One of the main topics of the Summit are relationships between refugees and their mentors. Bernd Schüler from the Berlin Mentoring Network has written an interesting text about the problems that may occur in these relationships

Attention – (too) many tasks! Risks, potentials and ambivalences in the roles of mentors

Whoever helps other people with one problem can encounter many other problems to which the person concerned is exposed. This is true for relationships where mentors accompany a person, as well as in other supportive relationships in which professionals are involved. And it is a great challenge, especially when dealing with refugees – with people in diverse and existential emergencies.

Unlike professionals, who are trained and committed to narrowing their responsibility, and who are more likely to have a framework that protects them, volunteers are more exposed to the risk of expanding their role. Why? Because they have a more personal relationship with the other person. They get into closer contact and are more strongly caught up in the everyday lives of their mentees. Similar to other contacts with friends and acquaintances, it seems to be natural to take on also other tasks. Furthermore, refugees often don’t know exactly what the role of a volunteer is and what not, and express many wishes the volunteer feels he or she has to attend to, no matter what.

Therefore it is necessary to define your role, limit yourself often only to one task, be aware of your limits and listen to your gut feelings, both for yourself and for the other person. However, volunteers in particular often have to work hard to achieve all this – time and again.

Theory and empirical research, however, describe role ambiguities as a special potential of mentorships. For example: A teenager describes his mentor as follows: “By now he is everything to me: a teacher, a friend, a big brother, a father, a mother, all sorts of things.” Astonishing in this presentation: sometimes the young person experiences his or her counterpart as an equal, sometimes as a hierarchically superior person, more like a parental authority.

So the mentor appears in an intermediate position. Mentoring is similar to a “professional friendship” (Philip/Spratt). Or: The volunteers “fill a niche that lies somewhere between professional and kin” (Rhodes). It is clear that even mentoring with refugees can have a hybrid form. Mayseless and Gouldners even go one step further. They consider the mentoring role for children and young people as a kind of intersection between parents, friends, therapists and teachers.

For example, mentors listen actively to their counterparts, just as therapists do. Or they try to provide a secure basis, as parents should do. Only, and that’s the bottom line: In all this, they never replace these roles in any way. But mentors are able to juggle with individual elements from different roles.

This also seems to fit many situations and tasks in which mentors accompany adult refugees. They behave in a more friend-like way, on an equal footing. But the moment they have to explain the ticket machine at the metro station, they act like a city guide, or behave almost as lawyers, when they accompany their mentee to the state authorities.

In the process of their engagement, mentors cannot avoid playing different roles at different times. The fact that roles can expand and merge once in a while is often practical – but it should always be limited.  Preparation and training of volunteering mentors has to make them sensible to these dynamics, while still focusing on the task that is always in the centre. Mentors have constantly to ask themselves which roles and activities are more appropriate at a given situation and which are not. Seeing the diversity of possible roles can also help to understand the position of refugees in mentoring-relations. They act for example as pupils, but also as teachers, for instance, when they talk about their home countries.

Many mentors feel torn back and forth – between the wish to intervene in a problem and at the same time to listen to their inner voice and remain outside. The “concept of ambivalence” suggests to take this and other ambivalent feelings seriously. It was originally developed by the Swiss sociologist Kurt Lüscher in the analysis of family intergenerational relationships. In their interviews, he and his team found “dualities whose poles are at the same time mutually exclusive and nevertheless related to each other”: Unity and diversity; closeness and distance; autonomy and dependence.

The concept suggests that a sensitive confrontation with the ambivalent can also be very valuable in practical social work – for example in the support of mentors. Two aspects in particular can be important: Contrasts and tensions, for instance between conflicting values, are embedded in many relationships. One can feel connected to a refugee in solidarity and at the same keep one’s distance. To be aware of the conflict can be a relief. The challenge remains to both endure and deal with the ambivalence – pragmatically, constructively and creatively.

But if ambivalences are denied or suppressed, this can have a negative effect on the individual as well as on the relationship. This reminds us that the “dissociating yourself” is a complex learning process, which is always necessary and needs to be taken care of.

The full German text can be downloaded here: