Souleymane Sagna from Senegal in the accommodation for refugees in Benjamin Franklin Village in Mannheim. Photo: Uli Reinhardt

After the Escape is Before the Escape

"The people of Africa often have the wrong picture," says Souleymane Sagna from Senegal. He therefore wants to communicate a realistic picture of the life as a refugee in Germany. The human rights lawyer is one of this year's fellows of the ifa CrossCulture programme Refugees and Migration and gaining insight into the work of the association "Freundeskreis Asyl" in Karlsruhe.

By Tilman Wörtz

The African woman speaks in clear sentences: "My son was skating with roller skates in the dining hall. A supervisor came and wanted to pull him out by his arm. I pulled on his other arm. He can’t just tug on my son like that!"

In the accommodation for refugees in Benjamin Franklin Village in Mannheim, such tensions are a part of everyday life. Nearly 800 people are currently living in the five-story buildings of a former American barrack. They have no work. The children have few places to play. And just as a boy is skating around the dining hall…

A man listens attentively to the woman. He’s also African – Souleymane Sagna from Senegal, a man with delicate features, slender glasses and a cheese-cutter cap on his greying head. 
Two months ago, he came to Germany through an exchange programme for experts in the field of refugees and migration. In his home country he works as a human rights lawyer. In Germany he gets to know the work of the Freundeskreis Asyl Karlsruhe. The headquarters are located in Karlsruhe and one of the counselling centres, the "LEA Verfahrens- und Sozialberatung", is in Mannheim in a former high school classroom of a barrack.

Six tables are arranged in a half-circle. At each table there’s an employee with a particular language skill – Arabic, French, Chinese or English, but also Wolof or Amharic. The whirr of a copier and the murmur of the counsellors fill the room. They help refugees fill in the many applications in German, give advice on life in the reception facilities and take complaints.

The exchange between Souleymane Sagna and the Freundeskreis Asyl Karlsruhe was organised by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa). The idea: New impulses, ideas and projects emerge when experts from Germany and Africa exchange ideas. This year 24 experts along the African escape and migration routes have been awarded scholarships of the CrossCulture Programme Refugees and Migration.

[Translate to English:] Foto: Uli Reinhardt

Souleymane Sagna speaks French with the woman and when it gets emotional, they change to Wolof, their native language. She comes from Gambia, the neighbouring country of Senegal. Souleymane Sagna takes down her complaint. The Freundeskreis Asyl will address the incident with the reception facility management.

"The problems don’t stop in Germany"

But more important is another point in the conversation with the woman from Gambia: She has been living in Germany for six months and will be deported to her home country within the next few days or weeks. The approbate rate for Gambians is between one and two percent. "The problems don’t stop when a person arrives in Germany," says Souleymane Sagna. Refugees are only allowed to travel within a 35-kilometre radius of their reception centre; they are usually separated from their families and they’re not used to the food. Souleymane Sagna knows the hopes and disappointments of many refugees only too well: "The people of Africa often have the wrong picture," he says. "They see selfies on Facebook of relatives who have escaped and who might have been able to buy a nice jacket here. But they have scraped together the money from their food funds. The relatives in Africa don’t see that they are hungry."

He wants to change this distorted image: Back in Senegal he wants to use videos to "sensitise" people. He can draw upon a network of human rights clubs at Senegalese universities which he helped to build. He has already submitted such a project outline to the Freundeskreis Asyl.

"There are people who have no other choice but to flee." Women fleeing circumcision and forced marriage, the politically persecuted and people oppressed because of their sexual orientation. "But there are also those who set out because of misconceptions," he says. He wants to reach these people. As someone who has studied English literature in Senegal and later human rights in Budapest and Conflict Resolution in Bradford, he feels obligated to those less educated in his country. "They just think too little about the risks. And certainly not about the risks in Europe. Their escape seems to be over when they leave Libya. But it’s not like that."

Jessica Ruhe, the head of the counselling centre, can confirm this impression. "We have to disillusion many people." They escaped years ago and now have to go back. An earlier disillusionment would be better.

Human dignity is inviolable

Souleymane Sagna’s colleagues from Freundeskreis Asyl got something out of his exchange as well. "I didn’t know that almost 30,000 people from Mauritania are living as refugees in Senegal," this from André Bleu who’s from the Ivory Coast but who has been living in Germany for 20 years. He works shoulder to shoulder with Souleymane Sagna and twenty colleagues from the Freundeskreis counselling centre. They come from Iraq, Iran, China, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Some of the staff commute to Karlsruhe by minibus and Souleymane Sagna is also on this route every day. The colleagues talk about the events of the day. An Iranian woman talks about a case of a boy who has damaged the lawn. An Iraqi colleague is trying to facilitate the relocation of a man who is at a reception facility in Cologne and would like to live with his wife and three daughters in Mannheim. Almost all employees have a history of migration themselves and mediate between refugees and German bureaucracy.

A sentence that comes to Souleymane Sagna’s mind time and again during these talks and which has enthralled him because it forms the beginning of the German constitution is, "Human dignity is inviolable."