“If I were in their shoes, I would also like to have someone to support me. A person or a team I could regularly reach out to, trust and even have fun with.”

Today is World Refugee Day. This international day was created to raise awareness about the situation of refugees throughout the world. According to UNHCR, there are 70 million people displaced worldwide, 2.3 million more people than last year and twice as many as 20 years ago.

Several Mobile School partners across the globe are using their mobile schools to reach out to children and youngsters on the move. The partner organisation working with this target group closest to Belgium is Jugendamt Stadt Düsseldorf. We interviewed Martin Schlupkothen, the coordinator of the local mobile school project. He has been working with the mobile school since 2010, so he is a local expert!

Many people are often surprised to hear that we have a partner organisation in Düsseldorf. Can you explain why there is a mobile school here?

In Düsseldorf, outreach work in the form of street work has a long tradition. It was recognised early on that there are children and young people here who live on the streets or spend a large part of their leisure time at informal meeting places, far away from adult control and influence. The mobile school project is a different way of doing outreach work. Often, we do not need to approach the children and youngsters. They approach us themselves, because they are triggered by the tool. That self-awakened interest makes access to the target group easier and it allows us to build up relationships with them.

What is the added value of the mobile school project for Jugendamt Stadt Düsseldorf?

For the city of Düsseldorf the added value is that, in addition to establishing contact with the children in our youth centers, we also get to know what is going on in the city districts, where the children spend their time, what they are doing and why. The work on the streets can also be used to refer children and youngsters to the existing leisure facilities. In addition, the Mobile School network offers an international platform to exchange experiences and to learn about new developments.

What is the main objective of your local mobile school project?

We see our project as a cultural education mobile on wheels, which regularly moves to public and to residential areas in the districts of Flingern and Oberbilk. The focus is on the fun aspects of learning, playing and social interaction. We orient ourselves to the needs of the street-connected children we work with and give them the opportunity to conquer their surroundings in a positive way by creating space for their claim to education.

What do you focus on during your outreach interventions?

We take time for the children and youngsters, listen to what they are currently experiencing and try to filter out their current needs. We give them the space to unfold freely and to help shape what happens during the outreach sessions. If certain topics are brought to us, we try to take them up and prepare something for the next session. We use the materials of the mobile school to offer opportunities for discussion on a wide variety of topics and to convey education in a playful, creative context.

The mobile school project in Düsseldorf was started up in 2009. Firstly, your target group were local children hanging around on the streets. In 2015, the decision was made to work with refugee and migrant children instead. How come?

When the wave of refugees reached Germany at the end of 2015, all public institutions in Düsseldorf were asked to support refugee children and youngsters and to contribute to their integration. Our mobile school team was very happy to respond to this call, since we consider this field of work to be very important. The mobile school has made it easier for us to get access to this target group, as we have been able to operate with a great variety of mobile activities on-site.

Why is the work with refugee and migrant children and youngsters important, according to you?

All children and youngsters need a sense of security, a shelter where they can be themselves and where they can just be children. On their way to Germany, children need to grow up too quickly, their childhood is put on hold. They need people who look out for them and who are concerned with their needs. Some children are also traumatised by what they experienced before coming to Germany. In order to be able to help them, it is necessary to be a qualified contact person and to have a good network.  

That is why, in our work with refugee and migrant children and adolescents, we want to serve as a contact person, as a supporter on-site. The children spend most of their time in their apartments or in the immediate vicinity. Therefore, it is even more important to visit them where they live and to motivate them to come and join us outside. At the mobile school, they are encouraged to try out different things and they can play without having to take care of their younger siblings for a while. The families often need help as well, with official letters, for example. We also function as mediators, resolving conflicts between German families who have been living at the Bruchstraße for a long time and the refugee and migrant families.

What are the main challenges in working with refugee and migrant children and youngsters?

I would say the language barrier is the biggest challenge, since this sometimes makes it difficult to communicate, especially with children that have just arrived. Even if the children have been in Germany for a longer time and go to school, the communication with their parents often remains difficult because they usually do not pick up the language as quickly as their children do. The different cultural backgrounds of the families are sometimes challenging as well. Due to prejudice, some parents do not allow their children to play together. Thanks to our continuous work at the Bruchstraße, we were able to achieve a kind of acceptance among the residents. All children can now play together, at least when we are there with the mobile school.

Can you see the impact of your work in other ways as well?

We are accepted as a fixed point of contact at the Bruchstraße. We have been able to contribute to the fact that people have entered into social contact with each other. Through our work, we have enabled more participation in the public life of the children and youngsters by supporting the parents, for example in applying for additional funds. Sometimes the children come to us with their personal issues to ask us for advice, which shows that we enjoy a great deal of trust. The children and their families expect us as soon as we enter the courtyard. If we have to cancel a street session, because the weather is too bad, we are always asked why we were not there the next time we go. So, we have become an integral part of the local structures.

You recently started working in a new accommodation center for refugees. Are there noticeable differences between that location and the Bruchstraße?

At the Bruchstraße, the families are accommodated in fixed apartments. Each family has its own bathroom and kitchen. Many of the families we work with have been living there for several years. The children go to school or kindergarten, are registered in clubs, regularly go to tutoring, have good German language skills and participate in public life.

This is very different at the Moskauer Straße. That accommodation is only temporary. Families stay there until a decision is made in regards to their asylum procedure and/or until they can be placed in vacant flats. Since this is only an initial reception facility, the turnover of people is a lot higher. It is noticeable that the children and adolescents cannot really gain a foothold there or feel at home. Many children there also go to school or kindergarten, but their integration is not as advanced as that of the families on the Bruchstraße.

You have been doing street work for quite a long time and it’s a demanding job, so what keeps you going? What’s your drive?

If I would have to leave my home country involuntarily, if I didn’t speak the language in my new country, if I didn’t have any reference persons, if I had limited possibilities and was dependent on help – in short, if I were in their shoes - I would also like to have someone to support me. A person or a team I could regularly reach out to, trust and even have fun with. Even though we live in Europe, there are countries and regions with a lot of poverty, so the precarious living environments are not as far away as we sometimes think. In addition, the children cannot choose in which circumstances they grow up and therefore we should give them the opportunity to make the best out of their situation. That and the successes we have achieved so far spur me on.