Back in the United States we have been working to develop resources to help newcomers in Allentown navigate our city. One of the resources that I have created is a map that shows some of the most important areas in Allentown including libraries, grocery stores and hospitals. Look at the map below and let me know what you think. I’m open to suggestions and criticisms. We want to make this map as user friendly as possible.
While in Germany I had the privilege of speaking to many locals about their feelings regarding the refugee crisis. One of the most profound conversations I had was with a mother of four who took an entire day off to tour several of my friends and me around her home city of Stuttgart. I asked her about the refugee crisis and the influx of refugees in her city. She told me that after World War II the Germans have tried to be extremely open to the way that they help people who are need. I was surprised to hear her bring up the history of the country as no other citizen had ever mentioned that when talking to me about the refugee crisis. She mentioned that Germany had made mistakes in the past but were eagerly trying to correct those mistakes. There are certainly many people in the country who do not share these feelings but there are very few times where an entire country can all have the same feelings about something.
Refugee classes in Germany teach history, beginning with the post-World War II era. They do this so that the refugees are not re-traumatized with the information of the atrocities committed by Germans during the war. How scary would it be for a refugee to sit in a German class room and learn about how the country persecuted people who they considered different?
Yet that doesn’t mean they, the refugees, want to forget their story. In my meeting with a university psychologist I learned that many of the women that she works with wish to have their stories told or to remember what has happened to them. The psychologist compared their desire to share their stories to American soldiers who travel to schools and lecture halls to talk about the time that they have served. Many of these soldiers have experienced extreme evil while at war but that evil has made them who they are and they are not willing to bury it deep inside them. It is important to share the moments that have shaped your life regardless of if they are positive or negative.
Something that I will always remember is a story that the psychologist told me about one of the women that she works with. During her session this particular refugee woman asked the psychologist “Can you hear what has happened to me? Are you writing this all down? I don’t want it to be forgotten”.
This statement was so profound to me. The words “can you hear what has happened to me” will stick with me forever. Because I hear them. I hear their stories and their challenges. The world hears them but they are not always listening. We need to listen. We need to hear the story of the man I met who travelled through so many countries on his way to Germany that he couldn’t even name them all. The man who said that he got in a taxi in Serbia and feared that he would be killed. The man who slept in the streets of Croatia on his way here.
These are the stories that matter. The stories of the people who are fighting for their lives. I promise we will not forget you. We will not let you become a news story that gets passed over when something more recent and more dramatic occurs. We will help you be heard and we will listen.
We’re approaching our last few days here in Tübingen, Germany and we are trying to attend as many meetings, seminars and classes as possible. Our days are becoming increasingly busier as we connect with more people in the region yet we are often unable to share everything that we are doing due to confidentiality. However, we appreciate your continued support as we continue to better understand the refugee crisis abroad and seek out information and resources that we can bring home with us. We would like to share with you some of our experiences in our last few meetings.
Last week we had the opportunity to sit in on an information meeting with several migrants and refugees who are attending the University of Tübingen. During this meeting we talked about the concept of identity as it relates to people living in different countries. It was emphasized that identity is not static but rather always moving and growing with each and every experience that a human has. However, this identity can become confusing when you move to a place whose culture is so different from your own. Often time’s native citizens will tell you that you need to mold your identity to fit their cultural standards. Yet, how much molding is too much? What does it mean to fit in but still be yourself?
In a meeting with a trauma expert the concept of identity came up once again. We talked about the balance of a refugee’s new culture along with their native culture. Again, how much molding is too much? You want a refugee to understand their new culture and fit in but you also want them to maintain who they are, to hold on to their roots. There are no “How to” books for this, no studies or statistics. Refugees and aid workers must figure it out on their own, silently struggling to determine how much change is too much. One of the extreme examples that we were provided with is the topic of polygamy. Some of the refugee men coming to Germany are arriving from regions where polygamy is highly practiced and encouraged. So they’re entering the country with four wives. However, in Germany this is considered illegal. But how do you tell a man that he has to choose just one of his four wives to be married to? I’m not taking a stance on polygamy but I am saying that the conversation that has to be had is clearly difficult for both parties involved.
We’ve had multiple other meetings with people who continue to teach, support and inspire us. We are truly grateful for the experiences we are having in Germany and are looking forward to using our newfound knowledge to better the projects we are working on back home in Allentown. We ask that you continue to maintain an open mind about the refugee crisis and the newcomers who are settling in and around your hometowns. They are coming from backgrounds that we will never be able to comprehend and many are carrying mental scars. We have been taught that stability, safety and structure are some of the greatest things for a refugee. Yet, a friendly smile, a cup of tea and an ear willing to listen also go a long way.
Yesterday, we met with Karin Amos who is a Professor of Educational Science at the University of Tübingen. Amos discussed the refugee students who are studying or applying to study at the University. Amos told us that there are approximately 40-50 refugee students studying in Tübingen but this number is unconfirmed because refugees sign up as international students and do not always identify as refugees. The town of Tübingen currently has 280 refugees but has promised to take 1000. The rest of the refugees may still be coming to the town or may have returned to their home countries. Originally, it was thought that many of the refugees would be prepared to enter university when they arrived. However, this has not been the case and according to Amos only 10-15% of the refugees have had the educational level needed to apply. The university is very lenient with the documents that refugees are able to provide and do not require them to have the same documentation as German student. Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges for refugees is the language barrier. There are very limited German as Second Language (GSL) classes and many professors are unwilling to teach these classes. The University has also found that many of the refugees are unaware of the courses offered by the university and they are working on developing resources to spread information around the city. We are hoping to meet with some of the applicants over the course of the next few weeks and get a feel for their experiences.
Thank you so much for your continued support for our Mountaintop Project. We have begun filming resource videos for various areas in and around Allentown and will be ready to post them by the end of July. We are also in the process of planning an end of the summer event where we will reveal all our work, so be on the lookout for an announcement in the coming weeks! We leave for Germany in eight days and are so excited to meet the people working with refugees there as well as the refugees themselves. We will be blogging from Tubingen and hope to share several stories from the refugees themselves in the coming weeks. Please continue to share this blog with friends and family! Also, if you or someone you know is a refugee in America and would like to tell your story please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.