Who supports refugees on their way to the courtroom?
Best Practice Stories
What awaits refugees in the Austrian courtroom? What decides whether an asylum decision is positive? - The founder of "Workshops Against Fear" told us about her experiences in the courtroom with refugees and about the bumpy road to get there.
We are sitting in a green garden in Pressbaum, not far from Vienna. Several cats and an older dog accompany us to the table where Erika Kudweis has prepared coffee for us. The garden is wild and dark green, and in some corners, we can see roses and tomatoes. If she has a little time left, Erika takes care of her garden. Every year she chooses a different spot in the garden and plants flowers or vegetables. But usually, she doesn't have much time left. In addition to her three children, she also has four godchildren from Afghanistan who she regularly meets or talks to in long phone calls. She is the only stable base in Europe for the boys (who are now young adults). She is helping her godchildren prepare for exams as well as interviews and appointments as part of the asylum procedure, but also listens to them when they are homesick or heartbroken. Having a reference person in Austria is perhaps the most essential thing for young refugees when it comes to successfully starting a new life. From job and apartment searches to language courses – everything is much easier if you know someone who wants to help. But in order to think and plan for the long term, there is a critical prerequisite: an Austrian residence permit.
Four years ago, Erika founded the association PatInnen für alle. In 2018, she then developed the "Workshops Against Fear" project. When I ask her about her motivation, she tells me a story:
"Because of the asylum proceedings of one of the godchildren, I found myself in court for the first time in my life. I was sitting in the back row together with the godparents of the 18-year-old and his teacher. The judge said: 'People from Afghanistan always lie. I am curious: what story will we hear today?'. I had to fight back my tears. This young man did not even get a chance. It was just not fair. At that moment I knew that I had to do something. That's my motivation."
Since then, she has set about preparing young refugees for what awaits them in court. This is not an easy task: due to their often violent experiences and the arduous journey to Europe, refugees often suffer from post-traumatic stress. This is how "Workshops Against Fear" came into being. Calmly, in a protected setting and usually together with a confidant, the participants learn how to prepare for a trial, which documents are of interest to judges and how better to understand the judges and interpreters. "It is their job to find out whether a reason for flight justifies a protection title such as asylum or subsidiary protection, whether another residence title can be granted or not. Therefore, the cooperation of the complainants (as they are called in court) is essential. Good preparation helps the judge to make a correct decision more easily. In this way, the three-hour workshop helps to reflect on reasons and causes and to think about the questions that can cause difficult, traumatising memories, not only in the courtroom."
Before we leave, Erika shows us some photos of her adopted daughter and her godchildren. "Do you know what happened to me the other day?" she asks. "I was in the courtroom with one of our association's godchildren and his good friend was the complainant. During the break, he sat anxiously in a corner. The godchild remembered an exercise from the workshop, took his cell phone out of his pocket and put it on his friend’s head. He asked him, 'Do you know how a king sits with his crown?'. We all had to laugh and after that, the young man sat in his chair like a king and answered the judge’s difficult questions with a straight back, confident and respectful.”
Text: Fruzsina Herbert
Photo © Anna Stöcher