Everything you ever wanted to know about: GSBTB Open Art Shelter & Hania Hakiel

Hailing from Poland, Hania Hakiel uses her experience in applied and transcultural psychology to run the GSBTB Open Art Shelter, which she founded in 2015. Since its inception, the project has attracted volunteers from all over the world, international media attention, as well as many questions about Hania’s professional experience and how the project works. Here Hania answers her “Frequently Asked Questions”. 

Hania Hakiel (right) with GSBTB Open Art Shelter intern Anna Bednarczyk.

What is your professional background?

The main line of my work is circling around psychology. I studied applied psychology in Krakow. I also came here on a scholarship to study psychology at Freie Universität Berlin. In the meantime I did many small courses, including Gestalt or art therapy. And after graduation I studied Positive Transcultural Psychotherapy, developed by Nossrat Peseschkian – interestingly, he came to Germany as an Iranian refugee – who, in his method, aimed to combine the healing wisdoms from the East, especially Islam, Zoroastrian and Persian traditions, with Western Psychotherapy traditions, especially psychoanalysis. It is a very integrative and holistic approach, ‘integrative’ meaning combining different schools and adapting them according to the client’s needs, rather than adapting the person to the methods.

I see being a therapist like being a magician: you have different tools in your magic hat and you take out what fits the person and the moment.

An individual, contextual approach is at my centre. And that was the main reason I quit my PhD studies. I was in constant inner conflict, forced to isolate a phenomenon and analyse it outside its context, ignoring the individual’s complexity. I see things holistically and in systemic way: context is always important. When working with migrants, of course, culture is part of this context.

Often cultural psychology either gets simplified or abused, in order to justify the radicalization of perceptions on cultural difference. At one of the spectrum there’s, “when you go to China, don’t give people yellow flowers”, and on the other end there’s, “Arabs Muslims and European Christians are raised in too different environments to ever be able to understand each other”.

Cooking at GSBTB Open Art Shelter.

I really believe that in a globalised world, cultures, also our inner cultures, are in constant dialogue. Cultural identity is not a decision or something imprinted on us just once – I see it as a daily process of renegotiating boundaries, values, beliefs and all those unspeakable models of inner and outer space that shape our cognitions and emotions.

Culture is just one of many ingredients of the holistic view on human beings. I am currently studying dynamic mindfulness and yoga to become a teacher of these methods and use breath, meditation and movement with more awareness in my life and in my work. It is an exciting journey and my own transformation and growth is probably the best thing I can share with people.

I am a big fan of Bessel van der Kolk and Peter Levin, both authors that bring attention to the body, especially when working with traumatised people. Symptomatically neither of these authors and therapists have ever been included in my school curriculum. But I can’t complain – I love discovering the world on my own. Simultaneously, my slow, step-by-step discoveries inspire me to share the knowledge with volunteers recruited to the GSBTB Open Art Shelter program.

Each of the volunteers shall feel equipped to maneuver safely in this complicated, yet beautiful, field of relationships.

GSBTB Open Art Shelter enjoying some time outdoors.

And what did your career look like between finishing your studies and joining Give Something Back to Berlin?

When people ask me this question I really feel like it started when I was 13, not that I was so well-equipped back then! I started running different art and theatre groups for children from vulnerable families in my badass neighborhood in Poland. My secondary school got shut down one year after my graduation because the teachers couldn’t handle the drug gangs and violence. A friend with whom I was running the school’s government – he was the president and I was the vice-president – he has, for a long time, been in jail. I have really warm feelings towards this place, though. It taught me relativism and empathy, and how to communicate with people who are, at least theoretically, different from us.

As I grew up in a Catholic country, at first I was creating these groups within the structure of the church. But my attitude to the church changed a lot as I grew up – one important reason was the varied forms of abuse and oppression I experienced there myself – and so then, later, I started working more independently with NGOs, different non-governmental institutions. For me, studying psychology felt like a natural continuation of what I’d already been doing.

During university, I learned the most not from my studies but from doing different internships and volunteer work.

What brought you to Berlin?

My story is actually quite boring. I came here as an Erasmus student, and I didnt want to come to Berlin, I wanted to go to a more exciting city like Barcelona, but my university didn’t have so many cooperation partners and I messed up my application… so this was the only choice I had.

So I came to Berlin and here I met my now-husband. I somehow had the feeling that I should give the relationship some more time, so I stayed for another half a year. And then I thought, “maybe I should give it another half a year”, so I got a job at Freie Universität Berlin and then I just stayed.

Often, when people are interested in Open Art Shelter, they will Google me. And then they will find my provocative project, “Have a drink with a shrink”. It was a joke at the beginning, a response to what was happening in Berlin.

I had the feeling that a lot of people have a lot of issues, but they are “too cool” to go to therapy.

Or maybe it’s too difficult to navigate the Krankenkasse system – your panic attack is probably over before you can get an appointment. I realised that the majority of important conversations I was having with people were taking place in a bar, or at a picnic, or in a club, like a two-hour therapy session in Berghain. So I made it into a donation-based project and it worked very well. But I didn’t call it therapy, to make it clear. It was short-term counselling at most. However I deeply believe that we need to have a more open discussion about the accessibility of therapy, what therapy is and what a safe, supporting community looks like. Working with more privileged migrants beforehand, I quickly learned about the loneliness epidemic and the fear of silence and intimacy, that people feel safer in crowded bars than in therapy rooms.

And you also have your private practice?

Yes, I do. I had to suspend it for a while because Open Art Shelter took up all my life. But now I am back in the field of individual therapy and, also, I am lucky to amalgamate these two different fields. I currently work individually, also with people with refugee backgrounds, who I meet through Open Art Shelter activities.

How would you describe your role at GSBTB?

I would call it an “octopus role”. I need eight hands to make things happen safely and responsibly.

First and foremost I am responsible for Open Art Shelter. I am responsible for the people and for the activities, for the volunteers’ training program, as well as the theory and philosophy behind it. As mentioned before, I also offer individual counselling to members of our community.

So making things happen is part of it. But to make it happen is actually, especially in such an intercultural, and also very complex environment, to build relationships. Without those, nothing happens. And to build relationships you need to raise awareness, and also know yourself, that supporting people to build communities is work on its own. People come, both to volunteer and participate, because they benefit from the relationships and the connections. The program’s content is important, but even the very best program can’t attract participants from very vulnerable, isolated communities, if we don’t build trust in the first place.

Over time those connections are becoming stronger and people are opening up much more, so there are a lot of things to address. For example, there might be a volunteer for whom it is very difficult to handle the negative emotions of the children, and we need to talk about why he is afraid of anger, or why it is so difficult for some people to set boundaries.

Inside GSBTB Open Art Shelter’s space, located at Refugio Berlin.

It can be difficult to describe. When someone applies for Open Art Shelter, I can’t say, “we will be working with women who are experiencing violence at home”, because we don’t define target groups by their problems. We stay open to a variety of challenges that simply arise as their trust becomes firmer. When we create a safe space we are aware that we will produce beautiful paintings or songs, but we will also invite sadness, anger and trauma.

“Open Art Shelter means that we, as a community and as individuals, are a shelter where people in distress can find soothing refuge.”

I also have the sentence from The Little Prince in mind: “You become responsible for what you have tamed”. That is why we only invite long-term volunteers ready to learn, commit, invest, exchange and receive the benefits of connection and attachment.

You may say that Open Art Shelter offers psychosocial support and safe spaces for women and children with refugee backgrounds. But the volunteers are also a target group, or beneficiaries. They come looking to add meaning to their lives, for purpose and friendships.

What does an average work week look like for you?

Every week is different. There are some things that happen every week, like individual therapy sessions with clients and with consulting volunteers. Every week I also visit or organise a workshop in different micro-groups within Open Art Shelter, either with families from Tempelhof Camp, shelters in Lichtenberg or Haarlemer Strasse. But, as we are developing according to the needs as we find them, the work tends to be very organic and dynamic.

So it changes from week to week. Recently we have been supporting a group of women learning how to bike. This is one way they are manifesting their independence, because, where they come from, women are forbidden to bike and commute through the city on their own. The same thing for doing yoga and dancing in the park, something we now do every Friday. It is a beautiful way to claim space, re-establish connection with your senses, find pleasure in your body, in movement, relax, let go, just breathe and feel free.

A Somali culture event organised by some GSBTB Open Art Shelter participants from Somalia, who wanted to share their culture with other Berliners.

But we are not suddenly becoming a sports club. We work individually, with a tailor-made program. If you develop an activity named, for instance, “drumming group for stress release”’, that’s cool and many people will come, but it’s unlikely you would attract the most vulnerable people, who tend to stay isolated as long as there is no trust and personal invitation, no umbrella of family-like safety.

One thing that is constant about my workweek is that the days are long. If you work is based on relationships and needs and on seeing things holistically, it also it doesn’t stop at 4pm. As in other relationships, you find the time. As a consequence of this, and of my pathological perfectionism, my week is usually very, very long. Yes, I also have my own areas to work on, like accepting that I can’t respond to all the needs I am recognising and all the emotions I am co-experiencing.

So there’s the “Art” in Open Art Shelter, but really it’s just about letting people express themselves.

That’s right. When it comes to the “Art” part, it’s much more about an expression of what is inside you, and either this expressed through running around in the forest, or jumping in the water, or painting, or making sculptures in the sand.

“There’s also this term, the ‘art of connection’, because it takes a lot of creativity to connect with people when you don’t speak the same language.”

And there’s a lot of beauty that is also part of art, related to art, but does not necessarily mean you are creating a sculpture for a gallery. There’s the beauty of being together, of finding new words, of releasing tension from the body and finding new moves.

The word “Shelter” is also important. I think we create a really safe space where women and kids can come and talk about all the bad stuff that is happening in their life and find space to just be themselves. Metaphorically, people are at home, but physical space is also important. Since we settled in to our own little room in Refugio Berlin, we feel that the women and girls are recognising that this is the place they can also visit to find emotional refuge. I think that’s something everybody needs: a space where you are not judged, where you can draw, paint or just sit and do nothing, drink tea, dance, whatever it is. Maybe just be totally useless and negative that day – that’s fine too.

And some people who might have been considered “recipients” in a more traditional aid structure, have recently become volunteers, too?

I am extremely proud to see the boundary between participants and beneficiaries blurring. When we organise a dance event or cooking event, or when we make plans for the holiday program, it happens organically, democratically, and everybody is included.

Sometimes we are laughing about how some of the Syrian or Afghan families are adopting our volunteers: they have Sunday dinners together, the Syrian women are repairing their dresses, they go swimming together or shopping at Alexanderplatz, they even call grandma in Afghanistan for her birthday. So try to distinguish who is helping whom?

How do you see cultural differences play out between different kinds of migrants in the Open Art Shelter community?

Frankly, I wouldn’t overstate the cultural differences. As our work is very intimate, what kicks in with more power are individual differences in attachment styles, personalities, communication styles and personal life stories. Fine, it is all being developed in cultural environments, but still, members of our community are finding soulmates who grew up thousands of kilometres away from them. When we talk about our deepest sadnesses, it is usually about conflicts with close family members or suffering related to these close relationships.

There are also culture-specific features. One big issue is time. People from Western Europe, for example, perceive time differently than people in the south, or from the Middle East. So being on time becomes relevant. Something that sounds like a small issue is actually a huge issue, because how society works here is considerably organised with frames of time. Punctuality determines your success and your perception of respect. It’s something that gets a lot of people frustrated because they arrive and then they need to wait two hours, or other people come and they don’t understand why everything is so hectic. So it’s a learning process. In a transcultural pot, some people learn how to slow down, while people who come maybe from countries where everything is already very slow, they learn how to put more structure into the schedule. In this sense we apply that infamous term “integration” in a less traditional way.

We don’t expect the newcomers to adapt or assimilate. We exchange and create new culture at the crossroads.

It is so tricky to talk about cultural differences without going into painful stereotypes. Recently I have been challenging the shame that some of the Syrians experience around mental illness. But does it mean that here in Europe we are so free from stigma? Do all people in our culture understand and respect the suffering that accompanies depression, addiction or psychosis? Definitely not.

GSBTB Open Art Shelter at the cinema.

But when you read all these funny leaflets, “Life in Germany” or “How to behave in Europe”, you get an impression of a sort of highly moral, perfect society that we have built here. Have we? I see all the concepts in constant movement. In the relational process, as long as we allow the movement, movement of people and ideas, we grow, we develop, we don’t freeze. But I see how it can be scary for some people. This new is unknown.

What are your hopes for where Open Art Shelter goes next?

At this particular moment the professional therapy is offered by a very small team within Open Art Shelter. I want to grow and strengthen the therapeutic offer. I know that the people with whom we build relationships expect to get helped within our Open Art Shelter tribe. Being referred to a professional outside the community feels like stigmatising, even betraying, or giving up on someone. In order to support all the people in our community I hope to start a closer cooperation with more professional interpreters and more therapists of different specialisations, as well as different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

All photos: GSBTB.