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