We met for the interview at a time when the media were full of the turbulent events at the Turkish-Greek border, where crowds of migrants were attempting to cross. Apparently, Turkey was actually forcing these people to leave. This is a hot issue for Erik Siegl and Kristina Ambrožová, as Kristina is head of Diaconia’s Humanitarian and Development Cooperation Centre, while Erik is in charge of the foreign section of this centre.
Director of the ECCB Diaconia’s Humanitarian and Development Cooperation Centre. She previously worked as foreign secretary at the non-governmental organisation YMCA.
Erik has worked as a diplomat in Germany and Turkey. He is the author of “A Revolting Democracy”, a book on current Turkey. He is head of the international section at the centre.
The Humanitarian and Development Cooperation Centre was founded in 2011 and it is Diaconia’s only centre providing humanitarian and development aid abroad. It has been helping refugees from Syria since 2012 in the following ways:
- In the Zátarí refugee camp in Jordan, it helped build a kindergarten and a youth/adult community centre called Peace Oasis (sports, music activities, work training), which includes a shaded sporting area and a children’s playground.
- The community centre in Zarqá, which launched its activities last year, is similar.
- In Lebanon, Diaconia is helping the poorest families living in a slum on the outskirts of Beirut, and also in the Biká valley during the winter. This is mostly in-kind aid: meal tickets, formula for babies, diapers. Newcomers have access to a social fund which allows them to draw funds for basic furnishing such as mattresses, blankets or heating.
What is actually happening at the Greek-Turkish border?
Erik Siegl (ES): There are approximately four million refugees and migrants living in Turkey. Most of these people have fled from the conflict in Syria; Turkey gave them short-term asylum. This means, for instance, that they have free access to services such as education and healthcare. However, migrants from other countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan don’t have any similar privileges and Turkey does not intend to change this any way. Therefore, these people strive to get further into Europe, where they have more hope of gaining asylum.
However, the picture we get from the media is that the Turkish security forces are actually driving these people out of the country by force.
ES: At the moment, it seems Turkey is using the migrants to put pressure on the EU. Turkey has an agreement with the EU stating that it will prevent any illegal crossings from its territory and Europe, in exchange, will provide financial aid in supporting Syrian refugees, and even relocate a limited number of them. However, the Turkish claim that Europe is not fulfilling its end of the deal. Tukey is a hospitable, friendly country, but the economic situation has significantly worsened in the course of the past two years, which has led to an escalation of hostile attitudes towards migrants and Syrian refugees. It seems the Turkish government is currently trying to persuade its people that it has the power to take radical steps and that it knows how to put the EU’s back against the wall.
Diaconia is striving to help refugees in countries further to the East – Lebanon and Jordan. How is that going?
Kristina Ambrožová (KA): Thanks to the support offered by the Czech government, we are helping people who arrived in these countries during the war in Syria and the have been living here a long time, for example eight, nine years. This is the case with the refugee camp in Zátarí, Jordan, and now also in the town of Zarká, where we have set up a community centre. We are also working in Lebanon, in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Beirut, where poor Lebanese are living alongside Syrian refugees. We also have projects in the Biká valley, which is right beyond the Syrian border.
You are not actually helping on site, rather, you are in charge of organising the aid. What exactly does your job involve?
ES: We have our partner organisations on site – these are often NGOs, community centres or parishes. The Lutheran World Federation is another one of our partners. The teams working on location are largely made up of locals or even refugees, which means they have a better idea of the situation and better insights. Here in Prague, we file a subsidy application, usually to the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and we take care of all the related administration. At least twice a year, we pay a “monitoring visit” to the countries where the Czech government is sending its aid, which helps us gain a better understanding and more competence over time. Of course, we also try to explain the meaningfulness of our help abroad to our fellow citizens in the Czech Republic.
Does your explaining work? The usual objection is: why should we be helping abroad when we have enough trouble of our own?
KA: Diaconia has decided to do this many, many years ago. Our centre was established with the idea that it is time to have a look beyond the borders. If you travel to Lebanon, for example, you find out that even the poorest of our people still live in significantly better conditions than the vast majority of the Syrian refugees there. That’s why helping abroad is definitely meaningful and necessary.
Why did you decide to work for Diaconia? What was your motivation?
ES: I wasn’t really familiar with Diaconia before, but the job description of the head of the foreign section captured my attention. I also liked the straightforward, factual manner in which Diaconia presents its foreign aid. This first impression proved to be true after a year of working for them: the work approach is truthful and realistic, which really suits me.
KA: I was facing a difficult choice: whether I should start working in the private sector, or try to achieve a higher position within the non-profit sector. Diaconia was offering the position of director of one of its centres. I decided to take the job, also because I grew up in the ECCB, so this is something that is close to my heart. One year later, I can say I made the right decision. The job really is a meaningful one.
What motivates you when working for Diaconia? Where do you get your energy from?
ES: It’s the little successes. For example the kindergarten in the Zátarí refugee camp, which we founded together with the Lutheran Federation and have been able to maintain thanks to the ECCB’s lent collection. This year, we would like to construct a similar kindergarten in Lebanon, in a slum on the outskirts of Beirut. I have also met many inspiring people, such as a minister in Lebanon who, apart from being the head of his parish, is also a crisis manager and has great organisational skills. In general, it is also very motivating to see people who are able to live and have a positive attitude toward life even in extremely difficult conditions.
KA: I would certainly mention my colleagues at our centre. We support each other. And I also feel a lot of support from the whole Diaconia.
What has really stuck in your mind? Is there any experience you have that you’ll never forget?
KA: Previously, I had no experience whatsoever with the countries that our aid is being sent to. However, right at the beginning of my work for Diaconia, I went on two work trips, to Ethiopia and Lebanon. Especially the journey to Ethiopia was an experience I will never forget: no public transportation, no internet; everybody travels by car, on a motorbike or a bicycle, and transport is often collapsing. Even in a good-looking hotel located in the capital, they turn off electricity during the day. You can imagine what the conditions are like outside of the capital. That was a big lesson for me.