Learning to see

By Anna Ribeau, October 2016

I recall: about 15 years ago I went to Berlin for a demonstration against the war in Afghanistan. Today I work at first hand with children from Afghanistan. They are probably as many years old as the years ago that I went to the demonstration. Young people who had to grow up early. We, in turn, took a long time to wake up.

Photo: © thomasfuer/photocase.de

In the waiting room

A 16-year-old unaccompanied refugee boy and I are sitting in the waiting room of a medical practice. I am leafing through a magazine, I stop at a page and see a picture there but don’t really see it, just register it: sea, a young person in a lifejacket, a part of a boat. But I cannot really relate to it, it is submerged in a flood of images.

I turn my head and notice that M is looking over my shoulder with a serious face, thoughtful. He identifies more in the picture than I do. He looks at the picture in my hands – and through the picture into his memories: the sea which he himself has crossed in a boat with a lifejacket.

Something that is incomprehensible to me comes close enough so that I can grasp it. The picture in my hand fades as if the boy who is sitting here directly beside me had just emerged from the page to join me. The young man shown in the picture was the only survivor. Clinging to the bow of the boat, which was sticking out of the water, he survived. The rest of the story had disappeared under the surface of the water – invisible.

How could I not have seen him? Yes, I had seen the bow. But I had not been awake. I had failed to hear the story of the boy on the boat, his message as a survivor, the extent of the tragedy.

The wound

What do we fail to see each day because it lies beneath the surface? Which is so close that we overlook it; which we walk past carelessly; which we do not allow to speak to us out of fear of our own responsibility? When a picture becomes part of our story? At the doctor without awareness of our own illness. Encounters, images from which I emerge unchanged. Am I blind to the wound?

In taking responsibility for what I perceive, in perceiving what I encounter in my everyday life, in bearing and enduring what comes towards me I become seeing and can build a bridge into my present which is connected with me. I lift my eyes from the magazine and recognise that the boy is sitting next to me in the waiting room. He waits. He hopes that I will begin to see. Now I can touch him because he touches me. I become a survivor, I will start to think about life in a new way. We look at one another.

Welcome WG

I work with unaccompanied refugee minors (URM). When they arrive in Germany, they come under the Protection of Young Persons Act. They are given a guardian who mostly takes on the guardianship for many young people and is responsible for dealing with the authorities, for signatures and applications.

The facility where they are first accommodated is called “Welcome WG”. Here about 40 young people are going through a so-called “clearing process”. I support boys who already have this firsts step behind them and are intended to make the “transition to independence”.

They live independently in small groups in a flat and are supported in doing so. Going shopping, cooking and eating together, doctor’s appointments, sports club, conversations over a mug of tea, playing table football in the youth centre …


I did not expect what I experience on a daily basis through my work with the URMs from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and The Gambia. I am baffled and fascinated by their openness,, their respect, their curiosity, their laughing eyes – despite shipwreck, bomb attacks, the loss of family members … And now that has been replaced by German lessons, school, foster families, transition to independence, bringing people together, appointments with the interpreter, youth welfare office, football …

Digital umbilical cord

It take a serious note when the tragic events which have occurred rise to the surface. We communicate with hands and feet, with words from the various languages and with drawings. I’ve not used my mobile phone language app for a long time. Things work better without it.

They like to share their pictures and experiences. Their mobile phones often have broken screens and scratches showing the stresses of the journey. They are the umbilical cord home with which they can still maintain the connection.

A boy asks me whether I want to see his country. I look at the small screen and notice that he is connected live to his homeland. His older brother in Afghanistan holds his mobile phone into the desert-like mountainous landscape just for me to show me the country! Then we greet one another from a distance through a wondrous magic mirror. What does it mirror for me?

About the author: Anna Ribeau was a Waldorf pupil, studied literature and linguistics, currently psychology, writes poetry and is the mother of four children.