Interview #6: Claus Oellerking, Volunteer Service Provider

[Interviewer] Thank you for taking time today to talk and to share. As you know, the work that 

you're doing has really influenced your city, your community. And I'd just like to start by asking you to share with us a bit about the history of your work with Fluchtlingshilfe Schwerin.

[Claus] Yes. Thank you for interviewing me and asking these questions. It is a chance to have a look back to when we started. We started in summer 2015, which is almost three years ago. Maybe you remember the pictures from the news at that time when many refugees were walking from Syria—especially from Syria at that time—across all of Europe and trying to get to northern Europe—like Germany or France or Sweden or Denmark or other countries. At that time, we had refugees arriving in our town as well. My wife and I plus quite a few other people were trying to connect with established organization like churches or social organizations to do some voluntary 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 the number of refugees pouring into the country. There were many, many people willing to help and to assist, and I think these organizations were overwhelmed with that. Some of them were prepared to do some extraordinary things and some were busy when we had earthquakes or catastrophes somewhere else; but when it comes to us, they were somehow overwhelmed. We decided with like 25 people in August 2015 to organize ourselves and we met with a couple of people. We were thinking about what may refugees need when they come here. It was quite clear to us that they needed clothes, they needed knowledge of language, they needed to meet people who were willing to support them, to listen to them, to be with them. We thought that the whole community needed to be informed, and should have the chance to participate in all these activities, and not be excluded. So, these were the four groups we built and started with.

         The first time, you know, I'm 60 years old and really, I like the social media and the internet, but I was not used to using these as a tool to assemble people, to get people together, and to spread our messages. But this is what we started to do. We ask people to build a website for us. We asked someone to set up a Facebook account. Then we started to advertise what we were doing, what we needed, and what the refugees needed through these social media. This helped quite a lot. We started with 25 volunteers in August 2015, as far as I remember; and in November, we had more than 350 who were volunteering in different fields. So, this is how it started.

[Interviewer] What was your impression with all the people coming in and the response of the community at the time? What did you notice?

[Claus] If you say community, do you mean the administration, or do you mean the people?


[Interviewer] I would say just the people are what I'm talking about.

[Claus] Yeah, to be honest at that time it was.... 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. And Mecklenburg Vorpommern, this is in western Pomerania, Mecklenburg Western Pomerania, which has almost 1.6 million inhabitants. At least half of it, 50 percent of all inhabitants, do have roots in the east. And after the Second World War, more than one million people came to Western Pomerania as refugees. It may be that some of the people—especially the older ones—were reminded of their own bad times as being refugees. Maybe this explains a little bit the great open heartedness that we had at that time, yes.

[Interviewer] Do you have any stories that you remember about some of the actual experiences that the refugees had with you, and you with the refugees, at that time as we look back?


[Claus] There are several. For instance, one thing was, and I didn't experience it myself but my wife did. She went downtown and met a mother with two kids who were obviously lost somehow in our city. She went to them to ask them if she could help somehow, and the mother spoke a little bit of English, and so they could connect. My wife learned that they just arrived from Munich to Schwerin, and Munich is about eight hours train ride. They were looking for a place to stay for the night—which couldn't be a hotel of course because they came with two plastic bags in their hands. It was a Friday afternoon, and my wife asked them how they decided to come to Schwerin. Why didn't they stay in Munich or somewhere else? So, the older daughter of this woman, who was a girl of 13 or 14, got out her smartphone and showed that she was looking at Google for words like beautiful places in Germany and Schwerin popped up. So, they decided to go to Schwerin, and they are still here. Now they have a flat and other things they need; and we were able to help them. But I couldn't imagine that many people were doing it this way. So how could you, as refugee, find a place to go? It was impressive.

[Interviewer] Amazing. 

[Claus] Yeah.

[Interviewer] So, as people came, can you tell me how your work evolved over the past few years?

[Claus] Yeah, it evolved and changed.

[Interviewer] Evolved and changed.

[Claus] Yes, it evolved and changed. So, as I said we started with 25. We had more than 300, almost 400 people in November 2015, and we had a decent number of people, let's say, until mid-2016. For almost one year some people came, and some people left. And the challenges left as well. We realized, for instance, that 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. This was one thing we hadn't had before. Another thing that we started is... I was looking for the word before.

[Interviewer] After school help.

[Claus] Yes, after school help. The children are obliged to go to school when they are in Germany, whether they're able to speak the language or not. If you're 13 or 14 or 15 or even 8, you have to go to school. The young people needed help to adjust not only to the language, but the way that German teachers teach—how they teach math, and how they teach physics, and all that. We started to establish a network of mainly students themselves who were willing to support their classmates who came from mainly Syria or Afghanistan. This was the second thing we had to add to our activities.

         Another thing we added was support for pregnant women. When they arrived pregnant or became pregnant right after they arrived, it was very difficult for them to find midwives or doctors who were willing to accept them as patients. We have one woman in our network who focused on the support for them.

         As you know, Schwerin is called the town of ten lakes. We have beautiful lakes and people like to go to swim. Unfortunately, every second or third year, one child drowns. In 2015 a child of three or four drowned while their mother wasn't aware and wasn't looking. It was a family with a migration background—not a refugee, but with a migration background. So, we started to organize swimming lessons for the children, but not only for refugees because we tried to bring them together with other nationalities. In the first swimming lesson, swimming group, we had children from about four different nations, including Germans of course. Another thing we started, and we still run, is something we call Sunday school.

[Interviewer] Yes.

[Claus] 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 who are coming to that Sunday school. In our neighborhood here there was a child, maybe 10 or 11, who was on the phone with his grandma in Syria. While they were on the phone, the grandmother said something like, "I'm really looking forward to your coming home". After the call, this young boy said: "Mommy, I don't want to get home. I don't want to go to Syria. I don't understand grandma anymore. I don't speak the language anymore." And he was here just one year or something like that. So the risk was that if we don't offer an opportunity for the refugees to learn their mother tongues—speaking and writing, they will not only lose contact with their culture, they will lose the ability to go home because they are not able to read the street signs or even able to have a conversation. Maybe they speak better Arabic than I speak English; but if they have to sign contracts, work, and read security instructions or things like that, they are not able to do that. Many of them would like to go home if there is peace in Syria. So, what we have now is this Sunday school that was established in March 2016 which has been running for about a little more than two years with more than 140 children from age six to age 16. And another interesting thing is the teachers in this school are refugees from Arabic countries themselves. So, there are at least three important points from this.

[Interviewer] Three good points. Three foundations, yeah.

[Claus] Three good points. One is the kids are learning their mother tongue; and if you learn your mother tongue, you are usually a better foreign language learner than if you don't know your mother tongue well. Another thing is that we offer an opportunity for the Arabic teachers to work as teachers, to be seen in their profession as teachers. It is quite easy to connect a bricklayer who knows the Arabic language to other bricklayers whatever language they speak because they have to lay bricks. But to acclimate an Arabic art teacher to the German school system is almost impossible. The third thing is that 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. When we have activities in the school like we had two weeks ago when we had Mother's Day, they invited parents. This is a place for them to gather together as well.

         So, we don't assemble clothes anymore. We don't drive around the city to bring and get furniture, but we try to keep on doing things which brings people together in our town. Two or three other things I didn't mention are places we call welcome cafes. These are places which open once a week for maybe two or three or four hours; and they are both for people from this area who were born, raised, and grew up here, and the people who are new to town. In 2016 and 2017, we had up to seven places open seven days a week.

[Interviewer] Wow.

[Claus] Where we opened for a couple of hours, the local press published a story all about our activities. Not only the refugees read about the welcome cafes, but also the people who live here and other foreigners as well. We had people from China. They were not refugees. They are here to learn language. Physicians from India who were learning German as a foreign language or to study and practice their specialization were coming to these welcome cafes too. If you go to one of the place on Wednesday, you can meet people of five or six different nationalities having a cup of coffee and sharing their experiences about looking for jobs or administrative stuff like mail from banks or from homeowners and things like that. This is something we still do. We don't have seven anymore, but we still have two. We have had a third that we call the dance of cultures.

         We tried in 2016 to convince the local unions, and we have quite strong unions as you probably know, to set up their equipment for May first, which is Labor Day in Germany; and they have demonstration, or speeches. They have loudspeakers and a stage and things like that. Usually they start setting up all these things on the 30th of April in the afternoon. So, we ask them to do it in the morning so that we can use the stage in the afternoon and the evening on the first of May. We gathered at least 10 to 12 different artists. Some were professional and some amateurs from different countries offering what they had brought with them of their culture. So, this year, for instance, we had professional musicians from the Ukraine. We had a wonderful woman singer and song writer from the south of Germany with Nigerian and German roots sing a song. We had musicians from Puerto Rico and Chile, and elsewhere. We tried to establish opportunities for people to meet and talk and sit together—not to sit in their own rabbit cage thinking about others, talking about others, but not knowing your neighbor. So, this is one thing we focus more and more.

[Interviewer] When you talk about the refugees first coming over in large numbers in November of 2015 until now, and how immediately you needed to take a look at dealing with clothing, having a safe place, having food, medical care. Then you needed to help people settle in and learn German, but also for their children to learn Arabic and to find health services for pregnant women. Helping people, especially children, learn how to swim. In order for them to arrive here, be able to live here safely, and then also connect with other people—bringing people together. How has it been for you to see this evolve and also change?

[Claus] You know when we started doing this I had just retired. And I decided to be involved for three months.

[Interviewer] In 2015, you said three months?

[Claus] Yeah, in 2015, I said three months. But it was 24/7 at that time. Meanwhile it's been almost three years. It's not 24/7 anymore; but there wasn't a point when I could say that's it, we are done with what we started to do. So, we evolved. 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. I met so many wonderful people from different countries with different beliefs and different colors, but wonderful people many of them. Just an example, last week I met a young man in the pedestrian zone in our town. I didn't really recognize him, but he recognized me. He came over and said, "You're Claus, are you?" I said, “Yes, I'm Claus, yeah.” He added, "I would like to say thank you to you." Why I asked? “What happened?” He said. "I learned swimming through you. I learned bicycle riding and I stopped smoking because you said if I stopped smoking, I could do the bicycle race last summer." And he did stop smoking and did the bicycle race. When things like that happen, I get goose bumps. I start to cry. This is a gift. And this is worth doing all these things. On the other hand, and I don't want to leave that out or forget it, it is a real challenge to do things like this with a high level of engagement. Not only me, but we are more than me. It's not a single hero or something like that, but we are, what are we? We are a network. We are many people with different qualities. What I would like to share is what I experience is that when we started doing that as volunteers, I don't know how you say it in English, but we just...

[Interviewer] You rolled up your sleeves.

[Claus] We rolled up our sleeves and we started. And these professional organizations which we’re not able to adjust with all their volunteers at that time, they were completely different. They are like big tankers going through the oceans. When you use a steering wheel of a tanker, it takes long, long time to change directions; or if you go to a full stop with a tanker or if you go to full speed, it takes long time until it really changes. So usually organizations like the ones I mentioned, they start seeing a problem, maybe discussing a problem, maybe ignoring it for a while, but then starting discussing the problem, then start gathering ideas, then maybe writing a draft for a concept or writing a draft to apply for money. Meanwhile we six or seven months are gone. When the money is given, they hire people and then start working. This description may be a little rough, but this is what we really experience. Some of these organizations start when their money is in their bank account. This was not appropriate in that situation. But they had the money and they are offering lots of thing which is good. They are hiring people. They are bringing work to our city. We have quite a high unemployment rate, and it's wonderful that we have paid people in jobs taking care for refugees. Some of these organizations saw us in the beginning, and maybe they still do so, as competitors. We have never been that. We do get some financial support, but it is very small. We never paid anyone one cent for their work. We needed that to support things like transporting furniture, buying gas for the car, or to pay for the phone bill. But, and this is something really that is hard to understand, if you are in a bad crisis situation and you see that the tankers or the elephants or however you would like to describe these big organizations, how long they need to get things done....

[Interviewer] Get things moving.

[Claus] Things moving, yes. So, this is a bit frustrating. It still frustrates me.

[Interviewer] What is frustrating about that? What is the challenge for you now that they're up and running? Are there challenges that come up that you didn't expect?

[Claus] The difficulty is maybe in valuing all the volunteers who were doing this for free for about two years, three years, or something like that. Not personally me; but these 350 we had coming and going, and we still have. They need to be valued. And to be honest, it's not enough. I don't have a clear idea how to value voluntary work, but I know that it is not enough to have it in the newspapers. As you heard it from our mayor, it is so important to have all these voluntary people because if we did not have them, we could not have been able to do that what we did. It sounds nice, but it doesn't really get to the heart or the gut of some volunteers. I guess we have to find solutions to change that.

[Interviewer] So when you take a look at solutions to change that, are you looking at how to have a relationship with those organizations or what does that mean to you?

[Claus] You know, we were brainstorming how could we say thank you to all the volunteers working with us or connecting with us; and we didn't do that, but we thought about having a really nice evening and inviting many volunteers for a celebration. Let's say 400, 500. We are not able to do that, to pay for what you need to rent and other things. This could be something that may be done by the administration or the politicians in our town. We were invited by the president of Germany to celebrate at his summer party. This is nice, but this is in Berlin.

[Interviewer] It's in Berlin.

[Claus] So you have to drive three and a half hours, and you have to stay overnight and all these things. You have to bear the costs for that, so this is nothing someone living in Schwerin, helping in Schwerin, can do. They have to be valued in Schwerin or in Karlsruhe or in Bremen or somewhere closer. This is the same in many different places.

[Interviewer] So what I'm hearing, Claus, is in talking about your work with refugees is that the people who are volunteering their time also need to be seen and to be heard and to matter?

[Claus] Yes, for instance, we were talking before we started to do the interview. Our town is starting to have a concept about integration. So from my point of view, 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, but that does not work because you don't have access to all these different stakeholders. If you write one, you put it on the table and that's it. This may be helpful for administrational work. It may fit the needs of the administration of a town or a region or a community, but this is not a way of participating and bringing people together—which is necessary, from my point of view. We need to create a good way together.

[Interviewer] Togetherness.

[Claus] Yeah, a good togetherness.

[Interviewer] So I'm going back to the beginning. I want to go back because something came to my mind as I was listening. You talked about how in a time of crisis or need, the community came together—many, many people with different ideas, different strengths, different gifts, different talents. They all came together to do something. And now as things have changed and evolved, the need for that community is still there. The tasks may be different, but the voices need to be there to say how we do those things. And that seems like it's almost like a spiral.

[Claus] It is.

[Interviewer] The center of it all sounds like the need for community, community voice. And now you have new members in this community, which are the refugees. We've talked about 2017 and a bit how things are developing now. So, in looking at 2018, what are you imagining? What do you imagine for you and for your organization as you move forward?

[Claus] If you asking what I imagine, it sounds like you have three wishes free or something like that.

[Interviewer] If you want to do it that way.

[Claus] I think it won't work.

[Interviewer] What do you see needs to be done?

[Claus] I think we should create ways of collaboration, and not see someone from a different organization or from the administration, or any of these engaged groups as enemies or as a burden. So, they are a burden, yes, maybe. They are disturbing your daily routine work, and it is awful when they do that; but it is worth it to listen to them and to cooperate with them and get them together to work and change things. Because in my experience, if you don't do that, people stop volunteering. People stop trying to connect, and they act like ‘we do what we do’.

         We could go sailing, could go outside. We have wonderful lakes, and sailing is fun too. People who are going to sail, they are fine too; but if they are on the boat, they are not engaged in the town. To have a good community and a community which is alive is an effort. Yeah, it's an effort and it's exhausting; but it is worth it to fight for that. So, I would like, if I could say something to the administrators and to the politicians, I really would encourage them to be open to doing that.

         We have trouble with people from the right wing. Twenty percent of members of the Parliament in our town are from right wing parties. Some of them are really fascists. From my point of view, these are people we have to fight, we have to face, and we have to stop what they are doing; but not the people who are engaged in sport clubs, doing work for refugees or other people. This is fighting the wrong enemy.

[Interviewer] Yeah. So, what I also hear another level about community is that as the refugees 

came to Schwerin, you were developing relationships with them and having relationships here. Now it sounds like it’s important to develop relationship with community members and to be able to continue to do the work you want to do. That seems to be the challenge in moving forward.

[Claus] And doing this takes little steps. For instance, yesterday when we met with 10 refugees at 

10 different tables—inviting guests from the U.S. and old or new Schwerins to share experiences, to listen to each other. So, they never forget what they heard yesterday because they had half an hour to listen and to ask very personal questions. This is what brings people together, and not marching on the street or passing each other without looking in one's eyes. We have to look in the eyes of the people. And these are little, little steps. But without these steps, connection is not....

[Interviewer] Is not possible.

[Claus] Not possible. So, let's do more steps like this.

[Interviewer] Let's do more steps like this. So, if you could just say some final words. As you know, what you've shared will be shared with other students and faculty, educators, community members. So, from your perspective, what would you like to share with them in regards to your experience?

[Claus] If there would be a switch, I would switch to be open-minded.

[Interviewer] Okay.

[Claus] So like everybody should be open-minded and act with acceptance towards others. And stop little bit of being only me, me, me, me, me and be more us, us, us, us, us. Us as humans; us as world citizens; us as just one species on this globe. We are not God or whatever you may call the power. So be open, travel, talk, smile, dance. I don't know but be open. This is what I really like people to do. Yeah.

[Interviewer] I want to thank you for your time, Claus. 

[Claus] Yeah, thank you. Thank you.

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