina] I always describe it like it’s with the dentist. Because you can see the big difference. Yeah, it’s ridiculous at the end but... Yeah. And what is an emergency?

[Interviewer] How would you describe an emergency?

[Kristina] This is so interesting. In our daily work we can see it. They just get like, we call it, painkiller. This is the normal stuff they get. This is normal for everything. Just get the pain killer. We call it paracetamol. And this is...yeah.... But for special treatments, we have to fight. There was one time when you fought for the children, for the child. You remember it was the heart. There was a child, and the child needed a heart operation. And it was very hard to find the hospital, and to convince the people—the council—that this child needs this operation. Because it's not part of the health insurance system for refugees. But at the end....

[Ulrike] And all because this family couldn't make an asylum claim here. Because they came 

through Italy, they had go back to Italy. In Europe it is normal to make the asylum application in the land in which you arrive first—stepped on first. And that's the Dublin...

[Interviewer] The Dublin Agreement, yes.

[Ulrike] And this family came from Italy. They had to go there, and they are not going to stay here. But they were in the camp and yes...

[Interviewer] So, Ulrike can you tell me what happened with the child? So, what I understand-- [Ulrike] It was operated on.

[Interviewer] Here in Germany?

[Ulrike] Yes. Yes. And that's our job, to call the people.

[Kristina] Responsibilities.

[Ulrike] The people have to decide.

[Interviewer] So you advocate.

[Ulrike] Make it urgent. And if you don't do that, you don't desire, put them to the newspaper, or to radio and paper....

[Kristina] Yeah, it's like public relations as well. You know, all these things...

[Ulrike] That's in-born. It’s never...you have the child who is dying without an operation. [Interviewer] Ulrike, how did you feel about that? You know, here is a child who needs a heart operation. The child is in a camp. The first response is: No, we're not going to do that, and/or that person needs to go back to Italy. A child needs to go back to Italy to get the care, because that's where the family came in. How did you feel about being successful in getting the child what the child needed? How was that for you?

 [Ulrike] I was successful. I'm happy.

[Kristina] I saw its face and it was smiling.

[Ulrike] Only sometimes we are successful. It's not so common.

[Kristina] We have to sink on a very low level.

[Interviewer] What does that mean?

[Kristina] It's being satisfied about success. What is success as well? Because most of the people, like 70 to 80 percent of the refugees who live in these kind of "lager" camps, they are Dublin cases, we call them.

[Ulrike] Germany lays in the middle.

[Kristina] So it’s like, what does success mean? At the end, what is our job? What's the story about the job we do when the people come to us and they need help. Sometimes it's so hard for us. Because we feel it's so useless what we try to do. And when we can help, like this child, for the heart operation, that's really 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. And this is also success. This is a very important to understand about the success and about our feelings as well. Because this is a big discussion. My colleagues and I talk about this nearly every day. About this kind of circle in our job. What is success and how can we help, or just how can I help. And about success and all these things big and small.

[Interviewer] So what are some examples? You said when you're able to talk with someone; and 

they're being heard in the camp, that’s success. Having a heart operation for a child a success. What are some other examples or stories you might have about successes?

 [Ulrike] The people, the new ones.... They come to Germany, and they have about six months and then there will be the decision if they get a stay permit or they have to go.

[Interviewer] So within about six months?

 

[Ulrike] Six months, in theory. But because they can go to the court—yes court—they go to the court, and this process can last 13 years.

[Interviewer] How many years?

[Ulrike] Yes, thirteen years. I have got a family from Chechnya. And they waited 13 years. [Interviewer] For this decision?

[Ulrike] This decision, yes. Whether they get to stay? Yes, and in this time, there is no...

They have no right to work under the law, all they had was years past. And it’s a success if you can make the process shorter. And the people who are here get admitted....

[Interviewer] To move them to land.

[Ulrike] To land, yes.

[Interviewer] So that's a success. If we can have the process to move people through that process quicker.

[Ulrike] And to have the work permission and to get all out of the process.

[Kristina] Yeah, that's right. I'm always happy when the people pass the six months mark. You know this Dublin Agreement. Maybe later we can discuss about this Dublin as well. And there's a special six months period they need to get through. For example, a person from Somalia, Syria, Eritrea, Iran, or Iraq has special permission to stay in Germany. But the government can't treat as many as maybe Norway, Sweden, Italy, Romania, and all these other countries. But we know when they get through these special six months, that after this, they are allowed to stay in Germany. Of course, a person from Syria and also Eritrea is very happy about this. Or, a person from Afghanistan, or a family from Afghanistan, we could save because there is a special chains deportation agreement. Chains deportation right. It means that they are from Afghanistan, and they came first through Norway, but Norway rejected them, so they came to Germany. And the Germany say, oh no, we are not responsible for you, you have to go back. But what they will do is, they send the people straight back to Norway and Norway send them back to Afghanistan. So, we call it chains deportation, because is like chains. So, this is so ridiculous, but we try of course. And this is also success when they get through this, and we can save them. Maybe we can break the chains. And there is a topic in Germany, church asylum. Maybe you heard about this. We also try to get people into these special places.

[Interviewer] Can you tell me a bit more about the church asylum? To get them into special places. What does that mean?

[Kristina] That means the church—it doesn't matter what kind of church—a Christian church and also, one synagogue in Hamburg I know of, I think. At the end, they are churches. But we just have a few churches and an agreement between the main church and BAMF, this is our federal office for migration and refugees, to offer church asylum also for people in Dublin cases. That means when they get the rejection, they can make an appeal. But normally the appeal decision is also negative. And after that the six months start. That means, now Germany has six months to send people to Norway, Italy, Romania, or whatever. And church asylum means we send them to church. They have to stay in the church. They are not allowed to go outside, because only the building or the site of the church is safe. And in this time, normally, police is not allowed to come in. Because....

[Ulrike] Because the church doesn't go... The state doesn't go into the church.

[Kristina] It's an agreement made 2015 between the federal office and church. Because we call it in German....

[Interviewer] It's a gray zone.

[Kristina] Yes, it's a gray zone. It not black and white, it's in the middle. It's not really legal, but it's also not really illegal. So, that's why we have to be very carefully and sensitive with the church asylum. Not all person can go to church. This is very difficult also for us. It‘s very sensitive and very emotional. Because at the end we play kind of "God", and can say, you can go and you cannot.

[Interviewer] How do you do those decisions? What happens? For you.

[Kristina] It's hard, but we try to. There is another person now and she's responsible. She's kind of coordinator of the church asylum now. And we work together. Because we are in the camps, my colleague, Henim, and I. We are in these both camps in Schwerin and a village down close to the border. So, we are in the camps and we know the people. And we try to understand the people. We listen to them. We listen to their story. We have to find out how many people there are. We have to know everything about all European countries. It's not so easy because they change nearly every week. You know, with the new asylum laws in France, for example, or in Italy. And this is the first thing, what we have to... How do you say it? To make it, to sort out, to sort out...

[Interviewer] So almost like triaging, to sort it out?

 

[Kristina] So, for example, a person from Syria. Who already got a permit to stay in Spain, but  doesn't want to be in Spain because the family is here in Germany. There is no chance for church asylum. There is not because he already got a permit to stay in another country. But, for example, what I said, for a family from Afghanistan and the Dublin country is Norway or Sweden, this is different. Because we know they will send them straight back to Afghanistan.

[Interviewer] Okay. So, you need to understand the internal politics of the different countries?

 

[Kristina] Yes.

[Ulrike] Yes. We have to. We have to know it. There’s a European right, and we know the European right they can get. For example, the Syrian family from Spain can get a European Segment. And with the European Segment they can go....

[Interviewer] They can go wherever they want to in the European Union.

[Ulrike] Yes, every country of the European Union. Freely.

[Interviewer] So you mentioned the Dublin Agreement. Would the two of you like to talk a bit about the Dublin Agreement? That has come up a couple of times when we were talking. Can you share a bit about the Dublin Agreement?

[Ulrike] The Dublin Agreement? About the law or about....

[Interviewer] It sounds like it's something important to talk about.

[Ulrike] Yeah. Of all the things. The Dublin Agreement, it's... We have the third version of the Dublin Agreement. The law changes always. The fourth version of the Dublin Agreement is coming, and there will be no time limits. And the time limits...

[Interviewer] Is that for a decision?

[Ulrike] The church asylum, make it...

[Interviewer] Workable?

[Kristina] Workable, workable yes.

[Ulrike] They said it works, yes. It was before that the people sit and the time to watch passes by. [Interviewer] Oh, okay.

[Ulrike] Yes. If there is no limit, then you can't make church asylum. You can't; can't make it.

 

[Interviewer] You can't do it?

[Kristina] Yes. Everything would change.

[Ulrike] For asylum, yes.

[Interviewer] And how would that affect your work?

[Ulrike] And it will come this year, this summer, perhaps. We don't know when exactly, and it will come this year.

[Interviewer] And what will that mean for you?

[Kristina] Getting harder​

 

[Ulrike] Yeah, really getting harder.​

 

[Kristina] Yeah, definitely. Especially for the refugees. More for waiting for them, than fast.

 

[Ulrike] Much harder. In the New year we'll stay here, and we will give advise. There is still advise for Dublin Cases.

[Kristina] It's very hard that the Dublin system, in my view, is so disgusting. It is not really well organized, not as...you know, the European Union. We have 28 countries. Yes, as to now, it will change in a while. But at the end of it, now we have 28 countries. And we have a European... we have common European Asylum System, in theory we have one, yeah. But in the end, every single country has their own asylum laws—like Germany for example, or France, Italy. They all have their own, because these common European Asylum Laws are not a law. It's just like you say. It's like an agreement, but a very soft agreement. So, the people, the governments, they can say, "Oh, we grab this law, we grab this rule, and we don't take this..." And the European government doesn't... It‘s not like that they say, "come on"— sanctions or something. It’s just the talking about....

[Ulrike] But they do it against Hungary and Poland.

[Kristina] Yeah, Hungary and Poland.

[Interviewer] So the European Union does?

[Kristina] Yes, it changed a bit now. But the Dublin, that as I told you, is a common agreement.

Every country is doing the same thing, the Dublin is the same everywhere. But living conditions, for example in Romania, are so different. In Germany, France, or Sweden it’s ridiculous. You have to see. You have to go on YouTube and the see the camps in Romania, or Poland. Italy, the people live on the street. They have no food. There's no health insurance. Or in Greece, the camps are so packed. But it’s still the same for refugees to Romania or to Italy. Greece not really. Hungary not really because Germany knows the conditions are bad.

[Ulrike] Because the countries can say no, they won't take them back. And if they say no, 

Germany is responsible for the refugees. But Italy doesn't answer often. They have no people answering. There's a silent agreement. They don’t really say no, but they don’t say yes. So, it’s just no. So, the law, the Dublin Agreement, says it's as if they say yes.

[Kristina] Silent agreement. Silent agreement. 

[Ulrike] And so they send the refugees back Italy.

[Kristina] The Dublin system is very complicated. The people don't understand it. And sometimes, I'm honest, I ask people if they know about Dublin because they often say no. Remember 2015 when, what did they say, one million refugees came to Europe, and there were lots of people from Syria and also Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Eritrea. Lots of people got to Germany. They got registered somewhere with the German Red Cross or something like this. But they said, we don't want to stay in Germany, we want to go to Sweden or Norway because the people were told that Sweden is very nice. They were told to get asylum in Sweden was the best. Lots of people from Afghanistan went to Scandinavia. They thought because they got rejected in Germany—okay, when we get rejection in Norway or Sweden, we can go back to Germany because we were already there. But this is not Dublin. And this time the German Red Cross or police, they took fingerprints sometimes. They didn't call it Dublin. They didn't put it in this data. You know, we have a computer program.

[Ulrike] Eurodot.

[Kristina] Eurodot. But the people saw, because they already... They showed me pictures from a German camp. They said, but we already, you know, we went to Germany. And I said, I'm sorry but you're not... Fingerprints are not at the Eurodot. So, they are not....

[Interviewer] They're not registered.

[Kristina] Officially registered in Germany, so. They have no clue about the Dublin system. They say, they can go to another country, apply again for asylum. And our right-wing people call it — I just read it two weeks ago—asylum shopping.

 

[Ulrike] It's a little bit chaotic.

[Kristina] Yes, it's so chaotic, yes.

[Ulrike] Therefore the European Union renewed it, made it new, and tood the time...

[Kristina] The six months.

[Ulrike] Italy doesn't want it because then each refugee who comes first to Europe, comes first to Italy. Most of them.

[Kristina] Yeah, most of them, yes.

[Ulrike] I don't know what will happen in Italy. What they will do? Perhaps Europe will buy it for Italy. They pick up the money and then well Italy says yes.

[Interviewer] So, as I listen, I'm hearing how complicated this whole process is. And I've also had the chance to listen to some of your success stories. And it sounds like there are some significant challenges. When you share a story about your work with refugees, and some of the challenges here in Schwerin, what do you notice? What are some of those stories?

[Ulrike] Oh, there are some times. About five year ago, there was a man from Iran who was 25 years in Germany. He first had asylum, and he was a considered a refugee by Geneva Convention. About three years after this, he get this....

[Interviewer] Recognition?

[Ulrike] Recognition, yes. The Bundesamt took the decision away from him. And then he was there, on route out. Then he lived about 20 years with this.

[Interviewer] paper?

[Ulrike] Nothing to do because he has to go. But they couldn't deport him, because there were no

papers. They thought that he was dead because the family said it. 

[Interviewer] So when he left the family said he died?

[Ulrike] He doesn't exist.

[Interviewer] He doesn't exist on paper.

[Ulrike] Had no papers. And then I went with him to the Botschaft

[Interviewer] To the embassy.

[Ulrike] They made the papers after people such as family said that he was alive. And then he was 64 years old, then he get his stay permit.

[Interviewer] So, if I'm understanding the story right, he's been here for 25 years. When he left Iran, he has identified as dead. Deceased. 

[Ulrike] Yes.

[Interviewer] And he was here. He had asylum and then that was taken back by the government. He was to be deported to a country where he had officially died. That's very complicated. So, you went to the embassy to basically bring him back to life. And then he could stay here?

[Ulrike] After 25 years, he was safe.

[Interviewer] So after 25 years in this process and he is 64?

[Ulrike] He lives here in Schwerin. He doesn't work because he is old.

[Interviewer] But he is here? So, he has some security in being older?

[Ulrike] Yes.

[Interviewer] What is his response? Do you know how he feels about that? Can I just... Your impression?

[Ulrike] He's very lucky Sometimes, he sees us on the train, and looks good. His eyes are shiny. [Interviewer] So, his eyes are shining and smiling?

[Ulrike] Like down. He was broken

 

[Interviewer] Sounds like he was down, now he's ...

 [Kristina] Yeah, that's great.

[Ulrike] That makes me happy.

[Interviewer] I see that. I see that as you tell the story.

[Kristina] I have another story, it's not from Schwerin. It's from Wismar but it’s close to Schwerin; I live in Wismar. It happened two days ago. That's why I'm still a little bit happy. Family reunification. There is a Syrian guy called... I can say the first name, it's okay. Zachariah, I met him 2015, he was like you said, he was one of these Syrians with lots of trauma and very down, and he was suicidal. He wanted just to kill himself. And he was really down because he missed his family so much. He had a wife and two children. Because he heard that it would take so long for this special family reunification. It was a big, we call it like network, is it right? Network? He got help from a doctor. And he got his own little flat. And some German people taught him German and all these things. And he got stabilized. He went to school, everything. That was December 2015, and now in May 2018 — last Saturday his family arrived. And look, I got goose bumps.

[Interviewer] You got goose bumps, yeah.

[Kristina] Because, I... You know, the whole time, I was part of his life, and we did it all. My job was at the family reunification section with the embassy. We had lots of discussion with the embassy. And there is one politician, he helps refugees as well. He works with our foreign office. But it took us really two and a half years to get the family to Germany. And he was the happiest man. Oh, it's so cool. So, I met them on Wednesday, and the children, it was so awesome. And he's smiling. His face is like what you said, it's shinning, it's bright. He's a man now. You can see the body language as well. It's so amazing. And yeah, this was a nice story.

[Interviewer] This is a powerful story, also.

[Kristina] After two and a half years. These are the kind of special success....

[Interviewer] So, I also see how this work touches both of you.

[Kristina] It depends, you know if you spend lots of time with some person—because, two and a half years is a long, long time. But in our job, we have to create our own boundaries as well. Because, 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. When we go to the camp, and there are people who are crying. My colleague is a man, and the people are not crying because there is a man. It's so strange, but it is. But the women, when I am in the camp, all the women come to my office and cry, and cry, and they cry. You have to be strong because they need people who are strong.

[Ulrike] Sometimes lead... I help. I can't speak 

[Interviewer] You don't see them, so, yeah?

 

[Ulrike] We don't see what will come. Sometimes I don't know what will happen. Because...​People like Tina end up coming, they'll help, and I don't know. Helpful hands. 

[Interviewer] So what helps keep you healthy? What gives you that strength? 

[Ulrike] Singing. I sing.

[Interviewer] You sing?

[Ulrike] Singing in a choir. 

[Interviewer] You sing in a choir?

[Ulrike] Yes.

[Kristina] I meet friends and to play some music. I play guitar, and I have an Irish drum called a

Bodhrán. And I travel to Ireland a few time a year, to see my friends. This is my own mental therapy. To go away and to leave the phone. To turn off, and just relax, and try not to keep the work with me when I finish. It's not so easy sometimes of course. We are all humans. But, yeah—meet friends, doing good things....

[Interviewer] Have fun.

[Kristina] Yes.

[Interviewer] Music. Fun.

[Ulrike] Sometimes talk about it.

[Kristina] Yes. Supervision. It's very important to get in touch with our colleagues and talk about things.

[Interviewer] So, support with each other? As colleagues.

[Kristina] Yes, we have to. Otherwise...

[Interviewer] So, we have about 10 minutes left. And I've been really touched by what you're sharing. I mean, the successes, the challenges, the complexity of all of this. Your passion, your commitment to your work. If you could talk to, and share a vision, for your fellow Germans, refugees, other people in the world, the United States, what would you want to tell them? Anything you'd want to say? That's how I'd like to close.

[Kristina] Stop deportation.

[Ulrike] No borders, no nations, no

[Kristina] You know, when we have some marches, we call it like, you know...

 [Ulrike] We are one world. Yeah, and we are humans. We are all humans.

[Kristina] It's not about color, it's not about identity, it's not about religion, it's not about the race,

it's about the humans. The human being ways. Or how you call it? Human rights, very important. Yeah. This is the main thing, the main topic. That people have to treat other people like a human being and not like a refugee. And actually, because we speak English now, that's why we say the word refugee. Actually, I don't like this word. In German we have different type of words for asylum seeker, refugee, and at the end we are humans. And how can I say to a person who is here since two and a half years, to say, you are a refugee. No, he's not a refugee anymore. He's a citizen of Schwerin, a citizen of Wismar, a citizen of Germany. Of course, his nationality is different. He is from Syria, or from Afghanistan, the Kashyap. But at the end he is a citizen. It's the same. We're on the same level and not different. That's my wish. That the people see people as just humans, and not in a different way. It's also for you in America very important...

[Interviewer] What would you like to say to the Americans?

[Kristina] Don't vote Trump again. You can do it. No, but, that's for me very important. That also Americans, not especially you and your group now, but be more open minded. Be more open minded, not only for their own country, also for the world. Because at the end, you have the natives, and all people are from different parts of the world—from Europe, from Latin America, from Africa, from Australia, from everywhere. And I don't like it sometimes, and the arrogance. The arrogance for you know... And especially, what's the story about the border now. The Mexican border. And all these things. It's very complicated. But we have the same, the borders. Honduras, we have refugees.... 

[Ulrike] We have refugees from Mexico, Honduras—

[Kristina] Yes, Costa Rica.

[Ulrike] Here, here. They're a long way....

[Interviewer] They're a very long way.

[Kristina] But have the same problems with boundaries. It's not only the boundaries here, it's also around the European Countries. We have the same border boundaries like you have with Mexico at the moment. We have it with the East part of Europe. Yeah, because we need borders, but they do not want refugees anymore.

[Ulrike] The Mediterranean Sea.

[Interviewer] The Mediterranean Sea is a border.

[Kristina] We need an asylum law, made not only by politicians, also made by NGOs—for example, Amnesty International. We have a big one. We need all person together on one table, to create a law. And we need a kind of migration law and asylum law. At the moment we just have asylum law. But we don't have the kind you have. Like a migration law that helps a person from Ghana, for example, who has no chance to get an asylum status in Germany because they say it's a safe country of origin. What can he do, or she? But if we would have a migration law, the people can work. They want to work. They speak English, they can learn German. So, this would be....

[Ulrike] Germany needs younger people.

[Kristina] Yes, young people. Qualified people. Or get qualification in what they want to do. So, this is also a vision that the whole asylum law would change in Germany and Europe.

[Interviewer] Anything else that you would like to add Ulrike?

[Ulrike] No borders 

[Interviewer] No borders. I want to thank you both for your hospitality, and your time this morning. And I know that you came in early and gave your own time also. I appreciate it. If you have any questions, I'm very interested. I'm really touched with what you're doing. So, I want to say thank you so much. I really, really appreciate it.

[Ulrike] You are very welcome.

[Interviewer] Thank you.