Professor assists Syrian refugees in Germany

February 28, 2017
Dr. Daniel Leitch
Dr. Daniel Leitch and Kibreab Habtemichael

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Dr. Daniel Leitch, associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, recently returned to the United States from an overseas volunteer experience that greatly expanded his understanding of the refugee crisis and gave him insights into methods that facilitate integration, including a peer-to-peer mentoring program.

From August 2016-February 2017, Leitch aided Syrian refugees in Darmstadt, Germany, as a volunteer. Darmstadt, a city of 150,000 and home to the European Space Agency, is known as Germany’s “City of Science.” According to Sylvia Klett, refugee coordinator for Darmstadt, more than 10,000 refugees, housed in two nearby former United States military bases, await their asylum application approvals and eventual integration.

Kibreab Habtemichael, director of the Helping Hands Refugee Program in Viernheim, near Darmstadt, called the influx of refugees, “The greatest migration crisis since World Word II; in its magnitude, in its suddenness, and in Europe’s lack of preparedness.”

Leitch said that in 2016 alone, Germany accepted over one million refugees, most of them Syrians fleeing the war. After arrival in Germany, refugees are given housing and a living allowance while officials consider their asylum applications. For the most part, young men make the journey first, planning to bring their families after they get settled. Consequently, those who suffer most are children separated from their parents. However, entire families make the dangerous trip also. The trip involves risky deals with human traffickers who promise to facilitate the passage by land and sea. Leitch noted that in 2016, almost 4,000 refugees died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

Despite this, Leitch said living conditions for refugees were better than he anticipated, with Germany being the destination country. He said poorer living conditions exist in the transit countries, or the countries the refugees travel through to get to Germany.

Darmstadt has initiated a program called “Darmstadt Welcomes You.” The purpose of the program is to educate both German citizens and refugees as well as work with the city council for planning purposes. For example, the city is in the process of constructing apartments to help ease the housing shortage, move the refugees out of the military bases and facilitate their integration.

Leitch’s volunteer experience was made possible through Helping Hands Refugee Program in the small city of Viernheim, approximately 30 minutes south of Darmstadt. The program is unique because it connects volunteer peer mentors, who have not yet received their asylum status, with new refugees living in the four shelters near Viernheim. Helping Hands offers the refugees opportunities to benefit from the mentoring as well as make connections with Germans in the community. Like Darmstadt, Viernheim also sponsors a “Viernheim Welcomes You” campaign.

Leitch became involved in the project because of a strategic partnership between UW-Platteville and Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences (H_DA). The partnership introduced Leitch to Angelka Groterath, professor of social work at the Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, his eventual sponsor, who then introduced Leitch to Helping Hands.

During Leitch’s six-month sabbatical, he lived in an apartment on the top floor of an academic building on campus. His wife, Kathy Leitch, accompanied him.

On a day-to-day basis, Leitch was actively involved in the life of the campus and community. He taught three courses on inclusion for vulnerable children and youth in the social work department, spent time getting to know refugees at a nearby open café specifically designed for that purpose, attending community events that involved refugees and becoming acquainted with the peer mentors at Helping Hands.

According to Leitch, the part of the experience that impacted him most was seeing ordinary individuals and families caught up in a tragic conflict. “I met many generous, kind, hard-working Syrians from all walks of life, doing the best that they could in a bad situation,” Leitch said. “I thought, ‘but for the grace of God that could be me.’”

“Because of the experience, I think I am better positioned to help prepare UW-Platteville students in the School of Education to teach children of immigrants and refugees,” said Leitch.

According to Leitch, volunteering is a form of expression that enables him to invest his time and energy in causes that he deems important. One experience made an especially deep impact. “I spoke to a Syrian man approximately my age who had made the dangerous trip through the transit countries and now was safely in a refugee shelter,” said Leitch. “However, he continued to risk his life multiple times to travel back to the coast, find more refugees, and assist them to Germany so that the newcomers could avoid the dangers posed by the human traffickers.”

Leitch’s experience informed his worldview in two primary ways. First, by teaching in a German university, he was able to see his content area from a different perspective and learn more about the German worldview. Second, he had the opportunity to meet refugees and get to know them as individuals, rather than as statistics.

Leitch has been involved in volunteer programs since he volunteered in Venice, California, at a camping program for underprivileged children when he was in college. In the 1990s, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, he volunteered for the Salvation Army for a year in Saint Petersburg, Russia, delivering supplies to youth prisons and conducting seminars for public school teachers. Most recently, as a Fulbright Scholar, Leitch volunteered with the L’Arche program in Lviv, Ukraine for three semesters.

Leitch said that Habtemichael and Groterath will visit UW-Platteville for one or more weeks this September. Funded through Hesse Scholarship Fund and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the visit will include presentations to the university and local community; visits to the refugee programs offered by Lutheran Social Services and Jewish Social Services in Madison, Wisconsin and the Burmese Refugee Immersion Project in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and/or the Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center in Iowa; cultural events; and the exploration of future cooperation.

Written by: Laurie A. Hamer, Communications Specialist, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191, hamerl@uwplatt.edu, in collaboration with Dr. Daniel Leitch, School of Education.

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