Interview: „It stirs something up, which keeps you awake time and again.“

In dialogue with humedica coordinator Ole Hengelbrock

by LKO, 2016/02/16

Acting as coordinator for many quite diverse interventions humedica team member Ole Hengelbrock gained varied insights in the procedures and feedback of humanitarian work. His latest assignment took him to Serbia, where he organised the support for refugees along the so-called Balkan route for humedica.

After his return we talked to him about his view of the current refugee discussion and how the work for people in need influences one´s own life.

Dear Ole, in the course of the last years you have worked as coordinator for several humanitarian interventions, where you were face to face with people in emergency situations. How did these assignments shape you?

Over the last years I went to several places all over the world and met many people, who let me share their personal life. Sadly these trips often were not just recreational journeys, but interventions after a disaster. There were disabled people in Moldawia and Romania, Syrians displaced by war and hosting neighbours in the Lebanon, street children and Ebola stricken people in Sierra Leone, people afflicted by war in East Ukraine as well as expellees and asylum seekers on the Western Balkan route in the Serbian-Macedonian border area.

These situations stir something up that keeps you awake at night. Especially the return home to Germany can be a kind of culture shock. Some things such as the surplus of goods or the swift irritation about trifles are hard to understand in the light of other people´s situation of in the world. Consequently you start to examine your life to date as well as your own identification very critically. You begin to think, so to say, afresh.

Basically these encounters and experiences left me both mature and enriched. During the interventions I could learn humility, which I personally perceive as a warm feeling of esteem. I feel awarded, have arrived in my life and can not remember the last time I was ill-tempered. For this I am very grateful to these people and I would wish to travel these regions as a simple tourist again one day, when there is no longer the need for aid interventions.

Key word Balkan route. After returning home most teams tell us that they perceived this assignment as very challenging in comparison to other interventions. How did you experience the assistance operation in Serbia?

Last autumn I stayed in Serbia with humedica. The intervention was very short-term. The situation on site changes permanently, what makes it difficult to plan ahead. You quickly realise that you have to maintain the stress level up in order to be ready to face the everyday challenges. The fact, that even though the physicians work mainly in the night, there are nonetheless tasks that have to be taken care of during the day, also racks every nerve.

Nevertheless it encourages tremendously to meet people, who do not feel hate, but love for their fellow humans. If you see how some people engage and stay friendly and caring in spite of sleepless nights, you just want to contribute your part. I did not perceive the work on site as a burden, but as a chance. I was glad to be in a position, where I could actively enhance the situation. It was the same for other assignments. At the end of the day it is the deed that counts and remains. Even if you are sometimes exhausted, there are always some out flakes after all (laughs).

To my opinion not the work itself, but the situation was wearisome. The head and the heart are always moved, when you see people, who are frozen stiff and can barely stand on their feet any more. And who had to leave so much behind in order to take on the unknown dangers of the route. You try to imagine rationally their situation. How does it feel to loose your previous life, the family, the home, the job due to a war that gains more and more a momentum of its own and extends to all areas of life? How will it feel to ask for help and not being welcomed in some countries?

Some things stay unintelligible. You can not rationalise the consequences and impacts of war, because it is an inhuman act. The flight from war remains outside our imagination and is therefore inconceivable. We did not have to experience it ourselves and therefore our mind can not grasp it, but still we see other people in these circumstances. This ambivalence is the most strenuous. The head and the heart are not able find peace when it comes to war.

You hinted at the topic „refugee debate“ and told us that some things remain unintelligible. After your assignment in Serbia, how do you feel about the current public discussion on the refugee crisis?

Beforehand I would like to add that undertaking a project on such a politically highly charged topic is by no means a given. Every organisation, which fulfills its mandate in this respect, stands in for humanitarian principles and demonstrates authenticity. That also refers to agencies that engage in other politically exponentiated conflicts as well as in so-called „forgotten crises“.

As to the current discussion, to my opinion every criticism of the refugee politics is allowed. After all, sound democracies long for a dispute. The society´s struggle for topics serves as a basis for politics to develop the leading guidelines. Differing perspectives are needed and mandatory to highlight all aspects of complex topics, to understand and to manage them. That exactly originates and strengthens our centre of society. Only social and political interaction can help to handle extremist groups as a peripheral phenomenon. Not their strength but our passivity allows for a society to take a wrong course.

Primo Levi once said appropriately: “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men ... who are ready to believe without asking questions.” If we can not take the current discussion, we should ask ourselves, whether the character of this state as well as of its citizens is settled enough.

There is only one thing that I can not understand and can not accept as an independently thinking human being: if comments do not contribute constructively to the solution process, but are headline-grabbing and polarizing and only aim to generalize the subject. Although it amounts to nothing more than a reduction of complexities, when we talk about the refugees and the crisis. This simplification of day-to-day events is easily accepted by all of us. Life is complicated enough already.

So a majority of us flows quietly and passively along with the propaganda. This silent complacency in my home country scares me even more than the shocking pictures I have seen in the course of my assignments. After all human beings are involved, so everybody should be concerned! I call on all of us to think and to act: especially my own and younger generations.

We were born with so many gifts and opportunities. We live in peace and prosperity. Now is the time to walk towards the fugitives with bread, because they fled from swords (Jesaya 21, 14-15).

Clear words. If you look at the situation from the other angle, what views of Germany did you encounter during your interventions?

I think that Germany enjoys much sympathy in the world. No matter which country I went to, people were glad to have a German guest. I was welcomed smilingly in big cities and invited to sit down at tables in remote villages. Everywhere people had a positive impression of Germany. On my opinion this increase in popularity is the greatest achievement of the Federal Republic of Germany and at the same time the best guarantee for our prosperity.

I say this last sentence pointedly, as many citizens are worried about their prosperity. We will not do better, if we lock ourselves. We must go on to keep and improve the positive image of Germany in the world. That can only be achieved by character, open-mindedness and humanity.

Thank you very much for these insights, Ole. All the best for you.

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