Sunday, July 17, 2016

Empathy not Sympathy-Or why we should take the time to consider a person's story

Most people here are very generous. Most are kind. Most are warm and welcoming, and most genuinely feel badly for the refugees who have come here. However, when having a discussion about refugees here, one of the most common things I hear is that "they need to learn German."

And sure, that would be great. It would be really helpful, both for the refugees and those who are working with them. But before we so quickly jump to this step, let's take a moment to think about people's situation. Before I started researching and reading for my work here, I had a vague idea of the long journey from Syria to Germany.  I have to admit, my geography isn't that good (typical American for you)...but it's far, it's really far. And people walk. There are routes like this one:

Now imagine doing this walk with four kids under the age of 7, one of whom is too little to walk, which is how one family I've met made their way to Germany.

There are also boats. One of the websites offering travel advice and routes for refugees suggest that you should ensure the safety of your boat and not take one that looks unsafe. Right. Great advice, but also not super practical--it's not like buying a new car, you gotta go with what's there. So probably you have to take a rickety boat. And you might also have small children. And then remember that you're on this boat, with your kids, not just a few hours but days, even weeks.

Sometimes people swim. This is the cheapest option, only a few hundred dollars. But you have to do it at night. And it takes hours.

I'm not sharing these stories to create sympathy, but instead, some kind of better understanding of people's situation and background. Of course, we can never understand what this situation would have been like. And we should all thank God or luck or whatever force we credit for these sorts of things that the country we happen to be born in hasn't fallen into war. So while we can't understand what this would have been like, what it means to have this experience, we can understand why it may be difficult to just "learn German," or "adjust."People have other things on their mind, other concerns and other experiences. Many refugees still have family members in their home country-siblings, parents, aging and ailing relatives. While many are able to stay in contact through SMS, phone and smartphone apps, there is still the real and present concern for the safety of those who remain.

It's understandable that someone may not remember how or when the masculine article "der" changes to "den" or "dem" (heck, I've been learning German for years and I mess that up on a regular basis). It's understandable that someone may not know how or when to call to make a doctor's appointment or buy a train ticket or figure out the bus schedule. With some more thought about a person's background and their cares and concerns, perhaps we can create some better understanding between people. Refugees don't just need our sympathy, our donated items or money-they need our patience. People want to learn and they will, but it won't happen immediately. It won't happen today or tomorrow. But it will happen eventually. And people are going to do things the wrong way. It's a hard country to figure things out in. Everyone is trying. Everyone is doing their best. Or almost everyone. Sometimes you see this:
"Return to your homeland"

We can't allow voices like these to be the loudest. We must distinguish ourselves, but to do so, we must be more understanding and more patient.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Similarities Create Friendships

Similarities create friendships while differences hold them together-Danish proverb

It makes sense that we are drawn to people who are similar to ourselves. Trying to discover similarities in tastes or in hobbies can really be the foundation of a first conversation with someone. While those similarities do help create that initial bond, it's really the differences we find in people that help to make them interesting to us. We don't want to be friends with people who are exactly like us in every way-thing would get boring pretty quickly!

We may encounter people in our lives who we would assume, based on their country of origin, their background, their religion or their age, that we would have nothing in common with. It has been my experience that this is largely wrong-it is much harder to find someone you have absolutely nothing in common with than someone who you have at least some similarities. One of the easiest places to start is with activities, and this is especially so if there is a language barrier. You might not speak a common language, but you can play soccer-even if it is against a team of 12-year old boys (hey, they are faster than they look). Or play cards. Or drink coffee or tea together. Or watch sports, crochet, listening to music, cook, eat, laugh. Once that initial common interest is explored, getting to know all of the things that makes someone different than oneself is not only interesting, it's also often rewarding.

The human experience can really be remarkably similar, if we allow ourselves to see those similarities. We can expand our view of what we have in common with others, and not just limit it to hobbies and favorite tv shows or ice cream flavors (though you really will probably be my new best friend if you also love to enjoy Half-Baked ice cream while you watch Game of Thrones). There are many facets to our personalities and to our interests. When we take time to explore and share those, our connections with others can really expand. And then comes the fun part where we are able to grow and learn and develop with the help of those around us. Who knows what might come of that, but it's certainly exciting to think about...

Saturday, June 18, 2016

For the Love of Country

"I have to remind myself that I can support my country too. Bad people like ice cream and I can also like ice cream." Before the first game for Germany in the 2016 Euro Cup, my friend and I sat discussing patriotism and pride for one's country. We talked about how to reconcile wanting to support your home team in something like an international football match and not wanting to outwardly display patriotism, to drape a flag around you and loudly proclaim your love for country. Outside of the international sporting events, these displays in Germany are most often seen among those on the far right, those whose politics are quite disagreeable to many people here.

After the terrible event in Orlando, I too have to ask myself how it's possible to still feel pride in a country where such events can and do occur. I have to ask myself how to feel pride and love when I have no explanation to give to my co-workers and neighbors when they ask how or why such things happen in the US. I was living in Morocco when the tragic event at Sandy Hook took place. Being abroad during such tragedies is difficult-it forces not only explanations to others but also some sort of self-reflection. These questions surrounding love for country and patriotism inevitably arise.

In my reflections, I have come to realize that it is not so much a question of merely loving one's country. It is more about having the kind of love that allows for that reflection, for judgement, and ultimately, for criticism. It is blind love and devotion that is truly dangerous. I can love where I am from-or at least love many things about where I am from-even if bad people also claim to do so. Heck, the US is great-we have Ben and Jerry's, free wifi, and wonderful national parks. There are many things that I would miss if they were gone. Yet my patriotic feelings will always be accompanied by a critical lens. Because without reflection, change is not possible and we can't improve. As a country, we can and should strive to get better. We have so much to gain, just imagine the possibilities...

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Sunrise, Sunset

They are called Rolladen and they are a truly wonderful invention-shutters that roll down from the inside and block out light and noise and heat. I stopped using them about two weeks after my arrival because I was afraid that I would begin sleeping 20 hours a day (they are really that good). Since I ended my brief affair with the Rolladen, I have begun to realize how much light there is-the days here are really really long. It's great, the sun rises about 5:30 and sets around 9:30. By 6:30 AM, the birds are chirping and the sun is blazing. I (usually) feel super energized and can get so much done with all this daylight to play around with. Granted, it's been thunder-storming and raining nearly every day, but, hey, at least it's still bright out. 

As I sat last weekend in the park, soaking up all the Vitamin D I'm going to need to get me through another Michigan winter, I started to think about Ramadan. I've been talking with my colleagues and friends about it for a few weeks now. The month of fasting will begin tomorrow for Muslims here in Germany (insh'allah) and everyone seems ready. The trouble is, and what I have finally started to realize, is that these long, light-filled days are not just new for me, but also for many of those who will be abstaining from eating food and drinking (even water) during the daylight hours in Germany for the next month. And the general consensus seems to be that it's going to be hard. Really hard.  Okay, the really hard is my interpretation. When I've asked my friends and colleagues who are going to be fasting about the long days, they sort of just smile and shrug and say it will be ok. But for many people spending their first Ramadan in a country that will not have Ramadan hours or a time change or community-wide iftur (breaking of the fast) as they do in many majority-Muslim countries, this has the potential to be an especially difficult month. 

This Ramadan presents a great opportunity-one in which Germans can learn more about the culture of many of those who have recently come, and in which communities can come together and share food and traditions. It is my hope that everyone can take the time to learn a little, to ask questions and to reflect. And perhaps we can all be thankful we're not in Sweden where the sun rises at 3:30 AM, because, come on, that's just too much of a good thing.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Little Prince

As we sat at the outdoor cafe drinking coffee on the Maxstra├če, by she looked away and said "Ich habe viele erlebt," "I've experienced a great deal." Fatima and I were surrounded by German families, children shrieking as they played in the fountain nearby. When she said that, when she looked away, I could tell she wasn't present in the moment, but was remember things, recalling her work with the Red Crescent in Homs or her family's journey from Syria through Turkey to seek asylum in Germany. We had otherwise been speaking lightheartedly of learning German and our favorite foods, yet this moment helped remind me of something I'd pushed to the back of my mind.

Since my arrival, I have worried so much about communication and making connections, about finding people who will help me and who can contribute to the work I'm doing here. This moment with Fatima reminded me of the "why," the reason I've traveled so far for this work. But it also helped me to remember that refugees themselves are perhaps the best equipped to help one one another.  Fatima has indeed experienced a lot. But those experiences, and her skills in learning German, in navigating the systems here, in volunteering in her home country, these are what help to make her such an important asset, both to Germany and to her fellow refugees. While I may have a good education and a lot of resources, it is important to also remember what I lack: experience as a refugee. This is what I must keep in the back of my mind as the project develops-it is crucial to harness the energy and experience of the people I am meeting and assist them in channeling it effectively.

Fatima looked back at me, "Aber, ja, alles ist gut, lhamduallah,"  "But yes, everything is ok, thank God." "lhamduallah," "thank God," I replied. And our conversation shifted back to our troubles in learning German, remember the articles and the accusative and dative tenses. She turned and pulled a small book out of her purse: Der Kleine Prinz, The Little Prince. I smiled, "one of my favorites," I told her. "Me too," she said. I found it very fitting that she was reading this book, authored by a man fleeing war and destruction in France during the Second World War. 

"The little prince sat down on a stone, and raised his eyes toward the sky.
'I wonder,' he said, 'whether the star are set alight in heaven so that one day each one of us may find his own again...Look at my planet. It is right there above us. But how far away it is!'"

Friday, May 13, 2016

"If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun." -Katherine Hepburn

There seem to be a lot of rules here in Germany. And I don't mean that in a stereotypical way, but more because it is a foreign country. Things that seem to be natural or obvious to people here seem like secret rules and codes to me, a person who is not familiar with how things are done. I go about my daily work and life trying my best to follow all of these "rules"-keep all the doors in the house closed (even the bathroom when no one is in it...when you're in it, you're supposed to lock it which I somehow usually manage to forget), clink your cups together when you drink at the same time as someone else and definitely don't cross the street when you don't have a walk sign, even if there are really really not any cars coming.

And then there are the overt rules and laws here: shops close by early evening, no shops are open in the evening on Saturday or at all on Sunday; registering as a student at the university has about 623 steps; banks will be closed during their 1.5 hour long lunch break; trash is really separated: yellow bag for plastic, compostables in another bin, paper in yet another and brown, white and green glass all go somewhere different; and you'd really best not even try to go into the library with a backpack on, or with a water bottle that can't be seen through. I tried to do both, and let's just say I ended up reading in the cafeteria.

Those who know me will know that I generally like rules. I think they help keep things orderly. I follow most rules. I do, however, feel totally fine breaking or not following rules that I think are stupid. It gets a little murky though when I am not aware of the rules and start breaking them right and left. When I intentionally break a rule, I am fully prepared with an explanation if confronted. When I do it accidentally, I get rather flustered. To be fair, I probably could do with being a little more observant and try to pick up on rules before I blunder through a situation. In my short time here and upon some reflection on rules, I do think that not following or breaking the rules, whether intentionally or not, can foster discussions and further understanding. I am attending a birthday party this weekend, and asked colleagues and roommates if there was anything that would be a faux-pas to bring. There isn't (save a "Hitler mustache"), so I'm bringing an American-style cake.  

Final note: I have jumped into my exploration of strange local foods. While I'm pretty sure this chocolate is breaking most of the rules, I couldn't resist getting it. Guten Appetit- except I think I'm supposed to say that to other people? Whatever, I'm just excited to eat a tortilla chip.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Bavaria-that's where I want to be!

Spring and I arrived together in Bayreuth. Since I walked out of the small airport in Nuremberg, the weather has been absolutely perfect. 70s, sunny, a gentle breeze. And the inhabitants of Bayreuth have been out in droves. The town is quaint, as many German towns are-there are cobblestone streets, cafes, old buildings and huge parks. There is a train station, a few museums, two opera houses (because, let's be real here, one just isn't good enough). There are clock towers and six palaces, including one with a magnificent garden in which I spent the better part of the afternoon today. Before my arrival, I had been told that Bayreuth was small, tiny even. I would very much disagree. With nearly 70,000 people and 13,000 students at the University, the town is thriving and diverse.

I've done my best to explore in the last few days. I've gotten lost enough times to finally be able to find my way home from the main places in the city. I found at least ten ATMs after not finding any for almost an hour. I'm excited for the State Garden Show which is being held in Bayreuth this year. I'm still not quite sure all that is involved in this, but it sounds like there are interesting things going on. I've eaten both Spaghetti Eis (ice cream that is made to look like's delicious, I promise) and white asparagus, a German specialty. I'm excited to spend sunny evenings continuing to walk around and explore. And also to try Senor Taco, the local Mexican? restaurant, which I'm sure I'll get a kick out of.

While this is not my first time in Germany, it is my first time here alone. It is also my first time here after a significant gap in German language classes. So far, everything seems to be somewhat familiar and yet, simultaneously, not familiar at all. I am slowly recalling things-phrases, nuances, prepositions, foods-that I once knew or learned. But there are also things I have completely forgotten to the point that they are unknown. Phrases are coming back frustratingly slowly, and are often mixed with Arabic ones. I responded with "la" instead of "nein" to a store clerk yesterday. I have resolved to speak much more German with those around me, especially my roommates and colleagues. It's all to easy in this place to get by on English alone, though I feel as though I can't leave this internship without improving my German.

Work is coming along. There are a few developments which seem quite exciting and which I will write more about later. This week I'll begin meeting with people to help establish more definite responsibilities and tasks for my time here. I will also finally get a SIM card and maybe decide which pair of Birkenstocks to buy.