Carlo was leading today’s Thursday session. “I thought we’d share something about where we come from, since there are so many nationalities in the room,” he began. We worked our way around the room, introducing ourselves. Guinea, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, the United States, Germany. As we answered, Carlo mapped out each country. “I’d love to learn about where each one of you come from; are you guys interested as well?”
Three days earlier, I had arrived in Berlin to begin my six-week internship. Rather than feeling like work, my first few days were a welcome into a community of old and new friends, led by IsraAID Leadership Specialists Carlo and Anna. On Thursdays, a group of current and former participants of the IsraAID Leadership Groups Project gather at the Haus der Nachbarschaft in Schöneberg, a borough of Berlin.
We were all curious to hear about each other’s homelands. As the participants began sharing, information poured out. Two group members, from Guinea and Afghanistan, brought up the unique linguistic profiles of their nations — both feature over forty different languages! I was reminded of how languages affect the way we think and see the world. This is an ongoing debate within psychology. Some scholars consider the difference among languages to be a clear indicator that their speakers must encode different aspects of the world. Other scholars hold that while people may speak differently, they still interpret their environments in similar ways. Something that cannot be communicated via language may be expressed in other forms. IsraAID Germany has used this idea to overcome the barrier of language through workshops incorporating movement, dance, and music. These workshops are often led by program graduates, allowing them to transition from the role of participant to leader — one of the primary objectives of the Leadership Groups Project.
After the session, I reflected on how much I had learned in just a few hours. I’d read books and taken history classes on the Middle East and Africa, but it was a completely different experience listening to locals speak about their own countries. I already knew, intellectually, that I shouldn’t live in a Eurocentric bubble; but hearing stories that defied my Western framework drove home for me the importance of intercultural exposure, highlighting to me the beauty of life beyond my personal experience.
IsraAID Germany started the leadership project in different locations around the country in order to support refugees as they become integrated into the community. One of the main goals of the project is to motivate participants to aid others in their own communities and the host society through self-made projects, allowing them to realize their own strengths and the power of helping others. Through initiatives such as cooking for the homeless and visiting retirement homes, the participants begin supporting other refugees, ultimately achieving a greater impact.
Continuing the conversation in both German and English, we were able to identify our similarities while appreciating the variety and richness of each culture. When Biryani — a spicy rice dish common in South Asian cuisine — was brought up, the participant from Iran said his mouth began to water. “You can’t find real Biryani in the West!” The man continued to share about his homeland, describing the odd mix of old and new that has existed since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. We were told that upward of 70% of his social circle back home still drinks and dances privately, despite the prohibition of such activities under Sharia Law. “You can change the name of our country, but you can’t change the people,” he emphasized.
Next up was a seventeen-year-old Yazidi girl from Iraq. Although world media has publicized the genocide perpetrated against the Yazidis by ISIS, not everyone in the room had a clear understanding of who the Yazidis are. The girl admitted she was not an expert, but shared a little about her people’s religion and ethnic background. Outside of Iraq, Germany has the largest population of Yazidis in the world. For this reason, IsraAID Germany is currently working on various programs specifically aimed at supporting Yazidi survivors.
After nearly three hours of talking, we had yet to discuss Turkey, Syria, the United States, or Germany. “I have a question about the United States,” said one of the men from Guinea as we were wrapping up. “It looks like we should continue this conversation next week then, because we are all curious to learn more,” Carlo answered. Disappointed to end, I already began anticipating our next session and the promise of expanding my horizons even further alongside my new friends.
Following the mass influx of refugees to Germany in 2015, IsraAID launched “Bridges of Hope,” which aims to provide holistic long term support for refugees upon their resettlement. On top of the cultural shock, many refugees carry deep physical and emotional scars from the violence and atrocities suffered during years of conflict; the most vulnerable among them are women and unaccompanied minors. IsraAID provides sustainable support for shelters throughout Germany by working directly with refugees and affected communities. Efforts have included the set up of mobile specialist trauma units, support programs for female survivors of sexual gender-based violence (GBV), and a vocational program for women. Serena is currently attending Columbia University in New York City, New York. She is one of two IsraAID Humanitarian Fellows volunteering in Germany for summer 2019.
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