Commissioner for Refugees Astrid Dethloff: Help against feelings of helplessness

Since 2015, Astrid Dethloff has been the refugee leader of the church district of Plön-Segeberg, helping people who have fled their home country. After the Russian attack on Ukraine, it is now experiencing the second big wave of refugees after 2015, when millions of Syrians were looking for a safe place to stay. In an interview, she tells what feelings this triggers in her, how citizens can help and what she wishes for the future.

Mrs Dethloff, you have been the refugee representative in the church district of Plön-Segeberg since 2015 and you are already experiencing the second large wave of refugees. How does that affect you personally?

It teaches me to keep my cool and deal with fainting. And I have to endure them, it’s important in my job. When you see these images on TV, it’s not just me, but many people who feel helpless.

Many citizens want to help in the face of the terrible images of war and displacement in Ukraine. What can you do, what makes sense, what shouldn’t you do?

First of all, it’s fantastic that so many people want to help.

Refugees from Ukraine: Poland pays the price

Concretely, you can of course donate money, for example to disaster relief, in which Diakonie is also an alliance partner, but you can also donate to Polish Diakonie. With around 2.3 million refugees, Poland is really bearing the brunt. There are various organizations such as the German-Ukrainian Society that have local contacts and therefore know exactly what is needed there. At the moment, it is mainly medical equipment and less clothing donations.

Deportation monitor and refugee representative

Born in Hamburg Astrid Dethloff (54) trained as an educator and worked in a daycare center for 17 years. After that, she started a part-time degree in social pedagogy at the Protestant University of Hamburg. During her studies, she accompanied the work of refugees as an intern, particularly in the field of detention for deportation, and was involved in volunteering for a long time. In May 2009, she returned to a full-time position in refugee work at the Northelbian Church. She worked as a deportation observer at Hamburg Airport until 2015, before moving to Preetz and becoming the refugee officer for the church district of Plön-Segeberg. Astrid Dethloff has also completed additional training as a traumatology educator.

Many people go their own way…

I’m not a big fan of everyone now heading to the border with some sort of relief supplies, as it quickly became clear that the borders would be clogged with these relief transports. And all the donations that have been collected are not really needed there. I can understand that you want to do something about your feelings of helplessness, but you should stay calm and find out exactly how you can best help.

What can you do on the spot when the refugees are already there?

There are a variety of ways for volunteers to get involved, including family partnerships. The accompaniment and support during the many visits to the authorities are extremely useful.

Stress management for refugees and caregivers

You can establish contact with people so that they arrive safely and find their way. As a refugee representative, I offer stress management, both for refugees and for volunteers and interpreters.

What are you doing here?

We have conversations to relieve stress. What also helps a lot with stress is simply exercise: you should go for a walk or just jump in place. There is the app “body2brain” – but unfortunately it’s only in German – with easy exercises for more vital energy. And the writing helps. That’s why I always carry a basket with notebooks and pens. This allows the people concerned to write down everything that affects them. Not necessarily for anyone to read, but to get the whole thing out of your head. Children can paint so that no trauma develops after bad experiences.

The stories they hear can also be very stressful for people who volunteer for refugees. How do you help them?

They also focus on stress management. They must take care of themselves so as not to reach or exceed their own limits.

Mainly Ukrainian women and children come to Germany. How to protect them from exploitation and violence?

Many details are important. And it takes a lot of awareness among all caregivers. From the start, there were people in the stations who paid attention to who was talking to whom.

Women are not allowed to surrender their passport

We need to inform women in their own language that they cannot just accompany anyone or hand over their passport under any circumstances.

Ukrainian refugees are treated differently in terms of work or housing than, for example, people from Syria or Afghanistan. Does a two-speed society exist today?

Unfortunately, that’s the impression you have right now. Many affected people find this unfair because they themselves had to wait years for work permits or language courses. It would be good if we created rapid access to the labor market and to education for all. Because that’s still what a lot of people who came to us from hotspots wanted: to learn the language quickly and find work.

Has the current crisis left people fleeing from other countries out of sight?

No, not with us. Beginning in January 2015, the Church of the North established refugee officer positions in each church district. This had nothing to do with the wave of refugees in the summer of 2015, but there was already a need to advise, accompany and support the parishes on issues of migration and flight. With us, everyone stays focused. For example, we look at the situation in Afghanistan, where girls are only allowed to go to school until the sixth grade. We are there for everyone. My advice on residency issues continues as normal. We currently have 25 wars in the world and have welcomed people from these countries here.

Will premises in parishes be open to offers?

Yes, there are many churches that offer this. For example, I connected an artist who wants to volunteer to paint with children so they can process their experiences with a pastor in her area. Many parishes make premises available or offer to welcome refugees. As a religious district, we offered vacant religious buildings in Bad Segeberg as accommodation.

Is it already used?

No, so far not as many Ukrainian refugees have arrived here as expected. This may be due to the fact that the escape corridors are less permeable. But also because the main burden lies in the countries of Moldova, Poland and Romania, because people like to stay near the border with Ukraine. They hope, of course, to be able to return to their homeland, to their old life, as soon as possible.

What is important to you personally?

I wish so much that the education, language and work opportunities that Ukrainian refugees currently have are sustainable – just like the spirit of helpfulness that we have right now. And also for people who do not come to us from 1000 kilometers but from more distant countries. Accompanying refugees and therefore mixing different cultures can be very enriching.

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