More than a thousand words

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A first of its kind study abroad excursion to Berlin, Germany gave five members of the Saybrook community a closer look at how the global immigration crisis is affecting individuals, families, and entire communities.

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The group felt a mix of emotions stepping into Traglufthalle Asylum Shelter in Berlin, Germany on the first night. Would it mirror the coverage they’d heard from the media? Would they be able to connect with refugees despite a language barrier? How could atrocities of this magnitude, forcing millions of people to flee their homes for the unknown, still happen in today’s world?

Saybrook President Nathan Long, Dean of Social Sciences Kent Becker, and three students traveled to Berlin as part of the first-ever, cross-institutional, cross-disciplinary course “Immigration in Context: Examination of Germany” in December 2016. After spending eight weeks online discussing immigration through the lenses of law, psychology, health care, advocacy, and human development, the group converged halfway across the world to see the real-life implications of immigration policy as evidenced in Berlin.

There was little way to prepare yourself for that level of immersion, but that’s part of the power and purpose of a program like this. 

“There was little way to prepare yourself for that level of immersion, but that’s part of the power and purpose of a program like this,” Dr. Kent Becker says. “I told the students early on that our goal was ‘compassionate presence’—not to go into the refugee shelter and do, but go in and just be.”

Over the course of five sessions, Saybrook students guided shelter residents to share their personal stories through photography—an advocacy tool for self-expression and discovery called PhotoVoice that Dr. Becker has utilized in communities nationally and across the globe.

In the photos below, Dr. Becker and Saybrook doctoral student R. Paul Johnson, share their Berlin experience using the same PhotoVoice method. 

Dr. Kent Becker: This is the refugee shelter of Berliner Stadtmission. As part of the course, faculty and students facilitated a PhotoVoice project with residents who wanted to share their stories through their images and their words. As a group, they shared a powerful range of experiences about their journeys, fears, family, and hopes for the future. 

It was particularly poignant and challenging that while we were in Berlin getting to know these phenomenal residents, visiting historical sites, and enjoying the city at the height of Christmas season, a young man plowed into one of the largest Christmas Markets with a truck, killing 12 people.

It was a reminder that, sadly, too many people do not come home at the end of their day. Our time with the newcomers from the shelter was a strong reminder of this fact. Across time, and today, too many people are victimized, traumatized, and marginalized.



Dr. Kent Becker: Personally, these experiences and the on-the-ground connections are what made this course so rich and meaningful. This was an important experience where we could learn together and speak candidly about our views on immigration and the refugee crisis. While we may not have always agreed, we were able to share something special collectively and individually, personally, and professionally.

Ideally other groups in their own homes, even those who don’t share the same connection as our group through education, would be willing to peacefully have the kinds of conversations we had. Whether from the east or west coast, Republican or Democrat, citizens or immigrants, or from a spectrum of races, our communities should agree to have a shared sense of responsibility and a commitment to learn more about each other.


R. Paul Johnson: One of the supplemental activities we did as a group was to visit the Oranienburg Concentration Camp just outside of Berlin. When we got there, the weather mirrored my mood: discomfort. It wasn’t just that the weather was cold, misty, and wet. I focused on the outside wall of the memorial camp and guard tower, thinking of the countless people that had been imprisoned there during frigid winters and threadbare dress. The same bare, old trees that looked down on me had seen these victims, and recognized their fear and helplessness. Anger and fear set in while I watched our reflections go past the same windows and the same paths that they were on, knowing we would be safe on the other side while others had not had the same fate.


Dr. Kent Becker: These “snapshots” capture the security and safety we felt with each other, and the community we built across affiliates, disciplines, etc. We shared meals, family, and community stories, educational experiences, painful feelings, hopes, and fears. I believe this was demonstrated and tangible after the truck attack. Individually and as a group, we were all determined to find each other, see each other, and know that we were all safe. We congregated in the hotel lounge, texted each other and our loved ones, and breathed a collective sigh of relief as each member of our community came "home."


R. Paul Johnson: We needed a place to escape the heaviness of all we’d learned. That salvation came from our time at the WeihnachtsZauber Gendarmenmarkt (Christmas Market). Even though the weather was still gloomy and damp, our group was joyous and full of laughter. But still, I stood amongst the masses pondering on whether any of us were thinking about those who came before us, those who suffered at the hands of war-mongering dictators.

My experience in Berlin has caused me to pause at nearly every step and ask myself how I can make a difference, both as a psychologist and a human being. The trauma that the "newcomers" endured has multigenerational implications, and we need to have a better understanding of not only why this is but how we can help break this cycle. When our group’s discussion transitioned into the sadness and despair of the past, we pondered on ways to make sure something like this never happens again. Even though I am now at home, I will always remember the spirit of the Christmas Market.



Dr. Kent Becker: On our final night in the shelter, faculty, residents, and students shared their PhotoVoice projects. Throughout the process and each session, I had been so nervous and excited. It was not until the last night, during the community display, that I allowed myself to slow down and witness what had unfolded. While the photos and stories were amazing and powerful, it was the relationships between students and residents that warmed my heart and brings a tear to my eye even today. Through the activity, people found those magical points of connection. They experienced the humanity of the “other.”

This experience and the PhotoVoice project reminded me that to you have to first show up in order to make a difference. We had some challenging moments throughout the process, which included some doubt about whether the project would work. I was reminded that we do not have to have all the answers and that we can lean on each other for support. The important thing is that we must keep showing up–even on the tough days. For me, this project was what community is all about. We added, albeit small, to the positive side of life. As a group, we made a contribution.