Latest posts by Hans Blokland (see all)
- New project: empowerment of refugee children - June 23, 2022
- Yearly workshops with refugees in Wünsdorf have started - June 10, 2022
- Annie Schwerdtfeger new intern at Social Science Works - June 5, 2022
Since 2016 Social Science Works has implemented more than forty rows of workshops with refugees and natives in which we discuss, among others, ethical and political pluralism, democracy, civic society, freedom (of expression, association and religion), personal autonomy, tolerance, human rights, identity, discrimination, racism, masculinity, femininity, sex equality, and homosexuality.
We are collecting large amounts of data (via surveys, participative observations, and interviews) that could contribute significantly to our knowledge on deliberation, democratization and integration. In the coming time, we hope to publish an increasing number of articles with our empirical observations and analyses. Apart from rather “thick” descriptions of the workshops, these will include statistical analyses of the surveys that many of our participants filled in. In these they were asked about their beliefs and values regarding the topics we usually discuss in our workshops, as well as about their experiences within the workshops. Earlier we published The Rewards from Deliberation: Researching the Feedback of our Workshops and Deliberating Homosexuality: Empirical Observations and Analyses.
Statistical analyses of the ideas of our participants on, among others, sex equality, freedom, democracy and pluralism will follow. In articles like the one that follows, we present empirical descriptions of several of our workshops with very different groups of participants. This will give a deeper understanding of how the deliberations that we described in the article “How to deliberate fundamental values?”, actually took shape. Since the recruitment of participants for civic activities is crucial, special attention will be devoted to how the recruitment had taken place.
All the descriptions are based on written notes, made during the workshops or shortly afterwards: because of the fear of many participants to say something wrong, most of the time it is not helpful to tape the deliberations. Even making notes in real time regularly furthers suspicions and worries. The descriptions, though, are checked and enhanced by other people from Social Science Works that were present. Most workshops we attended with two to four people.
We will not give a full description of the complete conversations of every single workshop. This would create much unreadable overlap. Most conversations developed to a lesser or higher degree as the deliberations described in “How to deliberate fundamental values?” and “Deliberative Wertevermittlung: Ein Leitfaden” (Blokland & Wadt, 2018). Instead, we present some extreme experiences (like the workshops with a group of refugees from Chechnya or a group from Syria) and some ideal-typical deliberations of specific groups of participants (like German pupils and students, Russian Germans, or Afghan young men). These in part ethnographic impressions will present to some extent contradicting descriptions. They will also regularly contradict the stories, clichés and (well-maintained) narratives on integration that we encounter on a continuing basis in journalistic and political production.
A Workshop with Chechen
In 2018, we held a three-day workshop with people from Chechnya who were living in a refugee home in a village in Brandenburg. It was one of the most extreme we have experienced so far. The home is part of a large, renovated, former military complex out of town, and is fairly isolated. Next to it is a new upper middle-class neighborhood with freestanding villas. There were protests from these people against the arrival of the refugees in 2016, but tensions have seemingly calmed down since then.
About 80 to 120 people are living in the refugee home, mostly families. In the previous year this had consisted of 50 Chechen. Today, only twenty of the Chechen group remain after internal fights and oppression stimulated the authorities to force them to relocate.
Chechnya is a relatively small country with no more than 1.2 million inhabitants that nevertheless has an extraordinary complex recorded history. Here is a summary of the last three decades, after the Soviet Union had fallen apart, and the Chechen Republic declared independence. The state gained de facto independence following the brutal First Chechen War (1994 – 6), which destroyed most of the infrastructure and economy and displaced 40% of the population. Huge Russian losses prompted President Boris Yeltsin to sign a peace treaty and withdraw Russian troops. However, during the Second Chechen War (1999 – 2000) Russian control was restored. Since 2007 Ramzan Kadyrov has (with Russian support) ruled Chechnya in a brutal, totalitarian fashion. On Kadyrov, the Independent recently observed: “He makes President Duterte of the Philippines seem like a bit of a softy” (16.01.2018). Rebels from Chechnya regularly used terrorist methods, contributing to the bad reputation of the Chechen. For instance, in 1995 insurgents took 2000 patients hostage in the hospital of a Russian town, and killed 150 of them. In 2002, 900 visitors of a Moscow theatre were taken captive, all 50 rebels and 117 civilians lost their lives. In 2004 rebels occupied a school in Beslan taking 1100 people (including almost 800 children) hostage, more than 150 adults and almost 200 children were killed. Today, Brandenburg counts around 7000 Chechen migrants. Approximately 70 of them are considered Islamists willing to use violence.[i]
The home has two guards and seven social workers. Our main contact is a former soldier of the Bundeswehr who served in Afghanistan. We are required to sign in at the entrance.
We had been in this refugee-home a few weeks before, several Chechen that were present at the time had asked us to organize a workshop exclusively for them and arrange a Russian translator, as they had difficulty understanding the topics in German. In advance of the workshops, 12 people had assured the Social Workers they wanted to participate. The people had been in Germany or Austria for more than 2 years, some even 6 years, but were not able to speak any German. They had been offered German classes but did not attend.
On the first day, at around 10.30am, we started with 6 people – five men, one woman. Apparently, already outside the workshop there was an interesting dynamic between the participants. Unfortunately, during the day several people angrily run off because of what others have said, stating they will only come back if somebody else leaves. Nevertheless, after a while some participants do continue to return. Consequently, the number of participants was continuously fluctuating between 3 and 10 throughout the three days.
One exceptional, very independent, Muslim woman (for convenience we call her Vera) of around 45 stayed for three days. She said she had been a high-ranking officer in the Russian army, in charge of a large department for anti-terrorism in Chechnya. For almost two decades her father was based in East-Germany, but she does not speak German. She divorced twice and has four children. She had to leave the three children of her first marriage in Chechnya, and fled to Germany with her six-year-old daughter from her second marriage. Vera is constantly scolding the men, calling them losers and ignorant. Several of these men were also high-ranking military, although it is unclear which army they are from.
After explaining who we were, what we were going to do, and why we were doing it, we started as usual with a deliberation on democracy. Democracy, two participants explain, is about the absence of fear; no fear of being arrested for something, no fear of saying what is on their mind. Several participants feel that democracy is about security and equality of the law. Although they have witnessed several Police Officers in Chechnya thinking they are above the law, it should be respected by everyone.
Democracy also is, says Vera, about listening to what others have to say, and making a decision collaboratively. Without saying the words, it is clear that the “others” she refers to must also include the female part of the population.
Two men go at length into the oppression and the torture of which they have been a victim, showing their many mutilations and explaining in detail how they have been tortured. Two of the five men only have one eye. One of them explains that he has psychological problems and has difficulties speaking about anything. He indeed remains silent for most of the time he is present.
Fear is widespread, even in the refugee camp the residents do not trust each other. Kadyrov has his spies everywhere, and if you talk bad about him, you or your family that remain in Chechnya could get in trouble. Several participants explain that they, for example, have received phone calls from family members who had been captured in Chechnya and were asking for money to buy themselves free.
The prospects are depressing. Chechnya is formally a part of Russia, which is considered a safe country. Consequently, the chances to get a permission to stay in Germany are small. The people we have met, have regularly been on the road for many years already. Some stayed first in Austria, others stayed in Poland. Sometimes they have been already sent back to Poland that resends them to Germany. Additionally, due to uncertain futures, the motivation to learn German or integrate in the German society is low. There is no plan. The social workers in the refugee home are also for this reason mainly into containment and conflict management. They do not try to activate or empower the people, they help people to get through the day on a daily basis. They assist them with the German bureaucracy and Doctors appointments, and they manage conflicts. Everything is optional, when people subscribe to a workshop or course but do not show up (or show up way too late), there is nothing one can do. The Chechen themselves also do not have a plan. They hang out and hang on.
A soup would be served around 12pm. Eating together habitually contributes to trust and often eases conversation. We found the free meal also motivated more people to participate in our conversations. Sadly, the lunch arrived over one hour late which disrupted the workshop considerably. Eight people stayed for the meal, and 7 then disappeared. We had to collect the participants again by knocking on their doors, only five returned. We discussed together “identity”, and related topics like prejudices, discrimination and tolerance. They all know about identity and discrimination and are angry because so many people see them as terrorists, certainly in Russia they are always portrayed like that. One of the participants, let’s call him Aslan, angrily leaves the room after what seemed like a disagreement with Vera. The remaining people spoke about how important it was for Chechen people to know by heart their family history, going back the last seven generations. This history is their identity. They have been at war with the Russians already for 500 years.
We were promised by the Chechen that the next day they would come with a much bigger group. We agreed to continue our workshop at 10am.
The next morning nobody showed up. Accompanied by a Social Worker one of us knocks on doors but most of our participants are still in bed. At 11am we finally have three participants and we start to discuss freedom and autonomy. Later two more people join us, until lunch.
Once again, the participants go at length into the intimidation, oppression and violence in Chechnya. Freedom for them means that people are left alone, can do what they want, and can express their opinions without repercussions. At the same time they state we need to respect the word of Allah; His word is final.
We show the participants a TED-talk (with Russian subtitles) of a woman (Manal al-Sharif) who fought for the freedom of women in Saudi Arabia to drive a car. Formally there were no laws forbidding women to drive, it was just cultural custom, however the social reactions to her and her family were ferocious. The men do not have much sympathy for Manal al-Sharif. They feel that it is the task of the head of the family to decide the right interpretation of the Koran; if the man comes to the conclusion that his wife should not drive a car, then she should respect this. Manal al-Sharif was putting people at risk, as she was rocking the boat.
Vera, however, supports the message of Manal al-Sharif: of course women can and should drive. Thereupon, the three men angrily leave the room, stating they need a cigarette.
After lunch, none of the men return. We want to talk about gender and equality between the sexes. Present are two young veiled women (mobilized by the social workers), Vera, and an agitated man of 51, walking on crutches (he was tortured by crushing one of his feet with a hammer). In the refugee home he is an informal leader. He starts to explain that democracy and human rights are relative. A child has a right on an apple. A grown-up does not. Then he tries to give an overview of the history of democracy, starting with the ancient Greeks. He is shouting, and trying to ensure we don’t think of him as stupid. He wants to talk about democracy, however the topic is women’s rights. After I have explained that we already went into that topic the previous day (a session he did not attend), he furiously leaves the room. The women silently smile at each other.
The next day, the man comes back to apologize, but he does not participate anymore. To the second workshop leader, he later apologizes at length again, also speaking into Google Translate to have his explanations be translated in German. He explained that he, wrongly, assumed that we were specifically targeting him and the two women wearing a hijab, considering them to have a problem. He had missed our introductory explanation on the first day, which had caused a flawed picture of the ideas behind the workshop.
After the man has left, we continue with the three women and two men that came late. However, after about twenty minutes, they too angrily disappear because Vera had told them that they are not supposed to hit their wives. After their disappearance, Aslam, who shows the most curiosity of all men, joins us again. Like Vera, he really seems to enjoy discussing the topics, although he regularly gets so upset that he has to leave.
We give the participants some information on the development of women rights in Germany. Since when are they allowed to vote? Since when are they allowed to go to the university? Since when are they allowed to have a bank account, or to buy a car? Since when can a woman, from a legal perspective, be raped by her husband? We also show the participants statistical data on the percentages of men and women that went to the university, that are in the labor force, and that are in managerial positions. In Germany only 10% of the members of Supervisory Boards are female, and 97% of the members of the Boards of Directors are male. Conversely 51% of university students are female. We also show them data regarding the overrepresentation of women in particular professions, like nursing and teaching.
The women listen attentively. When we ask what could explain these overrepresentations of men or women, they either have no answers, or do not want to share them. We offer them some historical and sociological explanations which Vera rapidly endorses. The other women mostly remain silent, but remark that Vera’s picture of the position of women in their society is too bleak. Then they tell us that their religion forbids them to discuss these issues with men. For the same reason they cannot discuss homosexuality.
On the third day, the three women come to the workshop at 11am, three men arrive later. In the previous days, we had not managed to follow the usual agenda of topics and now try to wrap up many loose ends by discussing the interrelationships between democracy, freedom and human rights. Vera has much to say, the other women remain silent, but seem alert.
One of the men asks us about our religion. What do we believe in? He makes clear that if we do not believe we will not be able to understand him appropriately, and further discussion will not make much sense. We reply that we might have different worldviews or religions, but that we nonetheless share many values and ideas, simply because we are human. Previous discussions showed that: we all know what freedom is, we all have a sense of “democracy”. We can start from there.
On top of that, we reply, in our discussions we speak as citizens and scholars and as such try to base ourselves on empirical observations and logical reasoning. Everything else we might believe in, we do not consider very relevant in this context because ‘beliefs’ cannot be rationally discussed. If we were to ‘believe’ different things regarding democracy, freedom or human rights could we just leave it at that? We would be unable to discuss in a meaningful way how to solve conflicts, how to cooperate and how to live together. However, what we do share are the abilities to make empirical observations and to reason in logical ways. So this should be the basis to deliberate the topics we try to discuss in the workshop. The men do not seem to be completely convinced by this; after the lunch they do not return.
We continue our conversation with a discussion on masculinity. Normally we finish with a discussion on homosexuality, bringing many previous discussion points (freedom, human rights, discrimination, respect) together. In this particular workshop, this topic seems to be out of reach. Alternatively, asking “What is a man?” often stirs a lot of amused, lighthearted discussions. What do we expect of a man? There are three women there and Aslan. Vera explains that a man should decide for himself what is good and bad, and not follow social or cultural conventions. She feels he should focus on his inner world and family and not on society, he should be stable, reliable and responsible. The two other, veiled women are less articulate, but point to the relevance of religion; a good man is devoted. Aslan does not entirely agree with Vera, but at least he does not angrily leave the room.
We ask the people to fill in a short feedback survey. Our Russian translator, a Russian sociologist doing his PhD on the emancipation of women in Russia, translates the questions. Generally, he does an excellent job. He translates very accurately and does not involve himself in any discussions, despite his sympathies for the Chechnyan cause. Generally, because many translators we worked with in the past, could not resist the temptation to become a part of the discussions themselves, we prefer not to work with translators.
The feedback of the four people present is very affirmative. They all would like to participate in future workshops. This is also the feeling with which we leave, not for the first time, the refugee home: we had the sense of just starting the deliberation, we opened some doors, furthered some doubt, built a little bit of trust, empowered some individuals, and found some anchor points from which we could continue to work on insight, understanding and consensus. But even more so than other workshops we have done, it is only a beginning. We would need much more time.
The social workers report to us some weeks later that the workshop had triggered ongoing conversations and discussions on themes that were not talked about before. Therefore, they already considered the workshop worthwhile and effective.
*Thanks to Jess Haigh for her excellent editing of this article.
[i] Verfassungsschutzbericht Brandenburg 2017. 188ff