This article is the testimony of a woman who works helping refugees at an asylum centre in Hamburg. It describes her emotional journey from enthusiasm to disenchantment. It was published in Die Welt newspaper.
Since Autumn 2015 I have worked as my main occupation and as a permanent employee in a Hamburg Initial Reception Centre for refugees. I applied for this job specifically; it was exactly what I wanted to do. When I finally got the job offer in my postbox, I felt so crazily happy about it; finally I would not just be able to help theoretically, but I could do something practical for the refugees.
Accordingly I went in the best of moods to my first day of work at the initial reception centre; I was naturally excited, of course, you always are on your first day of work in a new job, but otherwise I was very happy. My colleagues were engaged and very nice; although I had no direct contact with the refugees, I greeted them full of enthusiasm in the area and found them all just great.
"That was really great here," I thought. In the next few days I dove into the work full of motivation. That would be with the 1500 refugees who were housed there. I was responsible for their advice on social affairs, was supposed to be a point of contact for all of the refugees' social problems, support them in their asylum applications or make doctor's appointments if they needed them.
Well, and then the first refugees came into my office, in which I was to give advice about social affairs - and even after the first few visits I noted that my very positive and idealistic image of them and their behaviour diverged markedly from reality. Of course we should not make sweeping judgements about all refugees; many of them are very friendly, very thankful, very willing to integrate, very happy to be here. But if I am being honest, working with 90% of those I meet is rather unpleasant and not as I imagined it would be in advance.
First, many of them are extremely demanding. They come to me and demand that I should immediately get them a house and a nice car and, ideally, a really good job, because I have to do that, that's why I sit there and they've come all this way. When I reject that and instead try to explain to them that it doesn't work like that, often they become loud or really aggressive. Recently, an Afghan threatened to kill himself. And some Syrians and a group of Afghans explained they would go on hunger strike until I helped them move to another place. They even screamed to one of my colleagues of Arab origin "We'll behead you!" Due to these and other matters, the police are here several times a week.
Second, they often provide very unreliable information. They come to me and have their papers with them and tell a story that simply cannot be true. But they stick to it and I can only be sure once I have spoken to my colleagues about it and they often say that the person was here previously and told their whole story a bit differently. For example, there was one resident who came to me with his deportation notification and asked me what would happen now. I explained to him then he went away. Soon afterwards he came to my colleague and suddenly showed completely new identification papers in another name and said he was this person with another name. Then he wasn't deported, only moved to another camp.
Third, they rarely keep appointments. I make doctor's appointments for the refugees. All of them need to undergo a basic examination, that means X-rays, inoculation and a general check-up. But many of them want to go to other doctors too, like dentists or orthopaedists. Then I make appointments for them, but when it is time for the appointment, often they don't turn up. That happens so often that the doctors have now asked us not to make so many appointments - but what should I do? I can't just reject the request for an appointment only because I suspect that the person asking for it won't turn up.
And fourth, and this for me is the worst: some of the refugees conduct themselves unspeakably towards women. It is well known that it is mainly men on their own that come to us here, around 60% or perhaps even 70%, I would estimate personally. They are all young, around 20, at most 25. And some of them simply do not have any regard for us women. They accept we are there, they don't have a choice, but they don't take us seriously. When as a women I say something to them or try to give them an instruction, they barely listen to me, immediately dismiss it as unimportant and then simply go again to one of my male colleagues. They often only have contemptuous regards left for us women - or pestering. They whistle after you behind your back, call out after you saying something in a foreign language, which I and most of my colleagues don't understand, laugh. That is really very unpleasant. It is has even happened that they have photographed us with a smartphone. Just like that, unasked, even when we protested. And recently I was going up somewhat steep stairs. Some of the men ran after me there, went up the steps with me, laughing the whole time and - I suspect - were talking about me and calling to me.
Female colleagues have told me that similar things have happened to them. But they said that nothing can be done about it. That it's just part of the job here. It happens so often that if every time a criminal complaint was filed against someone or they were transferred, the institution would be significantly more empty. So they ignore it and try not to let it get to them - and so I have also done that. I have just walked on with my eyes to the front when they whistled after me or called out something. I didn't say anything and didn't make a face so as not to strengthen them, not to give me the feeling that they have done me any harm or could influence me.
But that hasn't helped; it's even become worse - speaking honestly: especially in recent weeks with ever more men from North Africa, Morocco, Tunisia or Libya who have come here to the institution. They were even more aggressive. Then I couldn't ignore it any more - and I reacted. To not expose myself to it any more.
Specifically that means: I started to dress differently. I am actually someone who likes to wear tight things - but not any more. I only wear widely cut trousers and highly-enclosed upper garments. I use make-up very little, at most sometimes a cover stick. And it's not only externally that I've changed, to protect myself from this harassment. I act differently. So, on our grounds, I avoid going to places where there are often men on their own. And when I have to do that I try and pass through very quickly and not smile at anyone in case it is misinterpreted.
But mostly I stay in my small office when possible, even throughout the whole day. I don't take the train to or from work - because recently one of my colleagues was followed to the underground station by some of the young men and harassed even in the train. I want to spare myself that so I come in the car.
I know that must sound serious: dressing differently, avoiding specific areas and only taking the car. And I find it frightful myself that I do all that and consider it necessary. But what should I do, what would the alternative be? Just let myself go on being stared at and propositioned; I can't do that. Not much help is to be expected from the official side. Neither on this matter, nor the other problems that we have, not from the Interior ministry and not from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. When you call them, they often don't go to the phone any more.
Actually all that remains for me really is to hand in my notice. But I always ruled that out before; I like my colleagues a lot, the refugee children too. And I was convinced about the job and the whole thing before - it's hard to admit that everything's a bit different than you had imagined. And handing in my notice would naturally be an admission of this. But I'm now thinking about it nonetheless. Many of my colleagues also want to hand in their notices. Because they can't take it any more, because they cannot look at how badly everything is going here and not be able to do anything about it. And if I'm being honest: I also can't take it any more.