Global Learning Opportunity in Germany Gave Anna Zonderman (MSW '17) and Courtney Blashki (MSW '16) Unique Experience With Unaccompanied Refugee Children

Courtney Blashki and Anna Zonderman
Courtney Blashki and Anna Zonderman

NYU Silver students Anna Zonderman (MSW ’17) and Courtney Blashki (MSW ’16) pursued a unique educational opportunity when they enrolled in the school’s summer 2016 course on Human Rights and Social Justice in Social Work Research and Practice in Wiesbaden, Germany and sought to stay on after the program to learn more about the agencies supporting the unprecedented number of unaccompanied refugee children seeking asylum across the country.

Dr. James Martin, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the Silver School, who co-taught the seven-day course with two colleagues from Wiesbaden’s RheinMain University of Applied Sciences, made that experience possible by connecting the pair with Stiftung Juvente—a comprehensive child social service agency based in nearby Mainz, Germany. Zonderman says, “Germany’s child protection standards allow unaccompanied minors to be linked into the country’s various social service systems with a certain degree of ease.” She and Blashki wanted to see first-hand how that policy plays out in practice.

According to the service providers Zonderman and Blashki interacted with during the program, Germany’s child protection service generally arranges for unaccompanied refugee children who do not have a relative already residing in Germany to live in group homes, staffed around the clock by social workers, until the age of 18. Zonderman explains that all unaccompanied children are sheltered at specialized residential facilities called “clearing houses” when they first arrive while they are being cleared for asylum, at which point they can be reunited with relatives or placed into a more permanent group residential setting. “The objective of the clearing-house system is to facilitate integration into the new environment in which the children find themselves, so they are prepared to live in the community once their asylum applications are processed,” Zonderman says. Day-to-day life in these facilities varies according to available resources, local context (urban vs. rural settings), and the demographic characteristics of the refugee children. Ideally, children should move on from the clearing houses after no more than twelve weeks, but it can take up to eight months in some cases.

For their five days of volunteerism, Zonderman and Blashki were each assigned to a different clearing house run by Stiftung Juvente. Zonderman was sent to a rural facility in the village of Trechtingshausen, northwest of Mainz along the Rhine River, while Blashki went to an urban setting in Zwerchallee, located in Mainz proper. As a result, the two were witness to a wide spectrum of opportunities and challenges that affect unaccompanied refugee children across Germany.

Zonderman and Blashki came to the Silver School on different paths and met once they enrolled in the course. Zonderman, who is completing the extended MSW program, first received an MPH from the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH), with a dual focus in social and behavioral sciences and global health. While at YSPH, Zonderman volunteered at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services of New Haven (IRIS), where she and two fellow students developed an after-school therapeutic arts program for refugee children. Zonderman continued to volunteer at IRIS while completing a post-graduate research fellowship at the Yale Child Study Center. During this time, she was “looking for the clinical discipline that would best pair with public health” to allow her to support refugee children and families individually and at the community level. Her experience at IRIS, along with the research in which she participated during her fellowship, helped her determine that “social work was it.” Zonderman continues to work at Yale while pursuing her MSW, and maintains her involvement with IRIS as an active member of the Jewish Community Alliance for Refugee Resettlement, one of many co-sponsorship organizations partnering with the agency to allow an increasing number of refugee families to resettle across Connecticut.

Blashki, who recently graduated from the advanced standing 10-month program, came to the Silver School with the desire to do clinical work. She received a BA in social work and psychology from RMIT University in her home country of Australia, and went on to pursue a post-graduate degree in psychology before enrolling in the MSW program at NYU. Blashki says, “While I have always been interested in mental health, social justice and human rights, there are limited opportunities for working with refugees back home.” She cites Australia’s anti-refugee policies and, in particular, the island of Nauru — which houses a regional processing center for asylum seekers and refugees that is often criticized for its harsh conditions and potential violation of international human rights laws. “I came to NYU because I wanted a global perspective and a broader outlook on social issues, rather than just having one context. After I arrived, I became more interested in refugee issues, and that has only deepened through the experience that Anna and I had in Germany.”

Despite the many strengths of the German system, both students express that the children in the clearing houses are not always given the opportunity “to be heard” or to fully engage in the decisions that will govern the trajectory of their new lives in Germany. They ascribed this to a number of factors, including language barriers between the staff and the children, as well as a lack of sufficient mental health training and the absence of a trauma-informed perspective among many of the service providers.

Zonderman recalls one situation in which a young refugee was given only a few days’ notice before being transferred out of Trechtingshausen to another waiting facility. Upon arriving, he found that the house was overcrowded—there was not even a bed for him—and he felt unsafe. He used his pocket money to take a train back to Trechtingshausen that same evening. Zonderman says several child protection workers expressed concern about the boy’s behavior as they struggled to address the bureaucratic chaos that ensued. But, she notes, “When you consider his actions within the context of his past experiences, they make sense completely. He relied on his instincts—the same instincts that allowed him to survive and escape captivity and to cross borders into hostile territories on multiple continents…alone, after months of separation from his family. He did what he felt was necessary to survive.” This trauma-informed approach is something both Zonderman and Blashki say they brought to their experience as a result of their education at the Silver School.

Blashki adds, “My practice teacher, Matthew Wofsy, emphasized trauma-informed care, and, as a result, I looked at the children’s situation through that lens. Just having someone spend time with these children, treating them like humans, meant so much to them.” She recalls an afternoon spent playing Jenga with a boy who was distraught after not hearing from his mother for months. “Even sitting there, unable to speak the same language, was so calming for someone who has been through so much trauma. It is important to look at the children and think about the reasons why sometimes they may ‘play up,’ from a perspective of realizing and identifying the trauma that they have been through to get there.”

Given the trauma the children have already faced, Blashki notes that it is particularly difficult for some of the children to leave the clearing houses. “Once they arrive, the clearing house becomes their new home and way of life. Then, when they are finally able to relax, even a little bit, they have to leave their new friends and, for some of them, their new ‘families.’ For some, this can be re-traumatizing.”

Each night, the two women would come back from their placements to the room they shared and reflected on their experiences. Zonderman says, “Providing care for the millions of children across the world who are fleeing violence, poverty, and persecution is one of the greatest challenges we face as a global community. The German system has its flaws, but it also serves as a model.” In particular, she considers the group-home approach a potentially innovative solution to provide much-needed support to teenage and young-adult refugees, for whom services are not always well tailored in the US. “The system is organized predominantly around family units and does not necessarily take into account the specific developmental needs of youth.”

Their experience also revealed ways the German system could be improved. Blashki observed that children fleeing their home countries without their parents or guardians to protect them are vulnerable to numerous human rights violations. Unlike the US, Germany has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which states that refugee children should be afforded the same rights as all other children, independent of their residential status. Blashki says, “The UNCRC highlights and protects the basic rights of children, allowing the promotion of safety and education, and the establishment of safeguards to protect children from abuse. Although Germany has ratified this convention and attempts to comply with it, it is apparent that the rights of refugee youth are not fully protected. It is also possible that there are other policies in place that are hindering the rights of children, such as language barriers and citizenship issues. It is important to remember that unaccompanied minor refugees are children, and, as such, should be afforded the same rights as any other children.”

Both Zonderman and Blashki say their experience in Germany had a profound effect on their career goals. Zonderman notes, “Working with refugee families is what brought me to NYU, but I knew from the outset that I might have an experience during the program that would send me in an entirely different direction. Now I feel more strongly than ever that this is what I want to do. Until this summer, my perspective was limited to the process that refugees go through when resettling in the US. In Germany, I was able to see and understand the refugee experience from a completely different vantage point. In some ways, the interactions I have had with refugees over the past five years, and the relationships I have formed through that work, prepared me for what I witnessed in Germany. But in other ways, the experience was unlike anything I could possibly have imagined.”

Blashki concluded, “I came to the Silver School wanting to do clinical work, and that is still very much an interest of mine, but my focus is extremely different now in that I really want to do international work. I have always had a passion for working with children and now I am expanding my focus to those, like refugees, who are in the greatest need of help. My time in Germany brought a different perspective to my work and I will forever be grateful for that.”