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To the Aid

Professor Ray Wakefield shares his experiences working in a refugee camp
February 13, 2017

The center was a place of transition. Refugees and asylum seekers—mostly from Africa and the Middle East—spent only about six weeks there before moving on to other locations across Germany. That’s a little longer than German, Scandinavian & Dutch Professor Ray Wakefield and his wife, Margrit, were there.

Aghast at the scale of the refugee crisis, the Wakefields—a couple in their mid-70s—set off on their own to do what they could to help. They traveled to Germany, the country of Margrit’s birth and the focus of Ray’s academic career, where they connected with the German branch of the international organization Caritas, working as volunteers “at the very bottom of the organizational chart.”

They worked at a refugee center in Karlsruhe, a city of nearly 300,000 people in southwestern Germany. When they arrived there at the beginning of April 2016, hundreds of refugees were being placed at one of three centers across the town. Throughout the month, that number diminished as Germany took in fewer and fewer refugees. By autumn, the center where the Wakefields worked would be closed.

Caritas’ role in the refugee center was—ostensibly—to provide emergency and disaster relief services, but the Wakefields found their roles switching from moment to moment.

“We had to expect the unexpected almost every day,” Ray said. “Eventually, we learned to deal with difficult transitions—from heart-wrenching consultations one moment to playing soccer or games with the children the next.”

Ray tried to keep things in perspective by focusing on the successes. At one point, he found himself counseling a young Gambian man who had been to the doctor and was told his issue was not serious—he would have to wait until he was transferred to one of the longer-term compounds outside Karlsruhe. Ray recognized the man’s symptoms as a potentially life-threatening health issue and took him back to the doctor.

Examples abound; one day Ray was one of two Caritas workers called upon to moderate a confrontation between two African men and an influential security officer. Collecting accounts of the incident from the participants and from other migrants and guards filled in a troubling picture of someone who was openly hostile toward the people he was charged with protecting—and of distressed individuals who had perhaps relied on lying about the situation in order to protect themselves from retaliation.

A key role that the Wakefields—and that Caritas as a whole—played was that of mediator between the refugees and the two huge bureaucracies with which they had to engage. The refugees’ daily lives (housing, food, health care, security) were managed by the state of Baden-Württemberg, whereas the asylumprocess was managed by the federal government. Ray notes, “Since these two monster bureaucracies rarely communicate with one another, Caritas often serves that communicative function.”

Speaking with GSD’s students, faculty, and staff about their experiences since their return, they have offered an alternative to the history, the politics, and the policy issues relating to the refugee crisis in Germany available through media coverage in the United States.

The Wakefields continue to wonder about the fate of the refugees they worked with. “The small victories kept us all going from one day to the next,” says Ray, “[But] as we took our leave, there was still no clear solution for these refugees.”

Volunteers for the organization Caritas on an outing in Germany
The Wakefields pose with other Caritas volunteers on an outing

Ray Wakefield will retire at the end of spring semester after 47 years of service in the German, Scandinavian & Dutch department (formerly the German department), where he has served as director of language instruction, director of undergraduate studies, and interim chair.

His influence extends well beyond GSD. He founded the German College in the Schools Program, which currently reaches students at 23 high schools across the state, served as director of the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, director of the European Studies Consortium, and as interim director of the Center for German & European Studies. He was also interim chair of the former Institute of Linguistics, ESL, and Slavic Languages & Literatures and of the Department of Asian Languages & Literatures.

A passionate educator, Ray is a recipient of the Arthur “Red” Motley Exemplary Teaching Award (2008) and has mentored many fine teachers throughout his career. He has worked tirelessly to promote Dutch studies on campus, improve the CLA language requirement and overall quality of teaching across the college, and has imbued an enthusiasm for Germanic and medieval studies in generations of students.