Robert Bernau and Hogir Ali met in October 2015 at a public dinner at a Baptist Church, located in the Wannsee borough of Berlin. As an Iraqi refugee, Hogir was housed in a neighboring refugee home. At the time, Robert was already helping refugees through Visioneers.
Robert and Hogir quickly developed a warm relationship that was marked by an intense interest in each other's lives. It turned out that Hogir wanted to move out of his temporary residence as quickly as he could and move into his own place. So, finding a suitable home for Hogir soon became the top priority for the pair. However, this task turned out to be more difficult than they had initially thought. Robert explains that there were times in which their friendship threatened to become a lopsided affair, owing to the amount of time and effort it took to help Hogir.
It soon became clear: Many of the challenges that a refugee must deal with during the integration process are difficult. There are many bureaucratic hurdles that a refugee has to clear, starting from their first time in an emergency shelter. How can I get an apartment? How do I meet new (German) friends? How can I pursue my hobbies again? How do I find a suitable language course? And often the most pressing questions: How do I find a job? Is my diploma recognized? These are just a few of the questions that are asked by refugees and they represent some of the areas in which these people require the most assistance.
Against this background, and based on the experiences of Robert and Hogir, which demonstrate how helpful formalized assistance can be, Natascha Tepaß created the Visioneers mentorship program in the Spring of 2016.
The idea behind it: Volunteers and refugees form pairs with the purpose of helping the refugee achieve a specific goal. Goals may include anything from, "I'm looking for a shared apartment," or, "I'd like to join a drum group but I don't know where to find one in Berlin," to, "I would like to have my diploma recognized and I would like to receive training." Explicitly, the program is committed to keeping the mentoring relationships as formal as possible. In the beginning, both mentor and mentee sign a mentoring agreement that they must adhere to. Ideally, both participants will plan on one to two years together and will have at least two to three hours per week to invest in the program so that they can reach their goals. Of course, this formal pairing does not exclude a friendship. Just as it is nice for co-workers to be able to go out for a beer after work, so too can the pairs have a good time together.
The program, which now includes 17 pairs, has been running since March 2016. The mentors meet once a month in order to share their experiences and offer support to one another. If they wish, the pairs may request additional coaching, which can be very helpful in avoiding possible misunderstandings and uncertainties. They also receive technical assistance through the organization.
Robert and Hogir have achieved quite a bit since they paired up nine months ago. Even before the official start of the mentoring, they found an apartment for Hogir. The challenge here was finding a suitable and affordable apartment for Hogir with his status as a recognized refugee. Another goal of the mentor agreement has already been reached: Finding an internship for Hogir, which could lead to training opportunities. Currently, the two are working on finding Hogir a suitable A2 German course, which is a required component of his internship.
Robert and Hogir both say that early on, the biggest challenge was the language barrier that existed between them. Initially, Hogir spoke neither German nor English, so the two communicated with each other using a peculiar mix of gestures, facial expressions, and Google translate. However, the two men were not deterred by the challenge, rather, they became even more motivated to overcome their language barrier. Today, both men talk about the trust and happiness they shared and the gratitude they felt when they reached their goals together.
Robert describes his experience as a mentor: "In my last nine months I have come to realize just how difficult it is for people to go through the process of integration. If more people in Germany had a similar perspective, they wouldn't be discussing deportation, borders, and walls, rather, they would be talking about how best to integrate these people as quickly as possible. The question which arises in the end is not, "Why take up these people?" but, "How do we take them?".
If you would like to experience something similar to what Robert and Hogir have described, by helping a refugee integrate into society, then please contact us. All you need is a little motivation and patience, the will to "stick with it," a couple of spare hours per week, and cultural and personal openness for someone new in your life!
To conclude with Robert's own words: "Through the mentor program we may not change the whole world. But we can make a world of difference for someone."