Post 3: Start Small

 

When I first began my work at integrationswerkstatt I was concerned that the work I will be doing in this small organization was not going to have a major impact. Before moving to Germany for my internship I had imagined a thrilling work abroad experience. Instead, I found myself in a small remote retirement town in the suburbs. My impression was that any work I do will only have immediate impact on the local community and that real integration needs to be grander and more inclusive.

I could not have been more wrong. Every refugee I have met so far, no matter how old, expressed their need for security and stability. They all expressed a longing to a feeling of belonging to a community. I realized the smallest initiatives that aim at bringing people together and creating common ground are very important.

Many refugees expressed that language barriers have deterred them from being fully involved socially and professionally. In Germany, in order to start working refugees have to go through a series of german courses on different levels which then open up the doors for them to apply for work. They need to become fluent in a short manner of time to be eligible for work. And so even, what seemed to me pointless, cafe gathering every once and awhile allow refugees a rare opportunity to practice their language skills and understand the nuances of society.

However, there are also many frustrations when it comes to planning and organizing small scale community focused work. One of the refugees who I met with was a successful lawyer in Syria but cannot practice law anymore or pursue a degree because of the language barrier. He explained to me that he has to now think of other work alternatives and finds that a small business is the only viable solution at economic independence. He says he would be content if he could open a small restaurant that serves middle eastern food which would allow him to finally be able to sign off of government aid. (Indeed he makes great falafel). Unfortunately integrationswerkstatt does not have the proper funding to support refugee business. Some of the work can be frustrating due to lack of funds but it also allows for creativity and resourcefulness because of that same reason. I found that a lot of the work that we do was based on what we thought the refugees needed rather than what they actually need. I decided to conduct a series of interviews to allow for refugees to share their stories and make clear what their true needs are. This has allowed me to put my knowledge in Arabic to use and I felt that refugees felt comfortable speaking in Arabic.

I have come to realize that the smallest gestures can lead to real change if we have the enough patience to witness it. It takes time for a society to become fully integrated and it takes time for people to change misconceptions and free themselves from stereotypes. But it is possible!

– Siwar Mansour

Post 2: Social justice and refugeehood

In my Sophomore year at Brandeis I took a class with professor Clementine Faure-Bellaiche on religion and secularism in French and francophone culture. In that class, among other classes, we discussed the living conditions of minorities and attempted to understand some of the elements that widen the gap between different groups of people.

In one of the movies we watched it was shocking to see Paris, typically thought of as a glamorous romantic city, as a city that hosts some of the worst slums and refugee projects I have ever seen. Seeing these slums of paris and studying some of the history of that region opened my eyes to the importance of integration. Ever since I have been conscious about this issue and started to notice it even more in context of my personal experience being a Palestinian in Israel.

It was evident in all the examples I witnessed inside and outside of the classroom that integration is essential to have a productive and tolerant society. In France the different waves of migration over the decades and the inability of the government to embrace the newcomers and their new culture created a society which is divided and to a certain extend broken. In Israel the situation of African migrants is tragic to say the least. It should not be the norm that migrants and refugees will always be second class citizens. Nor should it be acceptable that refugees and migrants live in projects or separate neighborhoods.And it should not be the case that simply because one person is born into a stable privileged country that they should be entitled to benefits others don’t.

It should not be a given that there is political and social stability in some parts of the world given the unfortunate fact that over 68 million of the world’s population are displaced people due to conflict, human rights violations and violence. And so it becomes the responsibility of each world citizen to help another in times of need. When governments fail to create systems that integrate and accept others as they are, people should make an effort to learn about their new neighbors and fellow citizens.

I have witnessed some of this kindness in Germany during my internship. There are systems set up for refugees to take language classes and integration courses meant to ease the transition for them. But a refugee cannot adapt to a completely new life in a matter of few months. Some of the community members here in Unkel have shown me that real connections between the two communities can start over coffee as long as people are willing to come together with the intention of learning about each other. I have seen people take much time out of their day to help with many tasks like translating documents or making doctor appointments for the newcomers. I have also been lucky to experience the generosity of refugees and their families and their true commitment to making Unkel their new home.

When refugees feel they are part of the community, can speak the language and can earn a decent living social and economic gaps begin to disappear and society becomes a more equal and tolerant one.

Integrationswerkstatt board meeting

Post 1: My first two weeks at Integrationswerkstatt in Germany

Integrationswerkstatt is an integration initiative in the small town of Unkel located on the northwestern side of Germany.  In 2015 Germany decided to open its borders to refugees and asylum seekers. Thousands of refugees from all across Africa, Afghanistan and Syria since then have made Germany their new home.

When I first arrived I was invited to an Iftar (breaking the fast meal) with a Syrian family that has been living in this town for almost two and a half years. The young couple, a former lawyer and an artist, talked in length about what their life in Syria was like. When I asked about how their life, especially during the holy month of Ramadan, has changed since they settled in this small German town, the husband responded:

“We lack a sense of community here. In Syria we could stay up all night eating and chatting on the balcony with neighbors and passersby, here everyone goes to bed at 8pm. And so we had to train our kids to also sleep at eight so they don’t disturb the neighbors. We feel safe here but when Germany opened its borders, it was not solely motivated by humanitarian sentiment. In fact, Germany is not a young country and needs young families and young children just as much as they need it. And so when we arrived, they made sure to disperse the families all around the suburbs of big cities in these beautiful but sleepy small villages and towns. The idea is to revive these areas socially and economically.”

That is when I realized how important a role organizations like Integrationswerkstatt play. It is not enough that refugees have access to language and integration courses provided by the government, because most don’t get the opportunity to practice these skills outside of the classroom. Integrationswerkstatt provides a platform for refugees to navigate German society and get to know their neighbors. The non-profit organization plans social get-togethers, one-on-one meetings and other community events to break boundaries between refugees and  locals. This is in hope that the future German society can grow as one united with no divides socially or economically. Integrationswerkstatt wants to insure that refugees are not at a disadvantage and ease the transition for both the locals and the newcomers.

My first couple of weeks I dedicated to getting to know some of the refugee families and some of the locals on a personal level. I have been learning and hearing from them about the day-to-day struggles and frustrations and it has been an honor. This has helped me navigate the dynamics in this small town and explore the many ways I can assist while interning for Integrationswerkstatt.

The first event I was part of here was the kinderfest in Unkel, which is a festival for children organized by Integrationswerkstatt and several other partners. It was great to witness children from all backgrounds play together, make art and enjoy the nature where the festival took place. It was also a great opportunity for the families to come together and interact in a relaxed non-politicized or tense environment.

Seeing the success of this event, I am even more determined to continue this work. Although the work can be a bit slow and sometimes frustrating, due to bureaucracy and the many persuasions we must make to put on an event, it is rewarding and important. There are so many ways to break stereotypes and create lifelong friendships. We have started with chatting  and sharing stories over coffee twice a month, repairing bicycles together, making music, and bringing kids together for fun activities.

– Siwar Mansour