Translating the refugee crisis: Stories from Germany

Guest post by Sarah Oberholzer, Disaster Management coordinator for the Canadian Red Cross in the Greater Toronto Area. She shares stories from her recent mission at a refugee camp in Erding, Germany where she supported German Red Cross operations. She's pictured here with Susan Huber, from the German Red Cross.

Two women in Red Cross vests smiling at the cameraThroughout the three weeks that I spent supporting the German Red Cross’ operation at a refugee transit camp in Erding, Germany, I was fortunate and honoured to work alongside volunteer translators.

These individuals are refugee claimants themselves, having settled their families around the town of Erding.

Their involvement stems from a desire to contribute both to their new community and to help welcome those fleeing situations similar to their own. These are their stories.


A man in a yellow vest smiling at the cameraZakaria, 27, is a former sales manager from Damascus, Syria. He proudly tells me that he is Palestinian-Syrian, and further clarifies that he was born in Syria, but his parents are of Palestinian descent.  Minorities are particularly vulnerable amid the current conflict in Syria, he tells me, and to travel anywhere outside of Damascus is extremely dangerous.
In order to escape the constant violence and threats of persecution, Zakaria and his wife made the difficult decision to leave behind the rest of their family and take their one-year-old daughter on a journey to Europe in search of a brighter, more stable future. They left Syria on August 23, 2015 under the cover of darkness and crossed the border into Turkey; from there they took one of the now-infamous dinghy boats for two hours, and with 45 other people, to cross the Mediterranean Sea onto the Greek islands. Then the young family made their way north either by foot or by bus when they could, through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and finally, to Germany. The family was placed into a 200-person congregate shelter in Erding.
When Zakaria learned that Arabic-speaking translators were needed to help the incoming refugees, he knew that he wanted to help. He visits the camp in Erding several days a week and helps Arabic speakers, both from his home country and beyond, to access the care and services that they need. On October 25, 2015 Zakaria and his family were placed into a home in Erding that they could call their own, and now he says they are focused on learning the German language, and finding jobs in their professional fields.


(L-R) Volunteer translator Ahmad, Canadian Red Cross aid worker Sarah, volunteer translator Ibrahim, and Ahmad’s father Mahmoud.

When Ibrahim first learned that I am Canadian, he excitedly told me how much he loves Tim Hortons coffee and donuts. He spent four years living in Canada on a student visa, studying and working as a specialist in electrical diagnostics for German cars. After his student visa expired, he returned to Syria in 2011 to find the country at war.
This summer, Ibrahim and his wife decided that they needed to find a brighter, more stable future for their three children – aged 12, 10, and 8. Their journey began by driving the family across the border into Turkey, where they were able to secure false documents in order to book a flight to Libya. From there, they joined 500 other refugees and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa on a terrifying 10-hour journey to Italy across the Mediterranean Sea. During the trip, the motor stopped working and the passengers found themselves needing to bail water out of the boat several times. Ibrahim admits that it was an enormous risk to take his wife and three small children on such a dangerous journey but that it was equally dangerous not to.
After travelling to Germany, Ibrahim and his family were moved from a registration camp into a temporary housing-container where he stayed with 20 other families for six weeks. Throughout, he was always present helping with Arabic-English translation because he understands the effects that the war has had on fellow refugees arriving, and also knows the frustration of not being able to express what you need. Today, Ibrahim and his family are excited to have been placed in their own apartment in Erding; the kids are going to school and are already picking up German quickly. Ibrahim’s goal, like any parent, is to provide his family the security they need to plan for the future.


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