The article here was published in German in Die Linke’s Lotta magazine: issue 12, January 10, 2017 and is available here. The original article was written by Sophie Freikamp and was translated by Sarah Coughlan.


What is it like to live in a foreign country? What are the values, what is the culture there? What do I have to know? Apparently simple questions to which the social enterprise Social Science Works seeks in the dialogue with refugees for answers. Lotta introduces the new project.

On a cold Saturday morning, Oktay Tuncer and Wassim Al Ali sit down. They have come to a workshop in Potsdam to talk about identity, about our conceptions of men and masculinity, about democracy. Oktay Tuncer is ‘the German’ in this conversation. He was born and raised in Southern Germany, graduated from high school and studied social sciences at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. His language is academic and honed, he leads the workshop. His name reveals, however, that he has roots in another country.

Wassim and Oktay in conversation. Image courtesy of Lotta magazine.

Wassim and Oktay in conversation. Image courtesy of Lotta magazine.

Wassim Al Ali has only been in Potsdam for one year. Until September 2015 he lived in Homs, Syria. He is talking as ‘the refugee’. Wassim, however, does not want to be referred to like that. He finds that this concept reduces his identity. He is not only the refugee, but above all ‘a man, a Potsdamer’, an agricultural engineer, a food inspector with a proper job. He says he has ‘arrived’. Wassim works for a Spanish-German company, he travels throughout the whole of Europe. After a few months, his German is so good that he is not only a participant in this workshop but also works as an interpreter. “I do not want to be defined by my refugee status,” he says. The two young men have been brought together by the social enterprise Social Science Works. The Dutch professor Hans Blokland and a team of social scientists from Humboldt University have had enough of pure theory. They wanted to combine theory and practice, and to do something to improve integration. From that, Social Science Works has emerged.

The social scientists founded their company and started two projects for refugee men; one that brings refugees and Germans together. Together, they exchange ideas about values ​​and rules of European culture and tradition in workshops; values ​​that may be different in their countries of origin. “In the workshops, we discuss topics such as pluralism, humanism, democracy, freedom of religion, gender, equality, sexuality, migrant fears, but also fears of migrants in the German population,” says Hans Blokland. What sounds weighty takes place in loose conversations. Wassim says that he – new in Germany – did not know how to speak to a German woman. What can be discussed between the sexes? Today, he smiles at this uncertainty. But he also knows that the social codes in his homeland are different from those of the Germans, and in order to learn and understand exactly where these differences are, such workshops are very helpful. There is talk about everyday life, but also about difficult and existential problems. No instruction, no finger wagging, no know-it-alls, but instead listening and exchanging.

Hans talks thinks through. Image courtesy of Lotta magazine.

Hans talks things through. Image courtesy of Lotta magazine.

The second project from Social Science Works is a “buddy” program. For this, the social scientists are looking for German or German-speaking men, who regularly meet for six months with ‘Buddies’ to “gain insights and understanding, contacts and knowledge about the local society,” Blokland said. A German man is assigned to a refugee man. The projects are supported by the red-red government (SPD and Die Linke) in Brandenburg. In a buddy team, there are two people. Oktay Tuncer is a so-called German buddy. “I know how it is to come from a strange culture. My parents came as migrants from Turkey to Germany. They knew this feeling of being confronted with prejudice – in school, in institutions, on the street. That is why this Buddy program, to get to know people in one-to-one contact, to listen carefully, to learn subtleties from the biography, is a good way to sensitize people to one another. But that cannot be done within a month, and we have to take the time.” Trust, friendship, and honest conversations take patience.

 

Original by Sophie Freikamp, in translation by Sarah Coughlan.