Refugee Crisis In Conversation with Jürgen Konrad, volunteer German teacher for refugees

Jürgen Konrad with a group of German students from Syria (all are academics)
Jürgen Konrad with a group of German students from Syria (all are academics) | Foto: Jürgen Konrad

Wilfried Eckstein, director at the Goethe-Institut Washington, speaks with Jürgen Konrad, volunteer German teacher for refugees, about the refugee situation in his Bavarian hometown of Kaufbeuren/Allgäu.

Mr. Konrad, you come from Kaufbeuren, a small city in Bavaria. And you have worked there for the last ten months and more as a volunteer for the refugees and the asylum seekers. What is it that you do as a volunteer? 

Well, first of all, I had the idea to give German lessons, because the language is the key to anything. You just need to learn German in order to integrate into German society. And I started teaching German. But the moment you start teaching German, you get confronted by all kind of problems. You help them with the administration, you take them to the doctor’s, you go to the lawyer, etc. You have to be careful not to be drawn into it too much, but on the other hand, these are wonderful people and you really want to help them. German teaching is really one side effect or one goal, there’s help needed all the time.

You have been committed very much to what you do at the moment. Is it an everyday job? Is it what you do all week, or what does this look like?

Well, it could easily be a full-time job. Luckily I’m 90% retired, so I do have quite a lot of time, but one has to be careful not to be drawn into it too much. So I would say I have some contact every day, often I communicate by SMS, Whatsapp, etc. And sometimes it’s just telephone communication, but almost every day there is some contact also.

Where do the refugees come from? I mean, you can look back 10 months when you started. You see it now. What’s going on now? Where are they from?

Well, I think ten months ago we had many people from Kosovo and Albania. But already many Syrians, because the civil war in Syria has been going on for four years now. So Syrians really are a big proportion, but also people from Afghanistan and also Pakistan and Iraq, and of course there’s the big group of African refugees crossing the Mediterranean. The major group actually is from Eritrea. Some from Ethiopia. I mean Eritrea is considered the North Korea of Africa and they want to get away from the military service and all these hardships and so. And there are people from Nigeria, also from Mali, from Sierra Leone. Mostly - and Somalia, but definitely Eritrea and Syria, of the Arabic world other major groups. Now, we have much less people from Kosovo, but more and more from Syria, and maybe also from Eritrea.

So there is an increase, more people coming in. How does the local population react to these newcomers?

Well, I think in the beginning there was some curiosity, some resentment also and people were just sort of a little bit surprised what’s going on here. I think in the meantime on the one hand there is fear of having too many refugees, but on the other hand the attitude of helping and supporting them has also increased incredibly. I think it’s the same flood as the flood of refugees - the flood of helpers. There’s a big network of people who feel responsible from the churches, from the politicians, from the Rotary Club, from the Lions Club, from all kinds of organizations, the Red Cross. Everybody is really ready to help. One of the problems is really to organize all this. But I would say it’s really grown – the readiness for helping.

You mentioned churches at the beginning. Can you say something about the role of the churches in particular? They have always been helpful, but here the peculiar thing is that a lot of these people are not Christians.

Luckily, this doesn’t seem to be a problem. We have many Turkish citizens in Kaufbeuren and they are Muslims. We have two mosques in a small town. But also we have many churches. And there was Ramadan this summer. There were a lot of Turkish people helping. Many of our students or our refugees go to the mosque every Friday. We stop the lessons at a quarter to one so they can go to the mosque. But they also go to Christian churches. We also have one case of church asylum. So there’s a big readiness for help, also from the Christian churches. Some Arabic friends really said that it’s a disgrace that they get more help from the Christians than from some of their Arab brothers, from their Muslim brothers from the Arabic world. So luckily, the churches really have a chance to compensate for some of the things they did in the 16th-17th century, and I’m really impressed by the ecumenical aspect, maybe also economic, but the ecumenical movement is very strong, to help each other. We teach in a church room most of the time.

But also as I understand the mosques help, too, in a way to welcome the refugees. How does the practical vision of life look like for the refugees, for the asylum seekers who come and they are suddenly there. What awaits them? What is the perspective of life in this moment when they come here?

That’s a good question. I think first of all, after they arrive, they are just exhausted and they are happy to have some peace and quiet. Of course, life can get boring, and they also want to help. They want to give something back. Everyday somebody asks me. Can I help you with that or that? They really want to help. And I know many of them want to go back to their countries, rebuild their country, like Syria. Most of the Syrians I know, they are very grateful, very happy to be in Germany. But their dream is to go back to Syria. They all seem to love their country. They really tell me it was a beautiful country and they want to try everything to rebuild it. But I think some, from Africa and also from the Arabic world they would love to really integrate in Germany and be part of the German society and to have a better life for their children and better education and all this. Germany really has become a role model. It’s like a haven for them. So it’s a unique chance for Germany. It’s very popular now. I think a lot of them also would like to stay. It all depends, like the civil war in Syria. Nobody can tell when it will end. It’s very hard.

You will return to Kaufbeuren and you said that you would be ready to communicate with us and report a little bit about what is going on in Kaufbeuren. At this moment, what are the biggest challenges that you see for the next days and weeks?

Well, organizing the flood. Because at the moment in Kaufbeuren, we just have more or less, I mean increasing numbers, about 400 refugees now. I guess that might be one thousand in the end of the year, because you can see on the news every hour how the flood is increasing in Munich and at the borders. Somehow these people have to live somewhere permanently. So I’m sure we will get many many more people in Kaufbeuren and somehow we have to… We have a lot of volunteers but it has to be organized because people are also frustrated. They want to help, and nobody can tell them where to help and how to help. Hopefully, as Germans have a reputation of being good organizers, I’m still optimistic and I stay optimistic that we will manage this organization. I think the biggest challenge now is really how to get this flood organized so that it’s a good life for everybody involved and for the future.

Thank you very much and keep the good work up!

Welcome to Kaufbeuren

1. Interview with Jürgen Konrad

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2. Interview with Jürgen Konrad

Our second interview with Jürgen Konrad, volunteer German teacher for refugees in Kaufbeuren/Allgäu. In the meantime, families from Syria have arrived. How does their arrival and inclusion in this small town in Bavaria work? Listen to find out!
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3. Interview with Jürgen Konrad

Our third interview with Jürgen Konrad. Winter has arrived in Kaufbeuren/Allgäu. How is this impacting the refugee situation? How are the newcomers in Kaufbeuren settling in and adjusting to daily life in Germany? Listen to find out! 
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Jürgen Konrad
cultural linguist/philologist and former CEO of an export company, has spent the last 10 months teaching German lessons to refugees.