"We Help Everyone"
People celebrate Halloween in autumn every year to scare off evil spirits. From an ochre coloured house in Brandenburg, they are warded off every day: In the German reception centre of the Red Cross, Isatou Joof from Gambia is taking care of women in need.
A portrait by Jan Rübel
With a big smile and even bigger eyes, Isatou Joof, 27, slowly opens a door to a room in the house. "Hey, how did you like the Halloween party yesterday?" A young woman is sitting on the lower mattress of a bunk bed, a baby in her arms. "I liked it. It took my mind off things for a moment," she says and smiles shyly. "We don’t have Halloween in Kenya.” Isatou Joof laughs. "We in Gambia don’t either. It was still nice."
A refuge for women somewhere near Berlin. For their protection against partners and ex-partners, the address isn’t mentioned here. There are 86 women, many of them traumatised: from their husbands; from their escape; from the terror in the countries they themselves have fled – like the young mother who arrived very pregnant three months ago. "In Nairobi my life wasn’t secure," she said. "There was no future." Isatou Joof sits down next to her on the edge of the bed. For nearly three months Isatou Joof has been a scholarship holder in ifa’s (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) CrossCulture Programme Refugees and Migration. At home, she works on Disaster Management which ‘Refugee and Migration’ is a component. She trains community members on Disaster Risk Reduction and prevalent disease prevention. These include teachers and community elders. In Brandenburg she deals with German refugee aid; the programme exchanges examples of good assistance across borders.
Upon arriving in Germany and putting on the blue shirt with the logo of the Red Cross, Isatou Joof said, "I knew that I was in a family. As a Red Cross worker from Gambia, I share the same values with colleagues here: We are humanitarian, impartial, neutral and independent. We help everyone."
The facility is the first address for refugees. They stay here for up to six months. Isatou Joof belongs to the support team; she checks the rooms, accompanies the refugees to conversations with social workers, sometimes translates for them – and above all she has an open ear for everything that’s troubling them.
In the kitchen, four Afghan women are cooking rice and chicken for themselves and the other residents of the house. A German Red Cross worker gives one of them a picture of herself from yesterday’s Halloween celebration. The woman looks bewildered and then bursts into tears. A little later, Isatou Joof sits next to her and they are immersed in conversation. "I do a bit of pastoral care here," she says at dinner. "There’s great pressure on those who have fled: There are the horrors of the past and the uncertainties of the future."
Project manager Stefan Bley looks in. "We’re learning a lot from the exchange with Isatou Joof," he says. "For one, we are in the same organisation, which hones our sense of community. Plus, she is ahead of us." Isatou Joof studied Development Studies and is qualified for Disaster Management. She has gained experience, for example, in coordinating response activities of mass population movement similar to refugee camps for more than 10,000 people without electricity and running water. "Next week, she’s going to meet with our team from the Disaster Management and can give us impulses for similar situations in Germany, for example, if there should be a longer blackout."
"I’m impressed with how people are cared for in Germany’s reception facilities," says Isatou Joof. "How they are cared for and engaged. We should introduce this by us in Gambia." Up to now, refugee aid through the Red Cross of her country is managed by two departments: one is responsible for Communications, the other for Disaster Management. "When I get back, I'll be pushing for it to be a unit in a single department."
Outside, the sun is setting. It shines through the many large windows of the house and on a wall adorned with hand-painted flower meadows and a bright yellow sun. At this moment, the evil spirits are far away.