How intercultural competence helped me to run a project for refugees – Impressions from Röszke (by Angela Weinberger)

When I ask Zarah for her name, we instantly connect.

“Can we help you, Madam?”

I have to laugh. She laughs with me. Zarah is a young refugee offering to help me bring an IKEA bag with men’s shoes into the distribution center. She is wearing a top that indicates that she likes to go clubbing. It’s probably a donation she received from previous night’s interim camp in Serbia. Today she made it into the European Union. She is with her husband. They beam at me.

I go inside the white tent. She has to stay behind the table. She needs a warmer shirt – size 36, I assume. There is little chance that I find a fitting top right away, but I find a sweater that she is happy with. Later, I see her again. Her English is fluent. I distribute scarves and hats. Being an intercultural coach, I don’t ask a lot of questions. Knowing her name helps me to find her in the crowd again. I learned in India to build relationships by asking people for their names.

The men at the counter call me “friend.” I am careful not to give a flirtatious impression. I try to differentiate their faces, holding up pants too big or too small until I find a pair of pregnancy pants. The young man says, “Yes!” and laughs. It’s the first one that fits after I held up about five pairs. I pull out a sweater, which looks a perfect fit for a stronger young man. He smiles at me as I tell him, “This is your style.”

I leave the distribution center because it is too crowded. I walk with my torch between the storage and distribution tents to deliver goods. Every time when my IKEA bags are empty, I go back to refill them with sleeping bags, mats, tents and blankets. I hand out soft blankets to men one at a time. We don’t want waste. Everyone is grateful.

The interim camp in Röszke welcomes refugees crossing the Serbian boarder. After they walk for another five kilometers, they arrive and are given food, tea and a chance to rest. Most of the refugees look tired but well groomed, considering what they have been through. With the little Arabic that I learned over many years, I make them smile.

This was the first time I was helping the refugees in such a direct manner. I did not really know what I was getting into. I was careful not to get overwhelmed. I took breaks when I needed them. What I learned about myself is that I have resilience and empathy. In my view, these are among the critical components of intercultural competence. Language skills help too. Based on previous crisis experiences, I know my mental and physical limits and have learned to cope with stress. I kept calm even when we were not admitted into our accommodation. I also drove the van through the tiny streets of Budapest and back home to Zurich.

Angela Weinberger is a Global Mobility Expert and Intercultural Coach. She has worked in Human Resources and Global Mobility during her corporate career. Angela founded Global People Transitions in 2012. She recently published “The Global Mobility Workbook – A Step-by-Step Guide to Managing International Assignments”

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