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'I feel their fear'

Sabrina Pabst / jsNovember 11, 2015

Bridge building and listening are also among the tasks that interpreter Rabia Tayyeb is charged with when helping traumatized refugee children.

Symbolbild Afghanistan Humanitäre Hilfe
Image: picture alliance/Photoshot

Deutsche Welle: How do you create an atmosphere of trust and get patients to open up to you during therapy sessions in which you are the third person in the room?

Rabia Tayyeb: Most of the children and youths are traumatized. Sometimes we don't even need a therapy session for patients to tell me what happened to them during their escape. They are very open as soon as they see that someone speaks their language and will listen to them. For the children, these stories seem normal. Many of the stories that they tell me, however, affect me deeply. They weigh on me psychologically. Some nights I can't sleep because the stories are so sad and unsettling. But those are normal experiences for the children.

Due to the experiences that these children have had during their flight, or before in their home countries, they grow up quickly because they have to take on responsibility. When I compare these children with others their age, they are worlds apart. These children have had no childhood. They have the same fears that their parents have; they feel the fears that adults feel.

The familiarity of the language helps

As an interpreter, you are a mediator and not the therapist. Is that a hindrance for therapy, or a help?

I am a connection. The only instrument that one has for making therapy possible is language. But I am often confused with a co-therapist. That has to do with the fact that most patients get the feeling that I can understand their worries. Naturally, because I speak their language, but also because I know their situation well.

For someone who cannot speak German, therapy is impossible without an interpreter. That is why I hope that in the future such offers will also be available for adults because parents are just as traumatized as the children.

Rabia Tayyeb von Children of Tomorrow Porträt
Interpreter Rabia Tayyeb helps traumatized refugee childrenImage: privat

Nevertheless, there are also situations in which my role is not clear to patients. For instance, when I ask someone why their situation as a woman in Afghanistan is so difficult, I am asking them an extremely unusual question from their point of view. They look at me with big eyes, and think that I should understand their situation. They do not realize that I am just translating. There is a matter of factness about the way that they deal with many things that they imagine should also be the same for me - someone who comes from Afghanistan and speaks their language.

You fled Afghanistan with your family at age 14. You had experiences much like the patients for whom you interpret. What do you feel like after such sessions?

I can understand them completely. For someone who has never been to Afghanistan, the stories sound very sad. But for me, there are other images behind the stories that I translate. I can feel exactly what they feel. When someone speaks about their fears, worries and uncertainties, I can understand them. When we arrived in Germany long ago, we had no idea what would happen next. That kind of fear is something that I know very well. I can still feel some of that fear. Some therapy sessions become very personal for me. But I hear about a lot of successes - that gives me hope.

'I can empathize'

What is it like for you to have children tell you about the same things that you experienced while fleeing?

I am a mother of two, and when children are affected, it bothers me a lot. I have actually broken into tears in three or four therapy sessions. I couldn't utter a word. The stories were so shattering that the only thing I could do was cry. That was very unpleasant because I have to create a connection between the patient and the therapist. I often take stories with me and think about them afterwards - especially when they have to do with children who have been abused. Those are fates that occupy my mind for weeks. On the one hand, it is a relief for the children to be able to tell their stories. On the other, it is an enormous burden for me to have to deal with them. For many patients these stories are very real - and very close.

People are people. People have feelings. I come from this country and experienced first hand how hard it can be to be a stranger here - to have to find your way, your orientation. Such concerns are, although I have lived in Germany for a long time, just like those that went with the images that I saw when I arrived back then. They are just as present for me today. When I see 14 or 15-year-old girls that say they cannot make it at school because the language is so difficult, I sometimes ask the therapist if I might say a few words about my own story, because it may encourage them. The children often can't believe that I had it just as bad as they do now - that we had to live in the same kind of accommodations. The difficulties that exist today are almost exactly the same as they were 25 years ago.

Rabia Tayyeb is an interpreter at therapy sessions for children and youths who have fled Afghanistan. She works for the 'Children of Tomorrow' foundation which is dedicated to helping traumatized refugee children. In this role, she works several days a week at the University of Hamburg Hospital in Eppendorf. The 'Children of Tomorrow' therapy team belongs to the refugee outpatient department there, where they work with children and youths from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Ghana and Eritrea. Currently, more than 200 children are on the waiting list for a place in the therapy program.