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Germany

Asylum Seekers Train to Help Others

A pilot project in Germany is training refugees to be “language and culture mediators,” with the aim of helping other refugees adjust to their new homeland.

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Have a seat: waiting room at the immigration office in Hamburg.

For many people, a visit to the doctor can be intimidating. The atmosphere is sterile; painful tests may be involved, and the medical terminology is off-putting.

Imagine, then, how uncomfortable it could be to visit a doctor when you don’t even speak the language.

Alusine Sesay came from Sierra Leone to Germany in 1999, and recalls his first doctors’ visit. “There was a language problem between me and the doctor. I couldn’t explain what my problem was. I was completely alone. But the doctor tried to understand me. The situation was very odd for me, very strange.”

Germany plays "catch up"

Situations like this occur daily for the more than seven million immigrants in Germany. They enter the country looking for better living and work conditions, and for a new homeland. But few of them speak German. When they need to go to the immigration office or to the hospital, they are helpless unless they find a friend or relative that can go with them and translate for them.

Now, a pilot project in Wuppertal, in North Rhine-Westphalia, is training a group of 26 people -- who are themselves asylum seekers -- to become what is known as “language and culture mediators.” That is, people who would be assigned to help immigrants negotiate German bureaucracy upon their arrival.

Varinia Morales is the head of the training program (called TransSpuK because of the German acronym for “Transfer of Speech and Culture”). She explains that while elsewhere in Europe, “in Switzerland, Holland, Austria, England, Italy, the job of language and culture mediator is already recognized” since the early 1990s, Germany is “just playing catch-up” now.

In the countries where they are currently used, mediators help immigrants and refugees make various official visits where, due to their language and cultural backgrounds, “there could be misunderstandings, which could in turn lead to their not being able to take advantage of the services. In Germany, we are just starting to deal with this problem.”

No visa, no work permit

Normally, asylum seekers are excluded from job training schemes in Germany. But since the middle of 2002, Wuppertal has offered the three-year program, which is supported financially by the European Union. But there's still a sticking point: the program isn’t yet accredited by German authorities.

People enrolled in the program take seminars on how Germany’s social system and bureaucracy function, as well as learning the most important computer programs, and German cultural singularities. And of course, they learn the German language.

The students are generally from crisis regions such as Kosovo and Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Iran. In their home countries, they may have worked as teachers, architects, economists or engineers. But in Germany they have no long-term visa, and thus no work permit.

Yet despite all the uncertainties, they see the job training as giving them a chance of finding a job in Germany.

Shahram Ghadery, who left Iran eight years ago, was a schoolteacher there. But, he notes, “I have no chance to teach school (in Germany) – that is clear. When I came to Germany I wanted to study, but it didn’t work out. This training is the only thing I can do. I’m happy about it, but it’s the only thing available for me. And I hope that will change, that other asylum seekers can eventually do other jobs.”

Difficult conditions

Students generally do the training under difficult conditions, Morales says. After class, they return to their residences, mostly in homes for asylum seekers, where they often share rooms with strangers. Many still suffer from the traumatic conditions of fleeing their native countries. And none of the 26 students involved knows how long they will be able to remain in Germany.

“You have to keep in mind, these people are refugees and asylum seekers who only have a temporary visa status. These people aren’t recognized. Their cases are under adjudication and they can be sent out of the country at any point,” Morales says

But if it works out -- if it gets accreditation and if the services become standard offerings for asylum seekers, then the Wuppertal project will meet two goals at one time. First, it will help new asylum seekers to integrate. Second, it gives those who finish the training and become “mediators” by the end of their studies, in 2005, a chance to make it in their new homeland.

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