Interview With A Former Refugee Camp Manager Kilian Kleinschmidt

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YT magazine’s contributor Sabiha Kapetanovic recently had the opportunity to talk with Kilian Kleinschmidt or “the Lion in the desert” as people from Mogadishu like to call him. The reason is that first, as he said, in Somalia everyone has a nickname, and second, people in Mogadishu see him as a hero.

Kilian was sent there to reestablish a UN humanitarian presence. “In that time of violence and bombs I was in the city constantly, moving through it, talking to people, and I survived. Still, I find it funny, because I can’t relate to it.”

I thought that he, as a person who has had experience with refugees and the situations they are passing through, would be able to answer some questions that need to be answered.

On the question of why and how he started working for a humanitarian organization Kilian said that it wasn’t something he planned, it happened spontaneously. First he started working as a roofer in France, and from that he went on his first motorbike trip to Africa, to Mali. There he met a young couple who were helping people near the Mauritanian border, and he stayed with them for six months. That was the turning point for Kilian, because when he came back to France he didn’t like it anymore, something was missing, and then he started applying for jobs with NGOs. He worked for the UN, for the first time, in Sudan. During that mission at one point they needed to move people from Sudan to Kenya, and he went with them and there his story with refugees began.

Today, Kilian is advising the Austrian Government on refugee questions and besides that is helping with a Project to send Syrian people to Mexico. It is an initiative that came from civil society, based on the belief that Mexico and other countries in Latin America should also be open to refugees. They have a plan to bring students so they can continue their education. The Project hopes to relocate 10 000 Syrians there.

As Kilian says, he is a migrant himself, constantly moving from place to place. “I have started life over many times in different places that I called home. So I’m not particularly attached to one. I guess it depends on mood, how I feel, where I want to be. My home is where my feelings are.”

Can you tell me as a person who has been in so many camps for so many years, living with people who are living through the biggest terror in the history of our Earth: What is the hardest part and what is the biggest problem in recovery for refugees, especially children? How can traumatized children get a chance to be children again? How can it be at least partly resolved?

Today, when you move from Berlin to Frankfurt, your child has to visit a counselor to get over the shock of moving from Berlin to Frankfurt. Now think about that for a moment.

Refugee children lose their childhood, they suddenly become little adults. They have to become something they are not, and in many cases they become violent, too. In those cases their entire identity is gone. What has to be done is to try to get it back, give them back dignity, make them humans again and not only numbers that we hear in the news. To give each of them individual attention is very hard. However we can’t forget that every one of them has a unique story to tell.

What can be a temporary solution, something to start with, is money, to help them to help themselves and not decide for them. Not decide what they will wear or eat. It is a new and effective way of resolving many problems, their dignity starts returning as they get back some self-confidence and in this way you get more people out of poverty. We should use these situations as a trigger for positive change.”

Can You describe what life inside the camps looks like? Over time they develop into something like small cities.

In the beginning it is very busy. People try to keep themselves alive, trying to get food first, go to the toilet, take showers, etc. But it starts changing and developing. They open shops, markets, open work shops. So in many ways it is better than being in a war zone.”

Why did you leave the UN and decide to start on your own?

I had to deal more and more with jealousy. Then I felt that I had reached my limits, as I didn’t have a proper education. However the main reason was dealing with people who were not ready for change. They all have innovation departments and so forth, but their bureaucracy is resistant to change. When somebody, somewhere, has some knowledge or capacity, he/she should be able to share it and all of us could gain from it, but here it is not so easy to do that. Also it doesn’t have to be just charity, it can be also investment. Now in Iraq and Afghanistan they don’t need warm jackets or food, they need someone who will invest in them. They have problems with tons of garbage every day. There you can invest and recycle, produce energy, etc.

Did this work change you as a person, and what has it given you?

I started with humanitarian work with a purely European way of thinking, we have to do something so the World can be a better place. I was feeling that I had to help “little poor people” somewhere far away. If you think about it this is a somewhat colonial way of thinking, meaning I am good, I am rich and I go to help “little poor people” somewhere else, so in some sense it is linked with a lot of arrogance. Then we came to a breaking point for me, Sarajevo. This is not only about “little black people”, it is about us too, and it can happen any time to any of us. It is about everyone and everybody. I discovered that because in Sarajevo everyone looked like me, and that woke me up, it had happened to us before and it could happen again if we don’t work together and if we don’t help each other.

One more funny anecdote from Sarajevo was realising that a truck driver might be smarter and more educated than I am, he became a truck driver because he needed a job to survive. That was amazing. It had happened before in Asia and Africa, but Sarajevo was a different kind of discovery from which I couldn’t escape.

Very often when I look at today I realize that with our every move new history is being written. Then I think, when we used to learn history, what and how we were taught about past events, which more or less wasn’t so positive. Than I look again at today, and then at tomorrow; how future generations will think the same about us as we think about previous ones. We are living history that we should be ashamed of. Still, we should try to be a group that will be mentioned as one that tried to do and change something”.

This migration is going to be one of the biggest for many years. According to you how it will effect Europeans and how will effect refugees? Is integration necessary and is it possible? Can we instead of true integration have real multiculturalism in Europe, will Europe be ready to accept it?

We have to wake up. We are deeply involved and have been often at the origin of the conflicts and exploitation of other parts of the world, we can’t deny it. It is now a path to multiculturalism, which is needed and which is good. People on the move come with all the richness of their culture and are people who want to work and want a future for their kids and they cannot find it in the Middle East or Africa. Europe is a place that has a lot of space, opportunities and needs young people. What we should not forget is that poverty is a violation of human rights and that it is wrong to prevent people from moving on. Searching for new opportunities should be allowed to everyone, but of course needs to be managed. There is a need for a new approach to share the world’s resources.

Comment on politics in Hungary?

We all have a history of displacement and conflict. And we all needed compassion and help at some point in history. Hungary, other countries and anyone questioning the right for people to move should remember their own experience and past. The same can happen again to all of us, we should not forget that and we must wake up!


This article was originally published in Youth Time print edition, 32nd issue. Click here to check the content of the issue, subscribe here, purchase one issue here.

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