Stephan Pflaum & Thomas Michel
„Mentors make a visible and tangible difference.“

When the people of Munich welcomed the refugees at the main train station in 2015, Thomas Michel and Stephan Pflaum were certain: among them must also be gay people who fled from reprisals in their home countries.

At the time, Thomas Michel was already a long-time guest at the SUB and was committed to equal rights for homosexuals. He knew the Scene and made a resolution: The newcomers, who think and feel like him, should not be left standing in the rain. He identified comrades-in-arms and together they founded the "Rainbow Refugees Munich", a voluntary project for gay refugees. "That people, who often had to fear for their lives in their homeland because of their homosexuality and have lost everything, need support to build a new life here with us, was a given for me", he says.

He was not alone with this thought. At that time, Stephan Pflaum followed the hate comments on the Internet "against all things strange and against all strangers" with dismay. The 44-year-old decided to oppose this not only on the internet but in real life. He already knew about mentoring, working professionally as a mentor at one of Munich's universities, networking students from all subjects with mentors from all sectors and professions. And so, he joined the project.

Three years have passed. Since then Michel has intensively cared for ten gay refugees, supported many of them and networked the project externally and made it publicly known. Eight of his mentees have received a positive asylum decision. Pflaum is also very proud of his quota: half of his 15 mentees are recognized, although they were initially rejected - he was then able to turn the tables around in the interests of his protégés.

The key, both say, is the close and sometimes persistent contact with the decision-makers, the official authorities. In the meantime, they have both become experts in understanding the perspective of the administrators. Michael adds with a wink: "One learns to understand official authorities’ co-workers and to communicate with them in a result-oriented way."

This becomes particularly important for their work when one of their protégés has a negative asylum decision in his hand - despite persecution in their home country. Then it's about calling for a second hearing. Stephan Pflaum has learned what is important: a detailed, coherent escape story and as much evidence as possible. But their work does not end with a positive asylum decision. In the meantime, the question is rather: How can the newcomers be integrated? Meanwhile they come to Michel and Pflaum with very practical questions. How do I write a job application? What do I have to pay attention to when signing a rental agreement? How do I file a tax return?

It is of course the successes that motivate the two of them: A refugee who was rejected the first time around - for example, because he didn't dare to say that he was gay - and who is then recognized after another fought for hearing. An affordable apartment that allows a fugitive to start a new life. A refugee who gets a training contract or finds a job. Michel is convinced that "employment is the key for a new life in Germany".

It is a process that partly transforms mentoring relationships into friendships. "Just as you are happy for a good friend, I am happy for my mentees about their success, be it a training, a permanent job or their first own apartment," says Pflaum. Michel also feels confirmed in his voluntary work: "There is a visible difference if refugees have support or not," he says.

What is the aim of the organization?
SP: To provide everything from the initial support when arriving, deal with the authorities and up to providing gay refugees an understanding our Scene here to enable them to become a confident part of it.
TM: ...and to inform the public about the difficult situation of gay refugees.

How do the refugees reach you and how do they know you exist?
TM: Social Media, social workers in the collection centers, other refugee organizations, flyers, posters, word of mouth.

How do the mentors help the refugees?
SP: The first step is to deal with the asylum procedure. This ranges from preparation for hearings to personal accompaniment there. Later, it is more about questions that locals also ask themselves: How do I write a resume, a letter of application, find an apartment, etc.?

How is the organization financed?
TM: SUB project funding, mentor allowances of the Federal Government and donations.

What is the relationship between the RR organization and the SUB?
TM: We are an honorary project of the SUB, which is now also supported by two city-financed social workers.
SP: Volunteers can deal much more intensively with individual persons and personalities. This is hardly possible on the full-time, professional level - and it does not make sense in view of keeping the necessary professional distance.

Which other projects do you cooperate with?
TM: We cooperate with almost all refugee projects in Munich: Lichterkette, Arrival Aid, Munich and Bavarian Refugee Councils, Matteo, Munich Volunteers - and of course many lawyers who support refugees.
SP: I myself work very closely with the Students4Refugees on my mentees with an academic background.

How do you determine whether a refugee is really gay or whether the organization may want to use it as an alibi to be recognized?
SP: You can tell over time by a number of things: Does he come to events regularly? Does he participate in the CSD with enthusiasm? How does he inter-act with other gays? Is he involved in projects? There is no fixed pattern of "recognition". It's about the overall impression you gain over time. Black sheep certainly exist, but sooner or later they are exposed.
TM: As a mentor you get to know your mentee very well and it is difficult to invent a credible story of persecution and certainly not the feelings you experience.

What problems do you face in your work?
SP: I am most frustrated by the culture of refusal, rejection and prevention, which is often cultivated by Bavarian authorities, in particular. I don't know how many of my mentees already had employment and training contracts or study access qualifications in their hands and could have started studying, training or working immediately – only to have the officials apply their discretionary decision to the disadvantage of the refugees. Again and again, new stumbling blocks are put in the way to discourage people. Together with the mentees, we must laboriously clear them out of the way, sometimes even in court. This takes time and wears down all those involved, perhaps that is the intent. And this in the face of trade and industry are desperately looking for trainees, employees and workers, and who would happily hire our mentees immediately.

How do you see it, Mr. Michel?
TM: I feel like Stephan. As so often in life: in difficult situations you can experience how sensitive and helpful people really are. I had the good fortune to meet people in all authorities who were looking for solutions and therefore also found them. That was a great experience! What perplexes me is the indifference and ability of many to look away. At first, the right-wing populists managed to make the subject of seeking refuge a permanent issue with negative connotations, although at the beginning there was a lot of understanding for refugees. Now the public seems to prefer not to deal with the topic at all. Unfortunately, I also observe this in the political parties that initially embraced the side of the refugees. I also experience this in our so-called "Community". It does not do justice to that name in relation to refugees for me. Therefore, it is up to a few to support gay and lesbian refugees and these few alone can no longer afford support everything that would be necessary to effectively help Rainbow refugees build their new life here with us.

Text & interview: Viktoria Spinrad
Illustration: Franziska Romana