Facts and nuances of sensitive issues

I graduated and started working in the summer of 2015. It wasn’t difficult to find a job during that time, as psychologists were in high demand. Same as in other cities throughout Europe, the reception structures in Berlin were not prepared for the high numbers of newcomers and so my first workplace was a hostel that the city had repurposed to accommodate 40 unaccompanied refugee minors, temporarily. In hindsight, it seems naïve, but I was optimistic, I thought, “Surely, the refugees will get professional care in a developed and wealthy country like Germany”, and I was proud to be part of that group of professionals. However, my expectations were bound to be disappointed: Even though I enjoyed working with the youngsters, the cooperation with other institutions was tedious, we had to improvise language classes and activities, build up support networks from zero, and organize logistical support ourselves. There was also no time to step back and reflect, to train oneself, and I found that many of us – including myself – were not well prepared to meet the specific needs of this group. This doesn’t come as a surprise, considering that during the entire course of my studies, I had only one single lecture about transcultural psychology. Most importantly, next to administrative tasks, there was never enough time to spend with the boys (there were no girls in this centre).

As time went by, the working conditions did not improve, we had to move from one hostel to the next, and not only the young refugees but also the staff was subject to constant fluctuation. By the end of the year, the “Willkommenskultur” began to fade away and as public opinion started to turn against the newcomers, I realized that not only the refugees themselves but also the people working with them were being marginalized. Luckily, I could count on the support of my friends and family, but I inevitably became more cognizant of the politicized nature of the work I was doing. Of course, I wasn’t apolitical before I started – after all, I had chosen this job just because I found it rewarding and worthwhile to go where help was needed the most and I thought about commonplace psychological afflictions in Europe – such as depression – as “luxury problems”, compared to the terrors of war and armed conflict. Still, from the mental health professional that I started out as, I saw my position shift more and more to an advocate for the rights of a minority group that was being victimized by political conflict.

Eventually, I changed jobs as well and after an internship with the NGO “Zentrum Überleben”, I joined the Childmove Project at Ghent University. Finally, I had the privilege, time, and opportunity to read and learn, to do research. Whereas the working conditions improved though, the political dimension of the work remained unchanged. I remember when, after a presentation at the Conference of Youth Studies in 2018, someone in the audience asked: “How do you see your role in the context of your research?” Assuming that she was questioning the neutrality of the study, I sternly replied that I didn’t know anybody doing research with unaccompanied refugee minors who does not stand up for their cause. I am still not sure whether she was actually doubting my impartiality as a scientist, or whether I was just reacting to the anti-immigrant discourse that I had become increasingly sensitive to, the longer I worked in this field. Either way, one thing is clear: It is simply not possible to listen to the participants’ stories and ignore the (global) social injustice that underlies their suffering. I still think about that incident sometimes, and what it implies for our work, as well as for our society in general.

More and more, I get the impression that people think of these issues purely as a matter of opinion, not fact. People seem to think that research with refugees is by definition biased and partisan. When it comes to immigration, black-and-white way of thinking seems to be the norm and as researchers, we feel the pressure of this polarization, too. We need to be careful about how to frame our results, and we need to be strategic when we present them because they could otherwise be misused. The societal debate has become so emotionally loaded, that even health care professionals and scientists, whose opinion people used to rely on, are not trusted anymore. I suppose this has something to do with the post-factual era that we are currently living in, with fake news and with social media. Be that as it may, against this background, I think it is now more important than ever to do research, to feed the emotional debate about these pressing issues with factual knowledge and a nuanced understanding in order to facilitate and sustain a democratic, critical dialogue. Let’s hope that our research can make such a contribution, and let’s have that dialogue!

Malte Behrendt graduated with a degree in Clinical Psychology in 2015. He trained as a psychological psychotherapist at “Zentrum Überleben” – an NGO specialized in the treatment of victims of torture. Malte Behrendt is now working as a PhD student in the ERC-funded research project “ChildMove” at Ghent University.