Mediterranean journeys in hope

'Elmar the Elephant' in Arabic, and other experiences of integration in Berlin

Residents of a neighbourhood in Berlin engage with refugees through community arts and education initiatives, revealing personal stories of welcome and integration.

Maya Odeh
3 August 2016
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A art installation by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei with life vests used by refugees and collected at the Greek island of Lesbos is set up at the Konzerthaus Berlin. Markus Schreiber/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

While walking last month along Sonnenallee, one of the main thoroughfares of Berlin’s Neukölln district, I had an oddly unsettling feeling of being at home rather than in Germany. Packed with busy shops and markets with signs in Arabic, the restaurants served hummus, falafel, tabouleh and stuffed grape leaves. For just a moment I felt as if I was in Nazareth, an alive city booming with markets, restaurants and shops. Although it was Ramadan, the street was crowded. You could hear the Syrian dialect everywhere: some words are different from my Palestinian dialect, some are pronounced in a longer, more mellow way. And the stuffed grape leaves are with rice, mint and spices, while the Palestinian version has meat stuffing as well.

We sat down in one of the restaurants and ate hummus. From other tables around you could hear German, English, and even Hebrew. This time I felt like I was in Haifa, my hometown, where if you go downtown to Wadi el Nesnas (the Eagle’s Valley), you see falafel stores and Arabic restaurants packed with Israelis and tourist customers. With all this, I had to remind myself that I was in Berlin rather than in an Arab town. I was there volunteering with a community refugee project, and I wondered how newly arrived refugees feel when they first encounter Sonnenallee – how shocking, how confusing, yet at the same time how comforting it must be.

Expressing home from afar

Hadeyyah, a 12-year-old girl from the Gaza Strip, has been living in Germany for nine months with her family. She did not come to Europe by boat, but crossed through the Rafah checkpoint into Egypt, took a flight to Italy, stayed in a shelter in Belgium, and somehow ended up in Berlin. She seemed culture shocked when we met. She spoke of home quite often: “Gaza is the most beautiful place on earth”, she repeated over and over again. She loves traditional Arab food, and she was practicing the Ramadan fasting. It’s even harder than usual this far north. The sun set around 9:30 p.m. in Berlin during Ramadan this year, nearly two hours later than in Gaza, making the days longer and the fasting more tiring.

Hadeyyah attends a Catholic school along with her two older sisters. The three of them are in a ‘welcome class’, which is a fifth grade level. They spend most of their time learning German; after four months she can understand almost everything and speak a bit. She dreams of becoming a doctor yet she does not want to stay in Germany. “Boys and girls are different here, you don’t want to see what they do here!” she said and seemed quite embarrassed. “They sit with each other, they kiss and they are couples…”, obviously something that she would not see in the schools or streets of Gaza.

Hadeyyah wants to wear the hijab in the future, and she is now practicing by wearing the veil every other day. One day she decided to wear it to school along with her sister and another friend. The teacher told them, “you have to take off the hijab, if you wear it again you are not welcomed in this school anymore”. Hadeyyah mimicked her with sarcasm, and then repeated her sister, who said, “even if they deport me from Germany I will not stop wearing the hijab”.

The arts as integration

During my volunteer work in Berlin, I took part in a play called ‘Elmar the Elephant’ translated into Arabic for refugee children. One of the performances was at a school of 500 students, which seemed more international than German. Most of the children were foreigners from Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey, Hungary, Albania and Romania. The children mainly spoke German with each other, while some of the Arab children were more comfortable speaking Arabic amongst themselves.

The teachers and the children alike were surprised by watching a play in Arabic.

The teachers and the children alike were surprised by watching a play in Arabic. A few of the teachers commented, “this is so new to us, we never experienced or heard a play in Arabic”. One teacher said about one of the girls who participated in the play, “I have never seen her talk this much, she rarely talks in class … I think she is overwhelmed by German and it is still hard for her to speak the language”.

Working with a small community of artists in Berlin who devote their time to volunteering and helping refugees was gratifying and heartwarming. Barbel Rothhaar, an inspiring woman and artist, helped us tremendously before and during the play, and translated the action for the German-speaking children. She dedicates her time to working on a project called “Salon Welcome”, conducting art workshops with refugee children and adults. Moreover, she assists other artists in organising poetry activities, photography projects, and cinema nights among other things in the refugee shelters.

Across town, the owners of a bar in Berlin’s Moabit neighbourhood decided to open as a cultural bar three times a week, bringing together volunteer teachers and students to learn German. The programme proved so popular – especially with Syrians and Palestinians – that the owners had to rent a room next door to accommodate the large number of students. Barbel volunteers there, teaching German to groups of students as well as to an Albanian girl, whom Barbel considers as a daughter. Beyond teaching her German, she has helped her family with everything from dealing with bureaucratic procedures to finding private housing.

Reclaiming unused spaces for refugees

In Germany, the state has the legal right to use both private and state-owned buildings that have been empty for over a year to accommodate incoming refugees. One of the shelters we visited was a hotel of 16 floors, with a view of the entire city located in one of Berlin’s nicest neighbourhoods. The hotel has been sold and renovations will not start until two years from now, which is why the state transformed it into a refugee shelter for the time being.

'Refugee academy' teaches subjects such as math, physics and computers in Arabic, the students’ mother tongue.

At the entrance, you can see multiple signs in both German and Arabic, and Arabic-speaking security staff will not let you pass without ID or authorisation. Normally, each family has a room to share and an on-site kitchen provides meals. Not all shelters are so well-equipped, and some are little more than buildings with empty spaces, bunkbeds, and walls made of blankets and sheets. In every shelter, you find two social workers. The number of refugees in the shelters is not stable. They usually come and go, either finding private housing, continuing their journeys, or even returning to their home countries.

At the hotel, a programme called ‘refugee academy’ runs a collaboration between German and young adult refugees/migrants, who are the teachers. The programme assists children and adults in integrating faster into the German education system. They teach subjects such as math, physics and computers in Arabic, the students’ mother tongue, thus making the learning process faster and enabling children to reach the appropriate schooling level for their age.

Community of welcome

Whether this community of welcome is a minority or a majority in Germany I am afraid I do not know. I do know that they do tremendously helpful work with refugees through art and education. The question that remains is how helpful all this is in the broader project of integrating refugees into German society. It seems that adults have a harder time adjusting. Less flexible than children, they come with fully-formed opinions and ideas about life, as well as with unshakeable memories of the war they just left behind. For them it is a harder process to learn the language, culture, and traditions of their new home, while at the same time preserving their own cultural habits and traditions, especially in a city as cosmopolitan as Berlin.

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