Bethel Tesfaiesus, known as Betty, began her 4,584 kilometer journey to Germany on the back of a camel crossing the desert and the Red Sea to Yemen from war-torn Eritrea. Today, 30 years later, she works at SAP in Walldorf, Germany. In her free time, she volunteers at a refugee camp in nearby Schwetzingen.
One of the long-lasting conflicts that has produced a constant flow of refugees is in Eritrea. A neighbor of Ethiopia and Sudan, Eritrea’s 6.5 million inhabitants face what the UN describes as a “desperately bleak” human rights outlook. President Isaias Afwerki has been in office since Eritrea’s independence in 1993. Since then, elections have been repeatedly rescheduled or cancelled. Meanwhile Human Rights Watch says indefinite military conscription, forced labor, arbitrary arrests, detentions, and persecution have led thousands of Eritreans to flee their country every month.
Betty was one of these refugees when she was 12. She remembers the long and arduous journey she did 30 years ago with her parents and three siblings only in parts. But still present in her mind is the complete culture shock when the family arrived in Villingen-Schwenningen, a little village in the South of Germany.
For one year they lived in a camp with about 200 other refugees. Luckily, the local church was very supportive and Betty’s parents were able to find jobs quickly. Betty’s father fought to have his kids attend the regular local school and eventually they did. Nevertheless, the first two years were very hard. They had to adjust to a different life, starting from scratch. The unfamiliar language represented a particular challenge. After overcoming this, Betty graduated from high school and went on to higher studies. Now she is working as a Business Support Specialist at SAP in Walldorf.
Because Betty has been a refugee herself, she knows how it feels and she wants to give back. Together with colleagues from SAP and other volunteers, she gives computer classes to mostly Eritrean refugees in a refugee camp in Schwetzingen. It helps that she can talk with them in her mother tongue, Tigrinya. She also provides translation services for the refugees.
On the outskirts of Schwetzingen, about 250 refugees from around the world live in a container camp. Usually, three people share a room 10 square meters in size. There is one bathroom and kitchen for the whole floor and refugees tend to have a lot of free time on their hands.
The German government only pays for 100 hours of language training during the year or more needed to processing an asylum application, so volunteers do their best to provide additional learning opportunities and activities at the camp. They teach language classes, computer classes or even yoga. This helps the refugees feel welcome, learn the language, and become accustomed to the culture.