Restoring dignity and hope: a look at people helping refugees in Prague

Illustrative photo: L//S photography, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

There are lots of countries in the world that have been hesitant about letting refugees through their borders. The recently re-elected Czech president even ran his campaign partly on a non-immigrant agenda. Nevertheless, Prague is a hub in Europe for those looking for a better life including some refugees from countries suffering from war and poverty.

Petra Damms, photo: archive of Petra Damms
There are some people, like Petra Damms, who are working to help them. I was able to go and take a closer look at a refugee center based in the heart of Prague run by a newly started NGO named appropriately - Dignity Restoring Hope.

“Happy Birthday” is being sung heartily at a refugee center in Prague. Noir, a refugee from the war in Syria, is celebrating her second birthday here. She is not just surrounded by immediate family and close friends, but also volunteers at the center as well as the director.

I walk down the stairs into a massive basement area filled from corner to corner with clothing for everyone from infants to grown men. Refugees at the center are able to peruse the closet at will without any limitations or supervision - giving them the dignity they deserve. Hence the name of the organization, Dignity Restoring Hope, an NGO started by Petra Damms with her husband. Petra Damms:

“I have been working with the refugees here in the Czech Republic since 2015 and just recently in March 2018 I established an NGO. So now what I do is more official. Before it was just volunteering and now it is a proper organization. So the way it started in 2015 – we established a group of volunteers that were meeting at the train station. We were helping refugees at the train station. It was just a short term one-off help trying to feed them, trying to entertain the kids, trying to buy tickets. And these refugees were transiting through the Czech Republic most of them going to Germany or Sweden. So that was the picture in 2015.

“After a few months new legislation was established in the Czech Republic opening detention centers and the refugees started to be detained. When they came without their papers or didn’t have visas, which 100% of them didn’t, they were held until their identity and their story was checked out. So some of them could be there for weeks if they had all their documents, but for some of them it was months, sometimes a year. And we started to visit detention centers, so we were covering the train station and visiting detention centers. We had volunteers who were interpreters who could communicate with them. We had people who offered accommodation. We had people who would come for these different shifts at the train station. So it was very busy during that time.

“Now it is much quieter and most of the refugees we are working with are people establishing themselves here in the Czech Republic. They are asylum holders and asylum seekers. But we are still visiting detention centers as well.”

Though there are not large numbers of volunteers with the refugees there are still a few willing people who come every week. They hang out with the refugees, play video games with the kids, bring snacks, and go through donations. I spoke with Tom Hylton, one of the volunteers, about their experiences so far.

“We first came in November of 2017 and then, just one time just to kind of see the place and meet the people, and then we started coming more routinely I think in January or February.

“I think part of it is a response out of our faith. The Bible talks a lot about sojourners, people who are foreign, and how we are all in some sense sojourners in the world and there are people in distress. There are people who feel misplaced. And a good response to that is to try to make them feel at home, even though we are in the process of feeling at home ourselves.”

Even with all the challenges she has faced, Petra is sure that she is slowly but surely making a difference. I ask her about the reactions of the people around her at the train station when she was helping refugees and whether they realized what she was doing. Petra Damms:

“They did, because we had those signs and it was very obvious. Then, when we started to gather people from the trains it was clear what we were doing. And the population was not very happy with what we were doing. We were verbally abused, we were spat on, we were shoved. Later on we had a little stand because there was such a large number of people coming out of the trains and we had shifts. We had a system covering the train station 24/7. We had at least three people on each shift and they were four-hour shifts so there was always somebody. Later on we started a little cooperation with the train station itself and they allowed us to put up a stand. So we had one person at the stand waiting for the refugees. If somebody was walking around they could always find this person standing there. And we had two people on the train. They were working as a support, because you are very vulnerable at that point when you are walking through the train.”

“Our stand was demolished several times. The signs were taken off and just completely destroyed. People were not very happy. But there were people who approached us and asked ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘Who are these people?’ They were interested – maybe they were not supporting us – but they were interested in learning more and listening. They would ask: What are their stories? Where are they coming from? Who are these people that we see on the television and we hear about? So that was interesting. Some people did come and they sought more information.”

Petra shows me round the center, pointing out various donations.

Illustrative photo: L//S photography, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
“You can see we have donations of shoes. We have toys here. We have some books - English and Czech books. We have some adult books. On this side we have some toiletries. It’s all taken away now. Here are some household items – bedding, linen, some cups and mugs. We have pots and pans, utensils, bags, chairs, tables. They would all be in this section. This is actually where everything started because at home, I don’t know if I have mentioned it before, but I moved my younger daughter into her big sister’s room and I filled that room with donations. To my husband’s great displeasure!”

Volunteers are working in the kitchen. The number of volunteers varies week by week. Originally there were enough to take shifts of three at the train station. Now, the number is a lot lower. Petra mentioned to me that she thinks this is because volunteers get burned out - especially when it comes to such a controversial topic. Going to detention centers and getting searched by guards is much less attractive than volunteering with orphans or puppies. However, she manages to stay positive and passionate about her work.

“Sharing the knowledge, the experience, the information is powerful. Because, news that a regular person, who doesn’t dig any deeper, sees on the news and reads in the newspaper and reads on the internet is just horrid. But I think as well that many politicians and many parties are building on the fear. But it’s a fear of the unknown.”