The ups and downs of voluntary work

The Berlin-based project PROTHEGE offers therapy to refugees in response to a heavy demand for it. But creating a workable structure on a voluntary basis has proved more difficult than envisaged at the start. A report on insufficient funding and difficult networking.

von Annika Huhn

Picture of a meeting. Photo: PROTHEGE

“I don’t believe it! We’re forever hearing that refugees need places in therapy, now we’re sitting here with places but no patients!“

By the end of March 2017 we were worn out. We’d been through a few eventful but exhausting months and faced obstacles that we’ve managed to overcome. But things haven’t been moving forward for weeks now, even though we’ve been investing so much time, heart and soul. Instead, we’re back where we started.

Everything began in the summer of 2015. At a time when thousands of refugees were arriving in Berlin every day and the queues in front of LaGeSo (the Regional Office for Health and Social Affairs) were getting longer and longer, we at the Berlin Academy for Psychotherapy and the Berlin Psychological University asked ourselves: “What can we do to help?” We kept hearing that many refugees were suffering from psychological symptoms resulting from traumatic experiences in their home countries, during their escape and here in Germany. But bottlenecks in care provision, barriers to care due to residency status, and the problem of uncertain funding for language interpreters make it difficult for this group to access the regular care it needs. It was obvious to us that we would use our offices to provide at least some help in this area. A team of seven trainee psychotherapists was formed from an initial 80 interested parties, and a few weeks later our concept emerged: under the heading PROTHEGE (Projekt Therapie für Geflüchtete / Therapy for Refugees Project), we wanted to offer short-term therapy – 15 sessions – for adult refugees in order to stabilise psychological problems and empower them in their new life situations. Our training institutes provided the necessary space free of charge and experienced supervisors were on hand to support the short-term therapy offer. We also wanted to involve professional interpreters so that refugees could open up despite the language barrier – even if this meant that we needed a large sum of money to pay the interpreters appropriately. We launched a one-month crowdfunding campaign on the platform in a bid to cover the upcoming costs. We also learnt a great deal during this time: how to write press releases, how to give interviews to newspapers and radio stations, and how to maintain social media channels – all of it on a voluntary basis alongside paid work and with no prior knowledge in these areas. But our efforts paid off: at the end of the crowdfunding campaign, the project had a total of EUR 33,000 available.

Euphoria followed by disillusionment

Euphoric and full of drive, we threw ourselves into the next organisational phase, but it wasn’t long until something dampened our spirits. We’d expected to receive contacts details for interpreters from organisations that had always supported our previous projects, but this time we got feedback saying: “It has taken us so long to find skilled language mediators that we now guard their contact details closely so that they’re not snatched away from us.” This was a big shock for us. We hadn’t counted on such tough competition for language mediators. It meant that we weren’t able to start the treatment sessions in the early autumn but instead had to start by searching for interpreters with experience of psychotherapy. We quickly realised that we wouldn’t be able to create a large pool of interpreters with the funds we had, so we instead looked for patients that understood the languages of the interpreters we’d found in our arduous search. But approaching things the other way around was again harder to organise than expected: sometimes there were no patients from the countries of origin we sought and sometimes we received no response to our inquiries, even though we’d only recently been told how great the need was. Many other projects were still being developed at the time, so responsibilities were changing regularly and we found that our contact partners suddenly weren’t available or were themselves drowning in a flood of tasks and duties.

It was at this point that we became aware of our project’s limits. We were now part of a support system in which individual projects are more or less well networked and have to work together in existing structures and newly established initiatives without any professional co-ordination at the top. As we’re all keeping PROTHEGE afloat with voluntary work alongside our paid work, we can’t always deliver what is needed to run the therapy offer smoothly – for example better reachability in order to be able to respond to requests and changes quickly. We also work without fixed responsibilities so that everyone in the team has the same knowledge available to them at all times and can stand in for another team member at any time. This means that the work is shared more or less equally and we prevent each other from getting overworked, but we sometimes come up against the familiar problem of responsibility diffusion and the joint decision-making process then takes much longer. The organisational structure also requires a certain level of flexibility on the part of our interpreters and mediators. It isn’t always easy to bind the ‘hard fought for’ interpreters to our project when other organisations can offer more regular appointments and responsibilities, and more reliable pay. But it is precisely the interpreters – the starting point for planning therapists, patients and language mediators – who, with a sudden cancellation, can cause our long and arduous appointment co-ordination work to collapse.

Looking forward

We’ve since overcome the frustrating phase at the end of March 2017 and around ten courses of therapy are now running. Good partnership working has helped us most. The many obstacles we have overcome during the project and the positive feedback we have received has forged a close connection to PROTHEGE and the team. We support each other, take over each other’s tasks if they’re getting too much and always try to leave space in our weekly planning meetings to ease frustration, despite the many agenda items and discussions. We hope that we can continue the project even if the crowdfunding money will be used up in a few months’ time. In the best-case scenario, we can link up with existing structures or psychosocial care, or create permanent, paid positions from improved financing resulting from third-party funding applications. But regardless of how PROTHEGE develops, real change needs to occur at the political level instead of psychosocial and psychotherapeutic care of refugees being offloaded onto initiatives and voluntary projects, as has been the case up to now. It is only when access to regular healthcare is genuinely made available to refugees (e.g. by healthcare funds covering the costs of interpreters or by taking treatment-approval decisions out of the hands of welfare offices) that such ‘parallel systems’ will become unnecessary. Close collaboration between the different projects is necessary if we are to have a genuine political impact, however. And the question remains: how can the people working for these projects take on policymakers if their own work already takes up so much of their time and energy? Despite a few lean periods, our experience with PROTHEGE has shown us that we can achieve a great deal together. We’re carrying on!

For further informatione see the project’s facebook page.