An article by Anke Sommer
A challenge for helpers and people needing help
Imagine you are forced to leave your homeland; you have no choice. Initially you resist the idea, but circumstances keep piling up that are compelling you to leave. Then you take the step: you go. Some do this for economic reasons while others are fleeing war, poverty and violence. Still others are following their families, or their dreams. There are many reasons to leave your homeland.
There are many people no different to you and me who are on the run; many people no different to you and me who are now here in Germany, trying to find ‘their happiness’ and make our homeland theirs; trying to save their lives and those of their families.
But what is really happening? Can we imagine what it’s like, what these temporarily homeless people are actually going through? What do they need in order to build up a ‘dual homeland’ – to come from one cultural home and to make a new homeland in another country? In other words, to have two places they can call home.
If your own family has a migrant background, it is probably easier for you to imagine what this human act of temporary homelessness means. It entails leaving behind cultural ‘security’ and entering new structures; leaving behind the familiar and entering something foreign. Even if the circumstances in your home country suggest that it’s no longer yours, it is still your homeland. No one can deny this fact.
Homelessness, a state of maximum uncertainty
We humans are focused on security; we need orientation and a hold on things in order to live. This inner alignment in itself means that leaving one’s homeland places people in a state of maximum uncertainty. So we will probably do everything we can to gain a foothold again and to orientate ourselves. We need the right conditions to do this, and to be permitted to do it. We require financial support and a place we can call home. If we don’t acquire these conditions, we become a type of ‘nomad’ – we move from place to place and don’t settle down.
We’re forced to overcome our most profound internal programming and to feel at home wherever we happen to be. This is really not easy. If we don’t manage to achieve the conditions we need in order to settle down then we stand out: we don’t fit and are forced to the edges of the society in which we are trying to gain a foothold. The further we are from the centre of society, the longer it takes to achieve the integration that is necessary in order to feel at home.
Helping in these circumstances is not easy
Many of us have the feeling that we would like to help. But what is the ‘right way’ to help? (By ‘right’ I mean that the help given has a beneficial effect.) There is one possibility that takes us very close to this ‘right’ step and which enables help to actually reach the people it’s meant for. This kind of help is effective and leads people towards security – towards gaining a place they can call home. To examine this, please imagine what you need in order to rebuild a lost sense of security.
The answer to this question represents the structure of the help you offer. First, the homeless require economic security; then food, clothes, funding for their livelihood and a roof over their heads. Then they need a legal status that allows them to be in the relevant country. Next, they need to recognise familiar things: things that were part of the former homeland. Then they require prospects for the future.
At this point, the integration they expect from their new homeland becomes part of their own search for security for the first time. The more the new place becomes home, providing funding for one’s own survival, the more the willingness to speak the local language is likely to increase. So the provision of assistance is necessary to learning the new language, but it takes a long time to reach that point.
Helping involves both sides, the helper and the recipient
When we think about helping, most of us imagine the people in need, their poverty and their distress. Few of us think of the helper. For help to reach its target, and in order to prevent the desire to help turning into frustration, we should pay attention to the following points.
Someone who needs help is a person like you and me – in other words, an individual with faults and flaws, weaknesses and strengths. We help someone when we see them not as a victim but as a person striving to find security. Any actions that give this person security helps him/her. The person in need may be pleasant or unpleasant; they may accept help or reject our well-meant advice – just like you and me, as is typical of real life.
Awareness of this very simple reality means that those of us providing assistance avoid attaching too much importance to the reaction to our offers of help. It means that we avoid feeling too disappointed once the initial euphoria is over. And it supports our simply helping – giving the assistance we too would need if we lost our homeland. We will encounter a wide range of reactions.
Not everyone will immediately start learning the local language eagerly. The values and culture of their former native land will guide the behaviour of some, and this can’t be changed, even by strict guidelines in their new home country.
The positions of helper and person in need of help can change at any time; in other words, you the helper may also suddenly be in a position where you need assistance yourself.
Being aware of this allows us to avoid the helper’s pride trap. If the helpers (subconsciously) consider themselves superior to those being helped, they are already caught in this trap – quite a serious one in fact, because it creates an underlying, often subconscious, arrogance and makes it difficult to tolerate the otherness of the others. Helpers who help for its own sake almost never fall into these traps, while helpers who give assistance in order to achieve something that they couldn’t feel otherwise are more vulnerable to these pitfalls.
A healthy approach to helping
The main issue for the helper is not to instruct the others, but to aid them in regaining security. If we help people to integrate into a new country, we’re dependent on whether the person helped is prepared to accept assistance. This also applies to all other aid contexts. If people are not willing to accept help, the helper should draw back, after ensuring that they’re safe, because ‘healthy’ help always needs input from both sides.
A healthy assistance process is target-focused and utility-oriented, business-like and emotionally warm, quick and making no demands. These factors are essential to ensure that the assistance measures are effective and to increase their chance of success. They enable the recipients to grow out of the position of need and enable them to find a new home, because security, not compulsion, promotes that effect.
Integration is found in the place where we’re at home. How people interpret integration varies according to their cultural background. What Germans see as integration isn’t necessarily identical with how other cultures see it. We helpers should be clear about that.
Mediating between worlds
At INSITUT SOMMER, we have a peace work department that focuses on facilitating this work of mediation between cultures. Peace work facilitates the process of reaching mutual understanding, in contexts where it is politically very important to do so. INSTITUT SOMMER’s peace work takes place within the context of political conflicts and can also be applied to business or social conflicts. You can find out more about our peace work here.
You may also be interested in reading Anke Sommer’s academic study about the relationship between helper and those seeking help, published in Perspektivenvielfalt, Eine Evaluation der interkulturellen Familienhilfe des freien Trägers Lebenswelt [Multiple perspectives: evaluation of intercultural family assistance by the private agency LebensWelt], pp. 77-89. (You can find an extract from the book here (German only):)