"The basic concept is a questionnaire that refugees will answer at the point of entry into a country."

This week is Refugee Focus Week at Pakhuis de Zwijger, Amsterdam. Every day, we are publishing articles that highlight different migration focused initiatives that fall in line with the evening in-house programs that also focus on this theme.


Use Potential

Refugee initiatives seem to be popping up everywhere in Europe, there are so many initiatives that the overview sometimes seems lost. This is exactly what the organisation UP (Use Potential) is fighting for: it aims to map the potential of refugees so that this information can effectively be used. We interviewed Madeline, who recently partnered up with initiator Julia Bachler.

Use Potential (UP) is an organisation set up by Julia Bachler that tries to make use of the potential of refugees, hence the name. Julia Bachler worked from Vienna first, where she won two awards: the Social Impact Award Austria and the TUN prize Austria. Now she lives in Berlin and is working together with Amsterdam-based Madeline Donald.

What is the main goal of Use Potential?

The basic concept is a questionnaire that refugees will answer at the point of entry into a country. This questionnaire will then feed into a database where the data can be used appropriately in the legal context. This data can be used by NGOs or by the camp itself to organise work groups and support groups. This is, at least in our minds, a very scalable project.

The initiator, Julia comes from Vienna and has worked a lot with people there, but now she is now living in Berlin and I’m here in Amsterdam. We see this triangle of cities as a good foundation to start with, because these are cities where people are eager to come to and cities that people are interested in being in. Eventually we want to spread the concept – every person in this world should have access to participation.

Source: usepotential.comSo basically you would act as a third party?

Yes. Really we see ourselves as an incubator and change-maker. We mainly do advocacy and consulting. Our main drive is to facilitate access to participation for those forced to live in exile. And the wonderful side-effect will be better use of resources within a camp or community, as locals can help to sustain their community which on the other hand allows for money and limited resources to be used more efficiently.

What gave you the incentive to start the initiative?

Refugees are treated as a number: they are given 2100 calories a day and one fifth of a tent.

The idea came from a book called “The Story of General Dann, Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog” by Doris Lessing. It is only a small sidetrack of the book, but a section that stuck with Julia, the initiator of UP, for years. In the book, the manager of a refugee camp decides that at arrival each person has to be asked “What is the most important thing you know?”. Julia read the book when she was 18 and was impressed by it’s reality, but didn’t connect the dots right away. 8 years later, when she was writing her thesis in Epidemiology on disaster management, she remembered the book and started to question how the topic is dealt with in “real life”. She was baffled when she found out no information on previous experiences, education – or any other aspect of the essence of the individual was being asked. Most forcibly displaced people are not allowed to work of officially participate in the host society, in fact. So Julia did lots of research and went to Lebanon and Jordan to talk to the potential users of her idea to find out whether her project was wanted. Julia visited the Zaatari camp in Jordan, an enormous refugee camp, which sheltered up to 130.000 refugees. Partly because of the logistics of such big numbers of people arriving every day, people that come in are asked only for the most basic information and are treated in a standardised, but completely anonymous way. Refugees are treated as a number: they are given 2100 calories a day and one fifth of a tent. The answers of the people living in-and outside camps that Julia interviewed were overwhelming.

We understood there is a big need for change. Before last summer, the topic was of little concern within Europe, but after all that happened last year, and the situation in our cities, we realised the impact this project can have right here. In Austria, for example, there is no data on educational levels whatsoever of asylum seekers – we don’t even know the average time an asylum case takes!

Source: usepotential.com

What would these questionnaires look like?

“We hope to identify needs and wants.”

We hope to identify needs and wants. It is important to understand where people are coming from and in which situation they are in. We ask questions like: What kind of work have you done? What can you offer to the community? Are you willing to volunteer and not be paid? What do you hope to do in the future? And of course, we ask some more general questions about age, previous education and previous training in the work place.

Did you already put this initiative into practice?

“The art of questionnaire making is a delicate one, and it is a delicate situation.”

No, not yet. We are at the point that we have five different questionnaires. Now we need people to answer them, because we need to see whether or not we are getting the kind of answers that seem useful. And whether or not people are comfortable answering the questions asked. Which wording works best? Which question order works best? The art of questionnaire making is a delicate one, and it is a delicate situation. Right now we need help from asylum seekers to answer our questions.

Where do you want to introduce these questionnaires?

We hope to be able to not necessarily focus on a particular area. Once we have found the wording that we believe works best to get the richest picture of a person’s passions and skills, we will provide the questionnaire as a free open-source on our website. Alongside, we will continue to lobby and consult for regional and national governments and obviously UNHCR to include the three key questions into their standardised registration forms.

Source: usepotential.com

What challenges do you encounter with Use Potential?

Making the questionnaire is the hardest part. The questions can be touching upon sensitive topics and it has to be culturally appropriate. Creating a questionnaire that can be widespread is very difficult. We are thinking about how trust can be formed without being able to properly mediate it. Imagine that you arrive after a lengthy and tiring journey, you’re exhausted, you have been waiting for hours and then a maybe overworked clerk is asking you a bunch of questions. We need to be able to control the situation. Some questions can be interpreted as invasive and completely inappropriate. This is where translating becomes really challenging. You are not just translating words, you are translating cultural ideals and communication, which is quit a bit broader than just words.

“The point of encounter is very drastically different depending on the situation.”

Next to that, it is very difficult to identify long term needs. This is a touchy subject because, depending on what state you encounter a person, their needs and wants are drastically different. If you have been travelling a thousand miles on a broken leg, your need right now is to deal with your leg. Only after a person’s biological necessities are taken care of, they would start looking for long-term solutions.

A third challenge is changing standards. How can we promote change in a system that is highly bureaucratic and difficult to understand even for those who have been working with it for a long time? How do you really reach people who are so overwhelmed with their day to day tasks, they don’t have time to think about visions and the bigger picture?

Use Potential strives to set up a 2016 pilot-project, where they can test the effect of their questionnaires in real life. Eventually UP hopes to implement it on a world-wide scale. To keep updated on the progress of Use Potential, you can take a look at their website.


Involved city makers
Julia Bachler
Founder Use Potential
Madeline Donald
Partner Use Potential
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