The Changed Face of Germany?

While most participants the Missoula to Berlin Journalism school program had done some international travel previously, and some had even spent time in Germany, I was afforded the unique perspective of observing Europe immediately before and after the refugee influx of 2015/16. Because I had lived and worked in Bavaria during the summer of 2014 and studied in Austria in the following fall and spring, I perceived the refugee “crisis” as a type of before and after snapshot that is probably uncommon.

While back in the United States last winter, I followed the refugee situation fairly closely, and expected to return to a radically changed Europe. Instead, I found Germans more prone to volunteerism, more politically polarized, but far from expressing the monumental shift in consciousness I had expected.

To the outsider, there were also minor observable differences. An Austrian chain supermarket in the town where I studied had been converted into a Syrian grocery, machine-gun toting police officers now patrol the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, and more women in headscarfs can be seen on the subway system.

Although my original intention in writing this blog post was to highlight some of the superficial and aesthetic differences between Germany of 2014 and today, I realize this over-simplification is inaccurate and dismisses the significance of the situation.

For all their media hype, the immediate and tangible challenges of accommodating refugees pale in comparison to the long-term, intangible difficulties of cultural evolution. While not all asylum seekers plan to stay in Germany permanently, some certainly will. It will be Germany’s ability (or inability) to make these new residents prominent members of their cultural and political identity, that will shape the new face of Europe.

The type of monumental paradigm shift that I had expected upon arrival in Germany this summer, while not yet fully expressed, must come to fruition if the violence of radical islam and nativism are to be avoided in the future. Germany has been superficially, yet undoubtedly changed, but it will be the ability of Germans to change themselves that will  decide the future of the nation. The greatest challenge concerning the refugee crisis is not what has already passed, but what is to come.

The Silver Lining

In addition to the interviews that each member of the Missoula to Berlin reporting team set up in Germany, the group was treated to numerous lectures from various experts on the refugee crisis in Europe. On the third day of our visit, Werner Schiffauer, a professor of cultural studies at Europa Universität, gave an engaging lecture about refugee integration and the social implications of religious diversity that changed my perspective on the european refugee crisis.

Beaming in the brightly lit conference room, Schiffauer’s interest in the topic was infectious. Besides his owl-like eyebrows and Bavarian accent that filtered even into his fluent English, what struck me most was his emphasis on the good that has come from the refugees in Germany.

Schiffauer explained that the media has focused heavily on the negative implications of the refugee situation, such as the financial burden of accommodating refugees, the threat of terrorism and the backlash from right-wing extremists. While this is necessary to the discussion of refugee issues, what Schiffauer highlighted was the unparalleled “Refugees Welcome” movement. Volunteer workers have spearheaded an astonishing number and scope of projects in the last year to address this issue. Refugee shelters were often overwhelmed by the number of donations and many were even forced to stop accepting donated food and clothing items.

It is this grassroots effort that Schiffauer finds so heartening. For many Germans this unprecedented rise in altruism became a partial expression of atonement for their role in the holocaust and the second world war. Unfortunately this movement has been downplayed in the media.  “The media focuses on the rise of the right-wing,” he explained, “but ignores the monumental left-wing momentum since 2015.”

According to Schiffauer, this willingness to give and desire to innovate is the sliver lining of the crisis. While volunteerism and left-wing momentum have decreased in the past six months as fewer refugees have entered Europe, unprecedented numbers of German’s are still engaged. This selflessness in the face of fear and uncertainty is what gives me hope for the future of refugee integration in Germany.

It’s not only Germany which can benefit from the human willingness to give. Even many conservative Germans find the United States’ meager acceptance rate of 10,000 refugees laughable. As someone who has observed the refugee situation in Europe firsthand, I suggest that the United States government reevaluate its minuscule acceptance quotas. My hope is that we, as a nation, can address our fears and uncertainties associated with immigration in a reasoned manner in order to become more selfless and giving to those in need.

The Group

This May, eighteen University of Montana students, including myself, packed up our notepads, recording equipment, and varying degrees of altruistic aspirations and took off for the European continent. We had little in common except for our decision to participate in a faculty-led, journalism-school expedition with the stated goal of “chasing the refugee story all the way to Berlin.” Most group members were journalism students; several, like me, came from a mishmash of related majors from which we could manufacture some vague connection to a reporting trip in Germany.

The differences between the students in the group were about as pronounced as those between our two intrepid leaders: the NPR reporter turned university dean with a voice like a prohibition-era speakeasy doorman, and the formerly punk-rocking Berliner with the blustery demeanor and attire of a threatening (yet motherly) cumulonimbus. After arriving in the once divided, symbolic epicenter of the Cold War tensions, we were joined by a Montana cowpoke turned Fulbright photographer and four translators, all of whom were recent arrivals from various war-torn regions of Afghanistan and Syria.

We were a passionate, if eclectic, group of journalists, who looked somewhat lost while traipsing through Europe’s second largest metropolis. Most of had some apprehension when confronted with the thought of sharing each waking moment for the duration of the project with group members in the cramped, if luxurious, living quarters of the Cat’s Pajamas Hostel. That was before we visited the Emergency Refugee Shelter in Neuköln.

There, hundreds of recently arrived refugees share extremely crowded quarters with complete strangers in a converted factory building. In a place where each person’s tiny living space is separated from the countless others by acoustically unforgiving blankets, privacy is essentially nonexistent and tensions run high. Although the Neuköln shelter was intended as temporary relief housing, the beaurocratic hurdles of obtaining residency status and the German government’s stagnancy in processing asylum applications means that many refugees have been living in these challenging conditions for over a year.

Unlike our “eclectic” group of “intrepid” journalists, refugees living in the Neuköln shelter come from completely differing cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Most are confronting the unspeakable traumas associated with fleeing their war-ravaged homelands, witnessing the deaths of loved ones and traveling for thousands of miles through politically unpredictable, and sometimes hostile foreign countries.

Suddenly our own apprehensions seemed trivial, our stresses insignificant, the publication of these people’s stories more important than ever. With the residents of the Neuköln shelter in mind, the group began research on our news stories and embarked on a relatively conflict-free three weeks communal living in Germany’s capital.

Crossing Cultures: Obama in Argentina

IMG_2596One of the most interesting yet intimidating events we experienced in Buenos Aires was President Obama coming to visit. The first day we arrived in the city, several people told us he was coming, even though it wasn’t for another month. However, his arrival in Buenos Aires was greatly anticipated and incredibly controversial. In order to explain why, one of our professors gave a weeks-long history lesson about Argentina.

Forty years ago, the Argentine military staged a coup and took over the government, which began the darkest period in the country now known as “The Dirty War” or “La Guerra Sucia“. During this time, the military leaders formed the Triple A: The Argentine Anticommunist Alliance. The Triple A hunted down and killed any left-wing activists, military dissidents, or Peronists. An estimated 30,000 people “disappeared” meaning they were killed or kidnapped. Many children of the victims were kidnapped and given to military families. The 30,000 disappeared are known generally as the “desaparecidos”. Having occurred only four decades ago, the Dirty War and its victims still feel like a fresh wound in the hearts of many Argentine citizens.

How does Obama’s visit play into this? Well, he was set to arrive in the country on the fortieth anniversary of the military coup. This date angered a huge number of Argentine citizens because many feel like the U.S. somewhat “condoned” the military’s activity because Henry Kissinger had secretly approved the military rule, and U.S. has yet to release classified documents about the war that could possibly shed light on the fate of many victims. People were mad. They were angered that the President of the U.S., a country that did not push harder to respect and help human rights during such a violent time in Argentina, felt he could come to their country on such an emotional and important day.

When President Obama arrived on March 24th, huge protests were held in Plaza de Mayo which rests between the government buildings that house the Argentine president’s office. We decided to attend the protests. As we walked down the main avenue to the plaza, hundreds of people held up pictures of their killed or disappeared friends and family members and shouted “Nunca Más!” meaning “never again”. I couldn’t help but tear up as we witnessed the emotion and unity of thousands of citizens in the streets.

While many held up signs and photographs, we witnessed more intense protests of Obama’s visit in the form of burning American flags and posters denouncing the President’s presence. Once we saw these, my roommate and I decided to head back to our house just to be safe. It was an incredibly intense day in the city, but I was undeniably lucky to witness such an event–one that I will never see again. It gave us a chance to step away from our American identities and understand a different history from a new perspective.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

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After a month in Patagonia, our UM group headed back to the big city: Buenos Aires. As someone who has never lived in a city of more than a few hundred thousand people, moving to Buenos Aires for two months was a daunting change, especially considering we would be living with a family who spoke little to no English. Luckily, my roommate and I were placed in a house with a kind and inviting house mom, Cecilia, and her two daughters, Clari (19) and Maria (17). While the older sister insisted we go out with her almost every evening with her to see everything that Buenos Aires nightlife has to offer, Maria was more of a homebody who taught us to cook her favorite Argentine dishes and helped us with our homework for the University of Belgrano. They created a perfect mix of activities and down time, and both were incredibly concerned with helping us have the best time in their city.

At the University of Belgrano, we took culture, art, and literature classes from professors who spoke almost no English. While at first this seemed like a negative aspect, it turned out to be one of the best experiences we could have had! I think everyone in the group impressed themselves by learning to take notes and follow along in hour and half classes which were entirely in Spanish! While living among millions of people first seemed daunting, my confidence was boosted through the roof, and I feel more strongly than ever that I could travel to just about any country and learn my way around, with or without language barriers.

Living in the city does have its downsides. After eight weeks constantly surrounded by people rushing to their next location, I realized that I probably am not built to live in such a populated area, but I feel so lucky to have had the chance to experience life in Buenos Aires. We saw some of our favorite bands, watched impressive tango dancers, ate the best food I’ve ever had, and visited museums with art by Frida Kahlo and Antonio Berni. I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything, but I learned a lot about myself and my likes and dislikes and preferences for a good quality of life. I missed the mountains, the small-town feel, and bike-friendly city. With that knowledge about what works for me and work doesn’t, I think I will be able to choose my next move/job more wisely because I’ve had these experiences.

Patagonia, Argentina

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After a ten hour flight and twenty-three hour bus ride, we arrived in Bariloche, Patagonia. Bariloche is a town of about 100,000 people in the foothills of the Andes Mountains that sits on the shore of Lake Nahuel Huapi. I, along with thirteen other University of Montana students (whom I had only met previously in passing) hopped in cabs from the bus station and headed to our hostel, La Justina, which was to become our home for the following month. I felt rather uneasy realizing that I was to share a room full of bunk beds with five other girls who I had never spent any time with. A few weeks later, I knew I could not have found a better group of women to share such awesome adventures and such a tiny room with.

While the town of Bariloche itself is beautiful with the massive, turquoise lake and surrounding mountains, we found that its popularity derives from not just majesty and beauty of the town itself but the Patagonian mountains and national parks that surround it. While we were in Patagonia, my bunk mate, Cree, and I were able to embark on four separate backpacking trips in three different parks. I thought that getting on the trail would provide some familiarity for me in such a foreign place, but for the majority of it, it felt quite the opposite. We had to use our Spanish language skills that had only been practiced in the comfort of UM’s classrooms in order to buy bus passes, comprehend the counterintuitive bus schedules, and yell at the driver to drop us off near a dirt road we had only read about in online blogs to find the trailheads. On our first backpacking trip to a mountain lake called El Frey, we ran into several others on the trail, but no Americans. When we reached the top of the mountain after 8 grueling miles, Cree and I sat together on a boulder that rested a few dozen yards past our tent to soak in the view. Several minutes later, a man approached us to ask for matches to light his stove. After sharing our lighter and conversing for a bit, we asked where he was from, only to learn that he works and lives in Victor, Montana. And even after entering a different hemisphere after a half day flight, a full day of a bus ride, and 8 miles into one of the national park trails, we felt a little closer to home and enjoyed the sunset with our new friend.

Goodbye Berlin!

The final part of my project was interviewing someone who actually received a bike from Rückenwind. Strangely, this was the hardest part of reporting. All of the people that mechanics suggested we talk to wouldn’t respond. So, we went in one last time, and were lucky enough to meet a Syrian woman and her husband. They had just started working on repairing their bikes, so we stuck around and documented the entire process. The woman spoke perfect English, and was very outgoing and willing to talk with us. After she fixed her brand new bike, we found a quiet hallway and sat across from each other, knees touching, to talk about why she thought having a bike in Berlin was so important. I purposely avoided the normal questions you hear asked of refugees: Why did you leave? How did you get here? What will you do next?

I find these questions to be pitying. I wanted to know how this woman was doing in her knew home, why she liked bicycles, and let her decide what she wanted to tell me about her past. She eventually did tell me about her reasons for leaving and how she traveled to Germany, information I won’t disclose on the internet per her request. What I can say, is that I never thought I would have the opportunity to sit across from a woman, my age,  who had fled from terrible living conditions and talk to her about her brand new blue bike…. (go to the website to hear more!).

 

The last week of the program I edited my stories. It was a long, long week. We were all tired, getting only a few hours of sleep a night, as we worked up to the deadline. It was a relief to mixdown my project and turn it over to the website crew. But, it also meant that it was time to say goodbye to Berlin. That farewell was difficult. It was such a blessing to spend three weeks exploring a complete new part of the world, not as a tourist, but as a student and a journalist. The trip helped me improve my language skills, my confidence in recording and producing audio-stories, and my ability to jump outside of my comfort zone. I’m back in Germany now for the next year and am planning on visiting Berlin, our translators, and the woman I got to interview about her bike.

 

Check out our stories here:

 

https://missoulatoberlin.atavist.com/missoula-to-berlin

 

Thanks for reading! Tschüss! (Ba-bye!)

International Reporting in Berlin

The last part of the Missoula to Berlin project was focused on reporting and producing stories. Alicia Legget and I reported together on an organization called Rückenwind. Meaning “Tailwind” in English, Rückenwind is a non-profit bike shop that started up in 2015. Refugees can contact the organization and request a bicycle. Once it is their turn, refugees come into the shop and pick out a bike, repair it with a volunteer, and then get to ride away at the end of the day with their very own bicycle.

 

Alicia found the organization before we arrived in Berlin, but we hadn’t been in much contact with the students who run the shop… They are all engineering students and were a bit too busy to return emails. Showing up at the shop was a bit nerve wracking, this was my very first international reporting trip. I hadn’t ever had to reach out to sources in a different language, let alone show up on their doorstep and ask if I could follow them around with a recorder for the next two weeks. But, my nerves quickly dwindled. Walking into the shop for the first time, it was clear that the atmosphere was casual and friendly. All of the mechanics were happy to speak with us in English. This was somewhat of a relief because I wanted to do all of my radio stories in English, without too many voice-overs. We spent a few days in the shop getting to know the different mechanics, watching how they interacted with the refugees, and hearing an interesting mix of languages.

 

Eventually we sat down with a few of the founders and had one-on-one interviews with them about how the shop started and why they donate so much time to the cause.

 

https://missoulatoberlin.atavist.com/missoula-to-berlin

 

Hallo Berlin!

Berlin welcomed us with a rainy, summer embrace. After stuffing our suitcases under our beds, Shane, a graduate of UM and our tour guide/fixer/professor/fairy god father of the trip gave us a tour of our new neighborhood of Neuköln. Berlin is split up into different “neighborhoods,” each having it’s own feeling. Neuköln’s streets are lined with kebab shops, Späti’s (convenience stores that stay open late), hipster burger joints, and a bars.

We spent the first two weeks of the program touring refugee camps and different governmental/nonprofit organizations that play a role in aiding refugees seeking asylum in Germany. We were lectured by different experts of every field, doctors, economists, journalists. Each gave us their perspective of the refugee crisis, allowing us to understand it in a new context.

In return for their help as translators, three men from Afghanistan and one from Syria joined us on these visits and lectures. Talking with them and hearing their feedback about the information that we were hearing from the previous mentioned experts was enlightening, and sometimes uncomfortable. It is one thing to hear about the suffering of others from a lawyer specializing in asylum law, and a completely different thing to hear it from the lips of a man who fled his home in fear of his life.

Tragedy, however, was not the only topic of conversation with these men. I had many long conversations with Anmar, the 35 year old from Syria.  Anmar has bright-red long hair and a white scruffy beard. He loves hard metal, beer, sweets, and is one of the most insightful, gentle, straightforward people I have ever met. His English is near perfect, and is working hard on improving his German as quickly as he can. During our breaks we would sit together with a few other students from the program. As he rolled one cigarette after another, we would discuss religion, love, justice, sex, morality, and of course, American pop culture. Anmar is a refugee, a victim of religious persecution. But, Anmar is also a human being… a guy who likes painting houses, watching movies, discussing philosophical concepts over a beer or two. Talking with him helped me realize just how important this reporting trip was. The Missoula to Berlin project’s main aim is to give a human face to the refugee crisis. Read more in the next blog entry to find out what other amazing people I met who did just that.

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Above: Visiting a refugee shelter.

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Above: Visiting a school where many young refugees take German courses.

Missoula to Berlin

Week One

I started learning the second I stepped off the plane in Berlin. After what felt like days of flying, from Spokane to London then from London to Berlin, I immediately understood what jet lag was, that you have to pay to use most restrooms in Europe, and that water was most definitely not free (and never came with ice). Once I got over these feats, our first task was to make our way to the hostel from the airport using public transportation which was cheap, usually late, but not as hard to manage as I had expected. I met the full group at our hostel and, with no time to unpack or freshen up from the overnight journey, hit the streets of Berlin for a tour. We quickly learned that Berlin wasn’t just a big city in Germany. It’s a city with a long history of immigration, culture and art.

Street art in Berlin seen on a walking tour of the city

Street art in Berlin seen on a walking tour of the city

From the Turkish neighborhood next to our hostel to the many Syrians refugees already integrated, I was overwhelmed (in the best way) with different languages, food, cultures and customs. The first week was a whirlwind of struggling to order items off of menus, navigating the U-bahn and bus systems, and diving headfirst into the rich history of Berlin, complete with seeing the Berlin wall to learning about the history of world-famous clubs along the Spree.

Part of the Berlin Wall

Part of the Berlin Wall

In this first week, I learned more than I ever could have imagined traveling abroad, cultures different than mine, and we began to examine the refugee crisis, except this time close up and not from across the Atlantic safe in our classrooms.

 

Up-close: The refugee camps

Some of the most prominent days during the trip to Berlin were those when our group visited refugee camps. We’ve spent a year learning about refugees, trying to understand their struggles and the complicated asylum process, and when it came time to listing off the facts of the refugee crisis, many of us felt proficient and well-educated about the crisis. However, when it came to experiencing what it was really like to be one of these individuals with unique scenarios, we were clueless. After an hour bus ride and a mile walk out of Berlin, we arrived at a refugee camp.

Interviewing workers at a refugee camp

Interviewing workers at a refugee camp

Clothes hung up to dry on a fence at the often over-crowded refugee camp

Clothes hung up to dry on a fence at the often over-crowded refugee camp

We immediately met men, women and children who are often shown as victims simply demanding German resources in the media. Either they’re depicted as evil Muslims coming to take jobs and spread Islam, or they’re shown as victims leeching off the system of a wealthy country. While we knew it was much more complicated than that, even just speaking with a few people changed our perspective. We met people who loved the camp and others who hated the plumbing. Some were wondering why a group of American students with cameras were allowed to come in (which we sometimes wondered too) and others were thrilled to have their picture taken, posing with peace signs and posting selfies with us to Facebook. Suddenly they weren’t just “the refugees” as we’ve discussed in class so much as one collective group. “The refugees” suddenly became individuals. They became Amir, one of our translators, who was ecstatic because he’d just been granted the opportunity to move out of his refugee camp that he’s called home for years into a real home in Berlin. They became children not older than 10 who quickly overshadowed us as they showed off the four languages they spoke — embarrassing compared to our English. As we walked through the refugee camps, expecting crying and despair, we were surprised to find children playing soccer in the yard, taking selfies with their iPhones, and wearing designer clothes they brought with them on their trip from Syria. These were people. People who one day had to leave their homes and come to Germany, while we were coming to Germany because we wanted to broaden our education, not because we had to.

 

Wrapping things up

The second and third weeks in Berlin were busy with real, on the ground, international journalism. With half of our phones not working on our German SIM card plans and more than half of us knowing how to speak German (not to mention Arabic or Farsi), we quickly learned to adapt. After a few stress-induced breakdowns and loads of help from our advisors, we were on to producing our final project on a deadline, with not-so-great WiFi, in a foreign country, on a subject we knew nothing about a few months ago.

Going over the final edits. Photo by Shane McMillian

Going over the final edits. Photo by Shane McMillian

With the quotes from the doctors, politicians, refugees and others in Berlin, advice from Shane, Henriette and Larry, insight and help from our translators who were also refugees, and support from newfound friends in the group (which was bound to happen when after living in close quarters for nearly a month) we produced a final portfolio-worthy project we all can be proud of. Not only did we get to study and research a migration event that will be historically significant for years, we also got a chance to practice real journalism outside of the classroom, both of which will affect my life for the better in years to come as a journalist and traveler.