Imagine your whole life changing overnight. Imagine having to leave the place you call home. And now imagine that that’s reality for millions of people every year.
Every year since 2001, 20 June has been dedicated to people who have fled from war, violence, conflict or persecution and crossed an international border in search of safety for themselves and their family in another country. World Refugee Day aims to raise awareness of these people’s fate, show them solidarity and give them support.
Between Paraguay, Germany and the whole world
To mark this special day, we’d like to introduce Sofía and the project she has been involved in. Sofía, a South-North volunteer from Paraguay, spent one year at the Café International in Düren until February this year. Run by the local protestant church, the café provides advice for refugees and migrants on matters concerning asylum, residence rights and welfare benefits. We asked her and her partner organisation, the Evangelische Kirche im Rheinland (EKiR), to tell us a little bit about the support services for migrants and refugees.
Sofía’s day-to-day work at Café International was very varied. Her tasks included helping the social workers draw up a list of people who were seeking advice, preparing the drinks for the café, opening and closing it and helping out wherever she was needed. She was able to use her language skills too, helping to translate documents or interpret conversations.
“I could already speak German before I came to Germany. On top of that, I’m an English teacher, my mother tongue is Spanish and I have a good understanding of Portuguese because my home country borders with Brazil.”
Your story, my story
Sofía’s own family history made her work at Café International a really personal experience. “My father’s family is originally Lebanese, my mother’s German. Both of my parents are Uruguayans and my brother and I are Paraguayans. The café gave me an opportunity to meet people who were confronted by the same problems as my grandparents were and my parents still are today. Problems with adapting to a new culture, learning a new language, dealing with the bureaucracy of a country that is not your own, discrimination and, above all, being homesick.”
"There’s a close link between the project I worked on in Germany and my family’s story."
“At the end of the day, it’s difficult being a refugee or an immigrant in any country and we need to start tearing down the imaginary barriers that separate us according to factors such as ethnicity, religion or nationality.”
Enriching experiences for both sides
The partner organisation, EKiR, sees the interaction with the volunteers and their experiences as being greatly enriching for the project. “We as a partner organisation really value our work with the volunteers. As well as helping them with the organisational aspects of their assignment, we find the interpersonal interaction particularly beneficial. Their reflections on the situations they experience during their voluntary service are of immense value to us.”
“We’re always seeing that volunteers, with their fresh perspectives, question things that have become routine for us. They are constantly sharing their view of things and providing new ideas to their projects.”
Continued support despite the pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic posed challenges for Café International too. It was practically impossible to run it as normal and the advice services for refugees had to be reduced to a minimum or offered in alternative forms. Where advice for refugees could still be offered, Sofía was able to contribute by, for example, helping people make doctors’ appointments or fill in simple forms. She was also able to accompany the social workers to a nearby refugee shelter, where she learned and experienced a lot.
A new direction
Looking back, Sofia says, “my year of social work in Germany has changed my view not just of Paraguay but also of Latin America and Germany itself”.
“The realities are completely different but people’s feelings are the same – both the joy and the sadness.”
“I haven’t worked with refugees since returning to Paraguay. My country doesn’t have refugee or migrant centres like the one in Düren”, she explains. Nonetheless, Sofía’s voluntary service did lead to a change in direction for her: “I’m still working as an English teacher but I give private lessons for children aged 3 to 9 and I teach them German too. My experience with languages has encouraged me to continue working as a language teacher and to train in community work."