An Interview with German Ambassador Dr. Hinrich Thölken

Germany has supported the UN World Food Programme’s (WFP) Syria crisis response with an unprecedented record contribution of €570 million in 2016. The Permanent Representative to the International Organizations in Rome, Ambassador Dr. Hinrich Thölken, visited German-funded programmes in Jordan and Lebanon. He describes his impressions in an interview with WFP.

1.    Mr. Ambassador, what were your main experiences in Lebanon and Jordan?

The main goal of my mission was to gain first-hand impressions of WFP’s work in the context of the Syria crisis. In both countries, I had the chance to talk to many refugee families. In Zaatari camp in the north of Jordan, where around 80,000 people live, I visited social facilities and spoke with representatives of Jordan and the other aid organizations working on the ground. In Lebanon and in Jordan, I was convinced by the smooth-functioning of WFP’s e-card programme. 

I experienced heat, dust and the constraints of camp life, and could understand what it means for refugees to have to live under such conditions for years. There were many desperate people, but many are still full of hope and doing everything possible to change their fate. The international community is present, helping and relieving the distress as best it can. But we also have to recognize: aid cannot replace a lost home.  

2.    Germany is currently WFP’s most important donor to WFP’s Syria crisis response. What does its aid on the ground mean for you?

Since German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged €570 million at the Supporting Syria conference in London, Germany is the largest donor to aid programmes in the context of the Syria crisis. Without the Federal Government of Germany’s massive support, the assistance to millions of refugees might have collapsed.  

People in Lebanon and Jordan are fully aware of this. They showed me, as a representative of the Federal Government, their gratitude repeatedly. In particular, one family in Amman was especially moved by Germany’s support that they gave me a coffee pot that they had taken with them when they fled from Aleppo. I could not refuse this gift, otherwise I would have offended the family. That is why I now have this coffee pot in my office, reminding me of the fate of those who flee.

Ambassador Dr. Hinrich Thölken visits families at Zaatari camp. Photo: WFP/Mohammad Batah 

3.    What particularly surprised or impressed you?

I am very impressed by the courage of many people and their will to improve the situation. Many refugees in Zaatari started work in the handicraft business and have set up shops to ensure some further income. You really can find some remarkable entrepreneurial activities there. Some time ago, the Netherlands donated bicycles for refugees and just one day after they arrived in the camp, a bicycle repair shop opened. Today, there are many of them. 

Refugees living in Lebanese and Jordanian host communities take every possible work opportunity to improve their situation. Nobody wants to be dependent on aid. I saw that all refugees have the same dream: to return home to Syria.

4.    What are the challenges that need to be considered mostly in future?

Humanitarian aid programmes over five years do reach their limits. Refugees are still in need of food and medical care, but after such a long period, they urgently need hope and prospects to run their own lives. We can contribute through the provision of education for children, training and capacity building, but there is a lack of jobs and employment opportunities. What we need is a durable political solution. We and the international community have to keep up our efforts. There must be peace in Syria so that refugees can return home. 

5.    You have been in office for nearly a year. How would you describe the partnership with WFP beyond the Syria crisis?

WFP is a key partner for us. Needs for humanitarian aid are increasing worldwide due to the growing number of political crises and natural disasters. We are constantly facing unexpected situations, which require new, creative measures. WFP meets these enormous challenges and is successful in continuously improving its work. 

I am impressed by Ertharin Cousin’s leadership and efficient management of the world’s largest humanitarian agency. I admire the commitment of the thousands of highly motivated employees – also those on difficult field postings who accept significant personal risks. I trust in WFP, because its focus is on serving the people, and its culture is to continually improve its assistance.