There’s a long table with several empty chairs around it. It’s still morning, so the women are not here yet. But in the afternoon, this corner of the residential facility for refugees in Hamburg will welcome a handful of women for German lessons.
Refugees are continuing to pour into Germany and aside from the immediate logistical challenges, the country has the next task cut out for itself: assimilating these refugees.
Wrenched from their homes – most of them come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eritrea – in dangerous and painful circumstances, the first stage of the journey – arrival – is complete.
But for a fuller sense of arrival into German society, there is a long way to go. And the German government has briskly set about this process with a host of plans, legislations and regulations.
The first and obvious step to integration is language. Finding a home, a job and coming to terms with a culturally and existentially different society are the other macro life changes. But what about the minutiae of everyday life – the micro-moments of adjusting to a new culture?
A few rooms down from where the women will later assemble at the facility in Hamburg, social worker Caroline Smolny provided some insights. With a world map, dictionaries and assorted photographs around her, she picked up a sheaf of handouts on her desk. Each of the papers had a different colour, indicating a different request. All in German, one said “Consultation”, another said “Children’s Club”, while a third said “Help”.
Residents of the facility can use any of these to signal the nature of their requests. Sometimes, they need assistance for simple things such as visiting the playground. For such purposes, there is an army of volunteers to help.
The officials at the facility goad their wards to learn German, deploying facial expressions and hand gestures to get the point across.
“Non-verbal possibilities are greater than you think,” said Smolny.
The children have been accommodated in local schools and the adults have been pressed into language classes. Nothing has been left to chance.
For instance, when the home opened nine weeks ago, one of the first events was a “garbage party”. Residents were taught which dustbin was for which kind of garbage and what waste separation entails. That was followed by a discussion on toilet etiquette in Germany.
Smolny ushered the group of journalists through the quiet corridors on the first floor. One at a time, she quietly unlocked each of the neatly labelled rooms. One such room was a spotless cafeteria. There was a brightly painted children’s playroom, apart from a bicycle shed for residents to put themselves to work.
Integration is a constant work in progress. And as refugees wait for their applications to be processed, life is a series of new experiences.
Elsewhere, in the capital Berlin for instance, Marwan Soufi has spent two years settling into a new life. He was in his final year of high school when escalating violence abruptly uprooted him from his home in Erbil, Iraq. As fate would have it, Soufi happened to have been born in Berlin, but spent the next 17 years of his life in violence-prone Iraq.
On his return to Berlin, Soufi was first enrolled in German classes. He had to skip a few years of school while getting to grips with the language. He is now completing Class 11, while simultaneously pursuing his passion for music.
It’s been a big transition. In Erbil, many people had guns. In his own home, they kept a Kalashnikov, no longer a necessity in a developed country not at war.
Then there’s the challenge of the cultural shifts – both tectonic and the more nuanced. “I saw two men,” he said uncertainly. “They were… how do you say? They were kissing.”
The permissiveness of Western society was one of the first things that struck Soufi. There wasn’t even a word for homosexuality in Kurdish, making the concept and the scene before his eyes completely alien.
“I had never seen this in my country,” said Soufi. “When I told my friend in Erbil about this, he said, ‘No, you are joking, that is not possible.’”
He’s gone from being uneasy around girls to freely spending time at his girlfriend’s home.
“Here you have freedom, you can do what you want,” he said. “There is no problem.”
As part of the government’s integration initiatives, classes are being run across the country that deal with the obvious and not-so-obvious aspects of life.
The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, which runs several integration courses, broadly covers 10 modules for asylum seekers that include shopping, healthcare, local particularities, transport and mobility.
Ayse Ozbabacan, a social worker in Stuttgart, said that these usually involve 660-960 lessons, and the orientation course covers basic themes such as freedom of worship, equality and history.
The language courses offer glimpses into media and media use, leisure and consumption, and raising children. Topics might also be expanded to include mundane activities such as writing emails in German or making phone calls and completing forms. There is a final examination at the end.
Ozbabacan said refugee questions most revolved around body language and food, dress code and “of course gender, especially the role of men women and men and equality of women and men”.
As a woman, did she find it difficult dealing with men who might not accept her authority?
“In many Muslim countries men are not used to working with women (social workers) in such positions,” she said. “They don’t want to be ‘instructed’ by women. Normally, they expect to work with male social workers wearing a suit and tie. Our social workers are dressed more relaxed.”
Over time, Ozbabacan said, the men got accustomed to the change and they were able to work well together.
Apart from the government, non-profits and volunteer groups have been active since the start of the first refugee influx. At integration classes held at Cafe Why Not, a social initiative in Hamburg run by the local church, classes are held for three hours a day, five days a week and last about two to three months. The cafe also conducts classes for those who don‘t have permission yet to attend the regular ones. Fe-Muin Ruf, a social worker at the café, said the most common questions were about “relationships between men and women”.
And there is plenty of material on sex and gender. A set of slides explains that groping women is not okay, violence is not the answer to solving problems, and hitting children is not allowed in Germany.
In March the government launched a guide to sex, sexuality and the law in multiple languages. This covers the basics (genitalia), the legal (rape is a crime), the acceptable (masturbation is okay) and the erotic (foreplay and other sex lessons).
Another series in more than 10 languages including Arabic, Turkish and Pashto deals with the intangibles in modules such as Equality, Personal Freedom, Public Life, and Formalities.
Information covers the unexpected – “Smiling in public is fine and quite acceptable, it is not considered to be flirting, even if you are talking to a stranger” and the more banal: “Make sure you leave the toilet clean and dry. Therefore, it is advisable to use the toilet in a sitting position”. Free speech, exposed body parts, punctuality and women‘s rights are also addressed.
Then there is the special guide for unaccompanied minors, which surveys the usual touchstones of German culture. “Many Germans are reserved and seem to be uncommunicative,” reads the introduction. “Their privacy is important to them. They aren‘t as open-minded as many people in our home countries. But many Germans are very helpful and friendly once you get to know them better.”
Integration is essentially a two-way process, which ordinary residents have embraced with vigour. So what is the role of German society in the integration process?
“Very good question and one of most concern,” said Tanja Schulze, who works in the field of inter-cultural communication. “I think it’s hard to generalise here. A lot of activities of German society to support integration are done by smaller groups or individuals that sprang up all over the place. Some of them are organised, some more informal, some through the communes/towns/cities, some on a purely personal level by neighbours or other volunteers.”
For instance, every Monday and Thursday, the residents of the Othmarschen neighbourhood in Hamburg meet with the refugees in the temporary shelters, assisting with German language homework, answering questions or simply playing cards and drinking coffee.
Underpinning the fun and the mingling is the idea of refugees getting a sense of German society. “It is a safe space to see how German society functions,” said Angela Wolters, one of the women behind the initiative.
She recalled how at first some men were hesitant to shake hands with her or the other women, but that some were now learning to do so. Or the fact that the younger boys might have made a mess and didn’t clean up because they expected that someone else would, anathema in a society where everyone does their own chores.
The problems that come up for discussion in such coffee evenings are often the same: how to deal with German bureaucracy while chasing an asylum application, how to enroll in further language classes, how to find a school spot for your child.
Others are still trying to get over the emotional angst and come for the company. “Some are still traumatised and depressed about being alone,” said Claudia v Schuttzendorff, a resident who also helps run the same initiative.
Of course, there is one aspect of life that no integration class can really tackle: racism. Despite learning about rights and avenues for legal redress, there is the latent and occasionally expressed racism that bubbles to the surface. Germany has welcomed refugees, but an equally visible section of the public has shunned them, stereotyped them and made adjustments difficult.
One time, an old woman on the train came up to Marwan Soufi and his friend – a girl wearing a hijab – and asked them why they had come here and why they had caused attacks in Paris. “I was very, very sad,” he said, “but I kept quiet.”