Refugee Crisis
Young Refugees

Young Refugees
Young Refugees | Photo: Ulrich Pointner

For many years now, Munich has been one of the first destinations for refugees coming to Germany. Yet this summer, the number of people seeking asylum increased more than anyone could have ever imagined. Ulrich Pointner, Director of SBW Flexible Hilfen (SBW Flexible Aid) sponsored by the Katholische Jugendfürsorge (Catholic Youth Welfare) tells us how he is currently experiencing the new situation.

Mr. Pointner, you have been a social education worker for more than 25 years and are director of SBW Flexible Hilfen (SBW Flexible Aid) sponsored by the Katholische Jugendfürsorge (Catholic Youth Welfare) in Munich, which takes care of unaccompanied, refugee minors as well as families. Many things changed this summer. What conditions are you now facing due to the tremendous number of young people and families who have come to Germany as refugees?

Although we have already been working intensely to support young refugees when they initially register [in Germany], this summer the overall situation drastically changed once again. This summer, thousands of refugees, including many unaccompanied minors, who fall under our responsibility in youth welfare, came to Munich in particular as Germany’s southernmost metropolis. Since the initial registration and care of young people is still largely tied to where they arrive, currently around 1,500 young people must always be taken care of in various registration centers in Munich, which presents a huge challenge both in terms of logistics and providing care and support. The number of adults and families with children that must be cared for is naturally much higher and has led to the creation of additional emergency registration centers with up to 2,000 beds in Munich, including temporary centers in the halls at the fairgrounds and in the suburbs of Munich. The logistical challenge is shouldered as the shared responsibility of the authorities, aid organizations, and countless aid workers, which is working out quite well given the huge challenge. Nevertheless, everyone is increasingly reaching their limits. In light of the fact that future developments are unpredictable in the long term, it is clear that the situation has become overwhelming and that solutions will be needed very soon. Because of the major problems, public sentiment could eventually start to shift.

In what condition do young people who have made the journey alone without their parents arrive when they reach you? Do they tell you and your team what they have gone through? Are they traumatized?

The young people are often very uncertain, they are exhausted from the long, difficult journey to Germany, and they are greatly affected by what they have gone through. Some of them talk about traumatizing experiences fleeing their countries, many of them have seen people die back home and especially on their way here. After an initial medical evaluation, the refugees often need a wide range of medical, especially psychological treatment, though given the huge number of young people, these needs can generally only be met to a very limited extent when they are initially registered. Since the young people often only have the clothes on their backs and what they could carry with them, we provide them with the most important essentials. 

What is most important to the young people? What are their expectations, goals, and hopes? What are their ideas about Germany?

First and foremost, the young people hope they will find a safe place, a place where they can stay and find peace. Unfortunately, the initial registration here is just a stopping point before they can be sent on to suitable places and facilities throughout Bavaria. The young people are often incredibly motivated to learn the language and go to school here as quickly as possible. They are often full of hope and are impatiently expecting a better life here, yet often they cannot fully understand the difficulties associated with life here. In spite of everything they have gone through, they are often full of courage to face life and have a contagious zest for life, which always motivates us aid workers. Most of the young people want to stay in Germany and learn a profession here.

How do the young people interact with each other, particularly when they encounter major cultural differences?

Conflict is inevitable when so many youths and people have to live together in tight quarters. Young people from various cultures – from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, and various other crisis regions – live together in a confined space in the initial registration centers. When supporting the young people, we try to create manageable units of 30 to 60 young people, which is almost impossible now due to the large number of young refugees. Since we are able to create a nice, welcoming atmosphere and a sense of community through such things as sports and a lot of daily structure, some of the major cultural differences fade more into the background. 

Have you ever noticed fundamentalist attitudes? How well are such individuals able to adapt to the new living situation?

Despite all of the – in some cases – very different ideas that the young people bring from their respective cultures, so far we have never encountered anyone really intent on spreading fundamentalist ideologies. 

What are you able to do for young refugees in your organization and where do you need more support from institutions, the city of Munich, the state of Bavaria, and – on a higher level – from Europe?

We try to welcome unaccompanied young refugees here and – to the extent possible – prepare them to get off to a good start and find good continued support elsewhere. The city of Munich, the numerous supporters from social institutions, and the many aid workers are doing a great deal to facilitate this process. At the same time, the tremendous strain on the city of Munich and other cities in southern Bavaria will still require much more support from other regions, the state of Bavaria, other German states, and, of course, at a European level. Currently the problem is heavily concentrated in our region and will simply be impossible to solve on our own. It can only be solved at a higher level – at the federal level and especially at the European level.

Do you also get help from volunteers? What is your current take on the mood among the people of Munich?

In Munich, many citizens and volunteers show tremendous solidarity and willingness to help refugees. Hundreds of citizens are helping to take care of the many refugees. Last Sunday, 24,000 people celebrated at Munich’s Königsplatz during a city-sponsored thank-you concert for all of the aid workers and refugees, an event which featured a line-up of several fantastic musicians including Herbert Grönemeyer. This was a wonderful sign of solidarity within Munich’s population that was observed across the country. We were there. Yet in the last few days and weeks, public sentiment is starting to shift in many places because the refugee problem continues to become larger and larger and people are increasingly worrying about whether everything is really manageable. At the same time, this also brings greater attention to the de facto social problems we already have here (e.g., housing shortages, poverty, social welfare). 

How are you and your team dealing with the new challenges? What are your hopes, what motivates you? Where do you see difficulties?

We work with our team and our sponsor to the greatest extent possible to try to come up with new, differentiated offerings to assist and support refugees. We are motivated by the young refugees, who have a tremendous zest for life and are highly motivated to do well here despite the difficult situation. The solidarity and cooperation from the many people involved in the aid process and the many aid offerings is also encouraging. It is simply a joy despite the many unavoidable stresses, and it gives us a deep sense of purpose in what we are doing.

How do you see the overall chances for the many young people who have come to Germany looking for a new home to integrate successfully? Where do you see opportunities for Germany?

From our long-term experience in working with unaccompanied minor refugees, we know that many of these young people have very good chances of becoming well-integrated here. We have already accompanied many young people with similar backgrounds on their journey to getting a good education and becoming well-integrated into society. Yet with the large number of refugees, major efforts must be undertaken so that the young people can learn the language quickly, receive educational and social support, and integrate into their new environments as best as possible. They need intensive support during this process and this also costs money, which has to come from somewhere. We are convinced that it will pay off since many of these young people can help us solve our own demographic problem of having a shortage of workers in the next generation. At the same time, we also believe that cultural diversity provides an opportunity for our society to continue developing and advocating for values such as tolerance, solidarity, and brotherhood. In our rapidly developing globalized world, dealing with cultural diversity is a major challenge even without refugees. We believe that the most important challenge will be practicing peaceful coexistence between the various cultures, religions, and faiths in all forms on a daily basis. Here we are trying to do our part as a Christian support organization.

Ulrich Pointner
earned his degree in social education. He serves as Director of SBW Flexible Hilfen (SBW Flexible Aid) sponsored by the Katholische Jugendfürsorge (Catholic Youth Welfare) in Munich and has worked with one of the largest youth welfare organizations in the Munich region since 1986. He is the founder and responsible coordinator of the organization’s refugee assistance program and has many years of experience developing and implementing integrative, flexible young welfare concepts.