Robert Ewers, project manager, reports about his project trip
In 2015, approximately 800.000 asylum seekers are expected to come to Germany. Possibly, it will be 1 million. It is these numbers, and not only them, but the people and stories behind them that occupies and stirs the current discourse in Germany – publicly and privately. This is challenge for both communes and citizens alike, and requires tremendous administrative efforts. Thereby, it is also a test for us. By now, Germany counts more than 500 grave attacks on asylum seeker centers already – in 2015 only.
Throughout my trip through Assam and Bangladesh in October, many people approached me about the refugee crisis in Europe. Many were amazed by Angela Merkel’s commitment – the German reputation hasn’t been that positive in a long while. Nonetheless, others also questioned if Germany was able to bear this challenge. They have their own experience with the issue, telling them that it is by no means easy. The capacities in this part of the world are already heavily overloaded, administrative institutions overwhelmed. Life is often not worth a penny.
Since 1993, Lower Assam has experienced violence repeatedly, like most recently at Christmas 2014: Radical Bodo-members raided various villages of the Santhal-tribe, killed more than 100 people and caused hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. Just like many Bangladeshi Muslims who flee the climbing sea level in their home country, they seek shelter in the rain forests of the region. More than 345.000 internal refugees were counted in Assam in early 2015 – a sad world record at that time. Compared to the number of members of the Santhal tribe in the region this was the highest share of IDP. Counting together the five most conflictual years, 1993, 1996, 1998, 2012 and 2014, it is over 1.5 million people who were displace in the region – but the international awareness and NGO-support are more than slight.
During my trip through Assam, I witnessed a big demonstration rallye by the Bodos. For years already, they demand independence from Assam. In September, around 10.000 placard-draped trailers appeared on local highways, whilst the protesters in the cars sung their slogans – a rallye which luckily remained peaceful. However, the roads were closed down state-wide the following day, forcing us to cancel a visit of one project.
We know the area well by now. Since 2007, we work with our local partners in education projects, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. Now, our support is more necessary than ever. After experiencing flight and trauma, the children have to be animated to hope again – and to study again. That way, they can break the vicious cycle of poverty, displacement and violence. We therefore set up schools, provisorily constructed from bamboo, train and pay teachers in the refugee camps – up until the families can return to their homes and send their children to school again.
Currently, 5.285 students visit our 64 refugee schools. More astonishing is the fact that the current academic performance of those students is even above average as compared to regular school children – against all the odds of their current situation.
Due to the conflicts and discrimination, only very few Santhals currently obtain an academic degree. This year however, our schools prepare 50 children for a secondary school diploma (comparable to the British O-level) for the first time. But our support includes more than school education. With the help of social workers we try to empower the locals and make them aware of their legal rights. This is a long-term process which requires a lot of patience and support.
Girls are especially vulnerable – their inferior position within their families, poverty and lack of secondary schools are premises for a far higher violence and trafficking rate of girls. To work against this, adolescent girls’ clubs were founded. Not only do they inform about how to deal with the challenges of everyday life. The social workers also raise awareness for human traffickers and premature marriage, by using creative methods such as cartoons and drama clubs. We want to ensure that no girl is forced into marriage and can finish secondary school successfully.
Vocational colleges in the conflict region are our most effective projects. This year we opened another one in Barpeta Road, accommodating almost 600 students annually. Since 2011, in our other locations in Amguri, Gossaigaon and Bootheachang , 400 to 500 young adolescents graduate per year to become tailors, weavers and drivers. As employees or self-employed workers they subsequently earn enough money to save themselves and their families from poverty.
With our moderate financial means, a lot has changed for the refugees in Assam already. Nevertheless, many are puzzled or envious when looking at the situation in Germany: 12.500€ per refugee is the current amount that the German federal states allocate to each commune. This money would suffice to give 500 refugees the opportunity to go to school for a year – or would secure a degree at a vocational college for 160 students…