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Some good advice when meeting refugees

by Kirsten Hastrup

The first time I met refugees here in Denmark was when I joined a newly started network group in my local community north of Copenhagen in 1998. Refugees were mostly young men and families from Iraq and Afghanistan. 

In the beginning, I thought I was going to help them, but after a while, I found out that it was not about ME helping THEM, it was about offering friendship, love and care and about finding a way together. 

All refugees have a traumatic story to tell, because you do not flee your country without a reason. In the beginning, I often had nightmares because I thought that I could save everybody and take away their traumas. I felt insufficient. After a while, I realized that I had to be more realistic about my own capacities, and I found out that it was good enough just being myself offering my friendship, bringing a bit of hope and light into a troubled everyday life. 

When I meet some of “my” refugees today, that is exactly what they emphasize as being the most important factor on their way to integration; meeting voluntary locals who cared about them and offered them friendship. It is extremely rewarding seeing them today as full members of the Danish society, and hearing about their children having completed an education and started new families.

In my professional life as a teacher, I specialized in teaching Danish as a Second Language and worked with children and their families from all over the world, both refugees and immigrants. 

I have summarized my experiences in the following list of good advice:

  • Avoid generalization and assumptions.
  • Meet each refugee with an open heart and mind. Refugees are not just “Syrians”, “Ukrainians” but individuals.
  • Avoid thinking that you want to help a refugee but try to establish an equal relationship. Offer fellowship and community instead of help. Focusing on “help” may create an asymmetric relationship where the helper is superior, and the person being helped is inferior.
  • Try to find ways where the refugees feel useful and open possibilities for them to contribute so that they do not feel that they are a burden.
  • When language is a problem, try to facilitate activities where you can do something together, i.e., cooking, gardening, building, “show it, don’t tell it”. Pictures and google translate are excellent helpers! 
  • It is important to know your own limits; you cannot take away all the pain and sorrow and solve all problems for the refugees. Work together with professional organizations (Red Cross, UNHCR, psychologists, etc).
  • And a quote from Tuula Salin, pastor in Finland: ”We may be motivated by the idea of helping but we must consider what it means to take care of people and not simply accommodate them.”

Kirsten Hastrup 24.05.2022