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Sep 30, 2019 3:49 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Springs Man Returns After Helping Refugee Children In Germany

Joe Andres playing with some of the refugees in Germany.  COURTESY JOE ANDRES
Oct 1, 2019 2:29 PM

While a student at Stony Brook University, Joey Andres, a 2006 graduate of East Hampton High School, explored the option of studying abroad. One day, during a study abroad fair in the campus center, he noticed a small, foldable cardboard sign that said something about volunteering with refugees in Konstanz, Germany — a city open to refugees from around the world that hosts several rehabilitation programs to help them learn German and English and assimilate into the German way of life. Mr. Andres signed up right away.

He left in February, returning home to Springs in August. During the intervening six months, he worked as a volunteer with a refugee program, called CVJM, that helped families who had run away from war, violence, religious persecution and poverty.

On a big stage in the basement of an old church, Mr. Andres and other volunteers taught acting classes and led art workshops, and on a green behind the church they played soccer. The kids, from 8 to 15, were able to express themselves, socialize and have fun despite having faced traumatic experiences at a young age.

Sitting on a bench at Pussy’s Pond in Springs on a recent evening, Mr. Andres said his awareness of the refugee crisis around the world was only “face value,” and that he wanted to understand more and get involved.

The refugees came from all around the world. Mr. Andres said the German government set up programs in the city of Konstanz, a former industrial area, to house refugees, giving them jobs, schooling and assimilating them into a safe place.

He and other volunteers visited the dormitories where the refugees were living, and they were able to understand the severity of their former situations. Mr. Andres said a lot of the kids were still struggling with the trauma of leaving their homes behind, adding that they were at an age where intellectual processing was not fully developed.

“This was an after-school program to keep the kids smiling and to help them mingle,” rather than going home to an empty dormitory and sitting alone to let trauma sink in, he said of CVJM.

“I was intimidated at first,” Mr. Andres said about joining the program, which the kids would attend from 3 to 7 p.m., when their parents returned to the dormitories after work. “Mostly because of what I thought would be a hampering communication barrier and my lack of teaching skills.

“However, I soon realized that most of these kids knew a decent amount of English, and that it is more about my supportive energy, rather than feeling like I am a tenured professor.”

Mr. Andres said it was beautiful to see the kids enter with some anxiety and shyness but a few hours later feel comfortable interacting with him and other people of many different nationalities. He said activities such as acting, drawing and sports helped with the bonding.

Mr. Andres developed a strong bond with a group of teenage Syrian refugee boys; Mohammed, Mohammed and Ali. The three boys enjoyed talking to him and practicing their English. With the help of another volunteer, Mr. Andres asked how they felt about their situation and the move to Germany.

“It was interesting to see how many positive details they vividly remembered from home, but any and all negative memories were gone, traumatically vanished or blocked,” Mr. Andres said. “They really pined for home,” he said, adding that escaping Syria had been a matter of life and death, with explosions going off on the streets and in neighboring apartment buildings.

Miana, a 15-year-old Romanian girl, left Mr. Andres in awe at her ability to process her situation, he said. He said in Romania, on some days, her mother was only able to muster up a single potato for her and her three sisters. Although not victims of extreme violence, Miana’s family fled Romania and its poverty and lack of work for a better life.

She pushed herself to share her story with Mr. Andres, he said. It included poverty, bullying and Miana’s struggle to learn German and English for a better future.

“She understands the problems she overcame, but also knows she has the strength to fall back down levels and then re-climb them,” Mr. Andres said as the sun began to set in Springs. “Her sitting in front of me with this weight and strength is something I will never forget.”

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