No fear of strangers
A Lebanese woman is keen to learn more about volunteering, so she comes to Germany. But the student also becomes a teacher.
Portrait by Birte Fuchs
The Asylum working group is meeting in Stuttgart. They are in a community hall with a linoleum floor and wooden panelling. All too familiar. But today they have a charismatic guest: Daad Ibrahim is telling the thirty or so volunteer refugee helpers about her work in Lebanon, the country that has a higher proportion of refugees than anywhere else in the world.
One million of its four million inhabitants have arrived as refugees, mainly from Syria. Yet civil war has not broken out. How have they managed it? They must be doing something right!
Daad Ibrahim seems relaxed as she talks about her school visits at the side of former combatants with a view to discouraging children and teenagers from resolving conflicts with weapons but using peaceful means instead. She talks about her work as a psychotherapist, helping people who have lived through terrible experiences.
Ibrahim is in Germany as part of the CrossCulture Programme (CCP) run by the ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) in Stuttgart. As part of this scholarship programme, she is spending seven weeks at her host organisation, the Stuttgart-Obertürkheim Evangelical-Lutheran parish office, which is actively involved in working with refugees. This evening she is sharing her own experiences.
For the last ten years, this ifa programme has been building bridges between German culture and predominantly Muslim countries. In 2016 it was expanded to include a module on refugees and migration. Participants from Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, and Turkey have also come to Germany as part of the programme.
Daad Ibrahim was interested in the programme because "I want to learn more about volunteering." It may sound strange to German ears, but in Lebanon an organised volunteer organisation for helping refugees is practically non-existent. It is either handled by professional aid agencies, such as the two where Ibrahim works, or the refugees are left to fend for themselves and have to organise their own accommodation, food and clothing without any organised support.
"It's wonderful that so many people in Germany help refugees without expecting anything in return", says Ibrahim. One example is Friederike Weltzien, rector of the Obertürkheim parish, who helps refugees to apply for asylum, organises German language lessons and provides pastoral care. Daad Ibrahim worked with her for seven weeks.
Ibrahim's experiences inspired the duo to come up with an idea: Reverend Weltzien can't look after everything, so Ibrahim suggested refugees should be helped to help themselves, as is necessarily the case in Lebanon. The two women quickly came up with a name for this project: Die Ausbildung (the training). It means that refugees should help other refugees and new arrivals to settle into life in Germany. Those who have been in the camp for a while can help new arrivals to fill in forms, and give them tips on which volunteers provide German language lessons.
Friday morning. The aroma of coffee and cardamom wafts through the air, and pretzels are laid out invitingly on the tables. A dozen Syrians wander in. Weltzien and Ibrahim are sitting at the front. Arabic is being spoken, words such as "Almaniya" and "Suriya" tell us they are talking about their old and new homes. Daad Ibrahim takes the time to ask everyone how they are getting on. Her work in Lebanon has taught her that it is also important to pay attention to people's emotional needs. She believes the majority of Syrian refugees are traumatised and feel an internal compulsion to talk about their experiences and their situation in Germany. But they also feel ashamed about doing this in front of strangers. "Keep asking yourselves how you are doing," she tells them. "Share it with others. They are in the same boat!"
By the end of her stay, she has discovered that this is not always so easy for helpers in Germany. "All too often Germans simply expect foreigners to know what is normal here." The refugees generally speak little German and the helpers often speak limited English and no Arabic. This means that volunteers often can't understand the problems that refugees are facing and get irritated about little things. In the meetings at the church, refugees behave the same way they were used to in their home countries but the situation is different in Germany. "Many men simply get up and leave their coffee cups on the table. Germans find that really annoying," she says. But this is not a sign of macho behaviour on the part of Arab men. It's simply a different understanding of hospitality. But once the refugees understand what is expected of them and want to help clear away, they find the volunteers are still not happy because they don't want their kitchen to be messed up.
For her part, Daad Ibrahim takes a laidback view of these cultural differences. In Lebanon, where so many different religions and ethnic groups all live cheek-by-jowl, she has learnt that respect comes from accepting strangers for who they are and trying to understand why they are as they are.
Rev. Friederike Weltzien likes her new colleague: "Daad is someone who goes in, learns and really thinks about things". And because Ibrahim understands how she can help, their roles also switch – the intern who is here to learn also becomes a teacher.
Two days before Ibrahim was due to fly back to Lebanon, her phone beeps. It's a message from one of the volunteers who attended the meeting at the community hall: "Can you write down a few Arabic words for me?" she asks Ibrahim. It seems her talk has already had an impact.