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When refugees appear, we take them to the art museum

The German city of Karlsruhe uses art to bring new arrivals together with local citizens, creating a dialogue that is the foundation of integration.

Susanne Asche on using art to integrate refugees in Karlsruhe, Germany. Duration: 2:53.

Cameron Thibos: Thanks for joining us at openDemocracy. Could you tell us a bit about yourself please, and about Karlsruhe’s role in welcoming new refugees?

My name is Susanne Asche. I’m head of the cultural department of the city of Karlsruhe, which includes libraries, archives, galleries and festivals, and is also responsible for a culture of democracy and human rights. We are working for a culture diversity. I am also a member of the steering committee of the UNESCO Coalition of European Cities against Racism, and they work very well together – because in Karlsruhe we have a very lively culture of welcome.

Karlsruhe is a city of 300,000 inhabitants, at the centre of one million people. It is a very young city, and it is a place where newcomer refugees arrive first. From our city that they are sent to other countries or cities where they will settle. So we are a city of transit. Only young people without adult accompaniment actually stay with us. Nevertheless, Karlsruhe has many, many projects, networks, numerous institutions, and civil society organisations who are working together to create a welcoming culture, and a welcoming atmosphere in Karlsruhe.

In 2014-15 suddenly thousands of newcomers arrived in Karlsruhe and the government wasn’t prepared. The local government, our mayor, informed the regional government several times over that “they will come.” But there was no response. Then they suddenly arrived on our doorstep in their thousands.

Without those hundreds of volunteers, the government would have failed.

Tents were erected, exhibition halls were taken over and filled, so that they had a roof over their heads. And at once, civil society came together with the local politicians in Karlsruhe and created a round table discussion about how to help the refugees. They built the network ‘Help for Refugees’ and they organised, without any government support, tents and toys for children, and everything from cosmetics to medical treatment. Without those hundreds of people, the government would have failed.

From the very beginning, the cultural institutes and the artists were willing to open their hearts and their doors. For example, they went into these camps where these refugees, these newcomers were living packed very closely together, without anything to occupy themselves. They were able to organise trips to museums as well as dance and musical performances, and to organise theatre and other cultural projects that could bring refugees together with the inhabitants of Karlsruhe. So we created dialogue, and I think that’s a story of success.

We had the general conference of European Cities against Racism in Karlsruhe in October 2015. We suggested that we should choose the subject ‘welcoming culture, welcoming cities’, and this prompted a really long debate in our city coalition because, for example, the cities of Belgium said, ‘no, this isn’t the challenge we face. It’s a challenge for the state, not for the cities!’ But we convinced the others and this became the subject of the conference.

By the time the conference took place six months later, every city understood that they indeed faced this challenge – that it was up to them to find strategies that would create social inclusion. The cities are the places where people are living, where the conflicts are, where a situation can be created or changed. So we, the local governments, the civil society and the cultural institutions in the cities, we know what has to be done.

It took a long time to get any sort of connection to the state government, but I think it will be a long time before there is a real dialogue between government and the local level. But we are working on this every day.

Susanne Asche explains municipal governments' role as the first-responders to the refugee crisis. Duration: 2:39.

Cameron: Can you give an example of a cultural or theatre project that worked well?

Susanne: Oh yes. It’s a ten-year project that we have only been working on for five years now, for those learning German in the so-called ‘integration courses’. They are invited during the lessons to visit our modern art museum, and to share with us their point of view on the art of our time – it’s really interesting!

Learning German is much easier for those who visit the museum than for those who didn’t have that opportunity.

They get to know the museum and the art works. And they begin to talk to the Karlsruhe locals about what they think, and have a dialogue with them in which both parties say what they see in these art works. Then they have a chance to invite other members of their own community to come into the museum, and they act as the museum guides to take them around. This is funded by the city’s culture department and it works well.

We have found that learning the difficult German language is much easier for those who came into the museum than for those who didn’t have that opportunity. So thanks to that success they are now starting a similar programme, only with opportunities to visit the theatre!

We also have many festivals with political debates, and there we bring young people from Karlsruhe together with the young people who have just arrived in Karlsruhe so that between them they can create something new.

Cameron: I’ve been reading a lot about migrant theatre in Berlin – does Karlsruhe have the same?

Susanne: Yes, there is a real discussion going on about this in Germany, whether it is a good thing. We had a performance of Gluck’s opera Iphigenie auf Tauris in which refugees from Gambia were playing the newcomers who arrived by sea at the island where Iphigenie was living. So they were playing their own situation! Many of them came to Lampedusa in Italy in a sea crossing.

It was OK, but I’m not really sure that it is a brilliant strategy. As a visitor to the opera, you’re sitting there, looking at this spectacle, and working out which of them were refugees and which not – that is not a dialogue, that’s really not a dialogue. For the newcomers it was really interesting to be able to get to know how our theatres work and opera is created, but I think we should consider more deeply how to proceed with this.

‘I am not your latest art project!’ one refugee said.

Next year, we are staging a piece of theatre which is written by Karlsruhe people and by newcomers, and perhaps that will be more of a dialogue, where people are speaking on an equal level with one another.

That is the discussion in Germany. There is one newcomer from Syria who was a refugee and is now a writer, and he says, “I am not your latest art project!” You understand? That is a very important and difficult discussion – how to find the right way.

Karlsruhe Centre for Art and Media technology. jaime.silva/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

But I am very sure that artists have a privileged way of finding solutions, because every day – whether they are performance artists, actors, writers, or dancers – they expose themselves to others and they know what can be a dangerous situation for their own identities.

Cameron: You said earlier that it took a long time for the state and the cities to talk to each other. Are they subsidising new projects?

Susanne: It depends: it depends. In every city we have volunteers and NGO organisations who are working for a welcoming culture. But in the eastern part of Germany, we also have a very strong movement of right-wing people, especially in those cities where there are no refugees.

You see the same differences among the politicians. Some of them are initiating welcoming projects themselves, and others complain that it is impossible to take so many newcomers. We have had many discussions about this.

Angela Merkel made a big mistake when she opened up the frontiers, and then didn’t immediately get in contact with local organisations.

I think it was a big big mistake that Angela Merkel made when she opened the frontiers up in 2015, that the next day she didn’t immediately try to get in contact with the civil society organisations or with the city organisations. She didn’t try to talk to the people who were going to have to welcome those newcomers. That was a big mistake.

She did the right thing in that situation to open the frontiers, because for us Germans it is impossible to see people sitting in trains, not knowing where the trains are taking them to! That is impossible for a German! And that was exactly the situation the refugees were in thanks to the politics of Orban. Do you remember?

So it was totally correct that she opened the frontiers. But the next day, or the same day, she should have been speaking to the cities and the federal states. She should have called a big conference to say, “ now, how will we manage this situation together? The state level, the government level, and so on.” Because here were the people who have had to manage the situation day in day out ever since and there was no dialogue! There are thousands of volunteers who are indeed managing under these conditions. But there is also an increasing group of people whose deep-seated xenophobia is rising to the surface and sometimes their racism.

About the authors

Susanne Asche is head of the cultural department of the city of Karlsruhe, Germany.

Cameron Thibos is the managing editor of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery and Mediterranean Journeys in Hope. He is a former research associate at the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and holds a D.Phil from the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford. 

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