A Dance of Interpretation: Refugees in Germany

By Bryce Bower, Staff Writer

The German term for where I worked was “Migrationsberatungsstelle des Deutschen Roten Kreuzes.” Yes, that is a very long word; it means Immigration Advice Office of the German Red Cross. It was an office whose sole purpose was to help refugees and asylum seekers adjust to life in Germany, and while this may sound boring and menial, I can assure you it was neither. While the majority of refugees were from Syria, I came across many from other countries and cultures. I met a former Kurdish ambassador who was invited to the White House by President Clinton in the 90s; a 20-year-old who had never attended a day of school before in his life yet felt called to become an engineer; a former multi-millionaire who was outraged that the German government would not provide his family with a midwife free of charge; and many other interesting characters. The number of stories I am eager to share is too great for a single article. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing about my experiences working with the German Red Cross, as well as the overall social and political climate in Germany as the country adjusted to the Syrian refugees.

Courtesy Google Maps

I spent the last year of my undergrad studying abroad in Germany and Spain. We were on the trimester system that year, and I spend the first two trimesters in Burg bei Magdeburg, Germany, from September to March. My bachelor’s program required me to have an overseas internship, and I unexpectedly and serendipitously landed an internship with the Red Cross in Germany. I started working during the tail end of the migration of more than 900,000 Syrian refugees, who came into the country in 2015 seeking asylum from the war.

I worked in the row of government offices that were old, drab—and like most buildings in former east Germany—made of grey brick. My job was to translate between the refugees who could speak English or French and the German Red Cross workers who only spoke German. Sometimes I helped with paperwork and the crafting of letters our office sent to the “Job-center” (pronounced like the two English words). Aside from the place where they sleep, the Job-center is the most important building for refugees in Germany. This office was responsible for distributing money for clothes and food, for connecting people with job opportunities, for helping bring the refugees’ wives, husbands, and/or children from various embassies and consulates to Burg, and for helping enroll people in German language courses.

The plan most Syrian refugees had, and the reason why so many were single and male, was to eventually bring their whole family over to Germany. But Germany could only take so many refugees, and even though it had limited entry, its infrastructure was already bursting at the seams. Yet the government understood that these people had left their families behind, and it had created a way for people to bring their loved ones over while at the same time preventing Germany from being overwhelmed. The ideal process was for a Syrian man to gain entry into a “Deutschkurs”, or German language program, and take around two to three full-time semesters worth of intense, state regulated German classes. After this, they would be integrated into the German work force, preferably in whatever area they had previous experience in. Once they had a stable job, they could then pay for their family – which was stuck in Syria – to come join them and live in Germany. This is a basic explanation of my understanding of the process, in reality it is much more complicated. Although the plan was long, confusing, and arduous, it did so much for the refugees. It gave them hope.

Schwanger! Photo courtesy of Medical News Today


My first day on the job I learned a lot. I learned that this internship was not going to teach me how to swim, but rather throw me into the middle of the ocean. It was the beginning of December in 2015. I had a year of elementary German from my American university under my belt, and had been in Germany for two months.  Unfortunately, this was not enough German to translate for the two pregnant political refugees from India who wished to move to an apartment closer to the hospital. These women lived together, along with their husbands and children, in a single apartment. They were due to deliver their babies one month apart. I had to get their ages, the ages of their children, their places of birth, their husbands’ visa information, and much more; then translate it into German in my head and relay this to my boss, who was sitting at her computer typing the information into a request to send to the housing branch of the Jobcenter.  Thankfully I had learned the word “schwanger” earlier that week in school, otherwise I am sure I would have been misinterpreted as suggesting that these women’s problems came simply from having very fat stomachs.

It did get easier as time went on, and my German rapidly improved. But the situations we had to deal with seemed to get more and more serious and complicated. It seemed to me that every person whom I met could have a movie made about them. Life as a refugee is rarely simple – and never easy. Next week I will share these people’s stories and be talking about what the transition into Germany was like for Syrian refugees who had lost nearly everything.


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