Text: Nicole Asis [PH] | Photos: Initiativforum für Geflüchtete [CH] & Milena Kowarik [CH]
Milena Kowarik talks about her work at the Initiativforum für Gefluchtete [CH] & how this space of human encounters helps the refugees build their Selfhood back
“The social questions & the world situation have often made me restless, feeling like I couldn’t sit on my chair & just practice when there are a lot of burning issues waiting outside”, shared cellist, teacher & Swiss Anthroposophical Society coworker Milena Kowarik in an interview last April 1, 2019. At the age of 28, she has been leading Initiativforum für Geflüchtete, a Swiss-based organization that helps refugees find their bearings in Switzerland through practical assistance, artistic community activities, & monthly support meetings. The initiative also provides a safe space for the refugees to share their biographies as a way of healing from the trauma they experienced due to war & forced migration.
Initiativforum für Geflüchtete emerged out of the 2016 Swiss Anthroposophical Society Annual Conference, which focused on the mass migration of refugees to Europe in 2015. Almost 200 people attended the conference, including refugees seeking asylum in Switzerland who shared the difficulties they encountered during the painstaking exile. Out of this conference, Peter Selg compiled the experiences shared by the refugees in the book Kaspar Hauser und das Flüchtlingsdrama Heute: Verlust und Wiederaufbau menschlicher Identität, in which he paralleled the plight the refugees endured in exile to the life & struggles of Kaspar Hauser. Board member Clara Steinemann was also inspired by the same conference that she started Initiativforum für Geflüchtete.
“We felt we have a different view on the refugee crisis with the whole Michael time & the whole karmic background. We look at this crisis from a different viewpoint than the other social initiatives & aid organizations because we focus on what is destroyed, what does it mean to leave the place & leave this kind of protective group soul,” Milena described what aspects Initiativforum für Geflüchtete works with the refugees. She added, “our aim with our anthroposophical background is to strengthen their individuality again, which has been destroyed through war, through the flight, through everything they experienced. We do not just give them clothes & a place to stay, but we try to give back their human dignity. & that their individuality is something that can grow again–for them to meet people who recognize them as individuals, & not just as refugees.”
The meetings continued & more people attended the monthly activities. “People are excited to help. & slowly, some connection started,” Milena said. “The volunteers took a supporter role for one or two refugees, helping them with German, or ice skating & sledding with them. We did a lot of activities in the beginning because they were lost & they did not know anybody. So we aimed to connect them here, give them a bit of a purpose, make them laugh. We also provided a time for them to share their stories, to be seen & heard by others.”
Challenges also come with the work, as volunteers realized the difficulties of co-carrying the heavy destinies of the refugees that are so different from theirs. It takes a year to process everything the refugees need to live a dignified life in Switzerland — from finding a place to stay, to assisting them in landing a job or an apprenticeship. The volunteers also served as liaisons for the refugees, helping them talk to lawyers & migration officers as they process their permanent status, or accompany them in their medical appointments when they get ill. Milena confirmed that the volunteers represent the refugees in most situations. “Sometimes, the doctors don’t help them if there is not a Swiss person who is saying, ‘He needs this & that.’ Sometimes, the lawyers are a bit sloppy when there is not a person next to them.” Milena continued, “the migration office is also not so organized if you don’t call them. So we are the person in-between for the process to go a bit faster, that they get the treatment they deserve.”
The initiative faced another change when Clara Steinemann stepped down as its project leader to tend for her ailing husband. Milena took over the responsibilities in 2016 & invited friends to carry the task with her. “Starting January 2019, I worked with two partners—Henric Lewengard & Rosalie Völlmin,” Milena shared, “& from this moment on, we have this space where we can do things differently, being three people exchanging ideas. We put the focus on human development & identity.”
They found this new form of working on self-development & empowerment through the arts. “We felt this is the key — that they can connect with their homeland & they can connect to the culture here. They can share more consciously their soul & open up. A beautiful exchange can arise when singing a song, or when they take little steps of overcoming themselves, taking the space, overcoming embarrassment in their group, & giving them a bit more backbone. It is like ‘Hey, I managed to speak!’ & this kind of ‘Success Feelings’, in a way, is a spiritual activity.”
Initiativforum für Geflüchtete continues helping individuals according to one’s needs & circumstances. Recently, they assisted the release of an Afghan refugee from a migrant detention camp – a halfway place where they keep the refugees who have not received a permanent resident status & cannot return yet to their respective countries because of security risks. The migrant detention camps are usually located in remote areas, where a bus only makes a trip to the nearest town 4 times a day. These spaces are usually overcrowded; & recreational or learning activities are not provided for the refugees to participate in. They are also not allowed to work while in the camp & only get 200-220 Swiss francs as a monthly allowance. These dire conditions result in drug trafficking, substance abuse & violence among the refugees, putting them in a state of limbo & despair. As Milena described, “there are 6-8 people in a small room. It’s not beautiful & they are just kept there. They lose their humanity, their human dignity. If you have nothing to do, if you are not allowed to do anything, you start taking drugs. You will find ways of getting money, either selling drugs or stealing. Those people who want to stay on the right path, it is really difficult for them to do so.”
Besides being released from the camp, the Afghan refugee also received the right medical treatment for his knee injury, was able to secure a stable job & was granted the resident status he needed to begin a new life in Switzerland. The initiative is currently helping another refugee to be released from the same migrant detention camp, get the medical care he needs & process the paperwork for him to start anew.
When asked what is the pressing call of our time, Milena thinks that our society needs to foster “the warmth of human encounter”. She highlighted that the problems in the bureaucracy the refugees face are rooted in the absence of a genuine humane meeting, which upholds the dignity of the other. “The big problem is in all of this, in the interviews they have to do to stay here, there is just a protocol that is followed. They don’t look at the individual: who is this person sitting in front of me. Trust & warmth are what we need to encounter the other, truly knowing the other person beyond what the flowchart says.”
Through her work as Networking & Communications Manager at the Social Initiative Forum, Milena also gets acquainted with more anthroposophically-inspired initiatives that are actively finding ways of dealing with the social questions. For her, Initiativforum für Geflüchtete enriches both her commitment to putting Anthroposophy into conscious will & her lifelong passion for music. As she candidly disclosed, “from the moment I had this work, even if it occupied me a lot, I was much calmer in my chair practicing cello. I am finally doing something that has a deep meaning for people. I am finally doing a job that helps.”