According to the Federal Association for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees (BumF), roughly 69,000 children and youths who fled from their homes on their own were registered in Germany in February 2016. Many lost their parents, siblings, and friends in the war, others simply left them behind. “Everything was different for me”, says Paulo*. “Everything was so strange and I hadn't seen the world like that yet”. The 17-year-old fled from Angola in southwest Africa to Germany two years ago. Today he lives in a shelter run by the St. Elisabeth catholic youth help centre in Dortmund. In his homeland, no one promised him a “paradise in Germany”, just the opportunity to have a better life.
Paulo misses his family a lot, but whether he'll want to go back to Angola, he doesn't know. He lives in a safe environment at St. Elisabeth, has friends and has competent caretakers who contribute a lot to making sure that young unaccompanied refugees have it good. Friedhelm Evermann, director of the shelter in Dortmund, has been involved for quite some time: “we fought with all possible resources to make sure every refugee was treated fairly”, he says. “There was a time when 80 children came to us a day! Naturally we tried to use up all the space capacity we could so everyone would have equal accommodations”.
If you visit St. Elisabeth today, you’ll noticed the relaxed and friendly environment. Founded by Fanny Schiffer in 1857 as a home for orphans and children coming out of difficult family conditions, there are many refugees boys and girls living there today. It was important to the shelter’s founder to put a focus on the wellbeing of the children, which is exactly how the institution is structured today. The youths living here seem ambitious and willing to integration. Many of them have hopes, dreams, and visions of a better life in peace and security. After moving here, they attend a language school and later transfer to comprehensive or vocational schools.
Even Rami*, like Paulo, fled to Germany without his parents. The 15-year-old travelled roughly 3,700 km with his cousin by foot, boat, and bus. “Everything can only get better here; we had nothing in Syria”, says Rami. He becomes sad when he thinks of Syria – in part because his school friend Karim* was kidnapped by ISIS. “All of a sudden he was gone”, says Rami. “We always did a lot today, attended the same school, and saw each other every day. Now nothing is like it once was”.
While Friedhelm Evermann takes care of the bureaucratic aspects of St. Elisabeth, his coworkers take care of the home’s young inhabitants. Many of them are, like Rami, traumatised by what they experienced back home. Many of them live under permanent pressures, says Matthias Güntermann, who helps the children psychologically. “But many of the youths are helping each other, giving each other encouragement”, he adds. “They're there for each other when they hear bad news from back home”. Hobbies are also a help: Paulo, for example, likes to draw, and sometimes he plays video games with the other youths in his group.
That aside, he enjoys school: “I want to study chemistry one day because I have a knack for it”. Paulo has the will and the ambition to make that happen. Education and vocational training are big topics of discussion at St. Elisabeth. Its inhabitants can read the following in the booklets Deine Rechte, “Your Rights”, which Friedhelm Evermann gives to ever person who moves in: “we place a particular value on your educational and/or professional trajectory”. Paulo seems to be in the right place.
*Names changed by the editors