Where Theories became Force: A summer in East Germany

From May 31st to July 14, 2017 I studied the history of European Integration and violence in Europe at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder, Germany. I was surprised from the moment of arrival, essentially – as I saw a side of Germany that I did not think about – the difficulty of recovery from being divided. When I arrived in Berlin, I was surprised to find that two years of German and learning about the culture and language still could not fully prepare me for culture shock. When I arrived in Frankfurt an der Oder, taking a train from Berlin eastward, I was even more surprised to find something that had yet to cross my mind learning about Germany. Frankfurt an der Oder, a smaller, different town than Frankfurt am Main (the big one) used to be an industrial hub under the Soviet Union, and when Germany was reunited, all the heavy industry was shut down and the town suffered unemployment and a population drain. When I think about Germany, I think about how it is the economic hub of Europe, how its infrastructure is nearly unparalleled, and how its political system functions quite well. I did not think of abandoned buildings that the local government has no money to repair, or how Germans in the east blame the EU for many of their troubles. Not only did my studies relate to Social Inequality and Human Rights – my whole experience showed me an experiment in trying to fight inequality. I did not think how the culture of former east Germany has yet to fully assimilate to the west. Nor did I think of how the west has failed to adjust and help merge the former two Germanys in many ways. The cultural problem remains difficult to solve in many ways, as there is still almost an anti-western sentiment in eastern Germany, and vice versa in west Germany. The way the country has attacked the economic problem, and even started to attack the cultural divide, has been interesting though. With the dawn of European integration and the revival of the German economy, the infrastructure – the public institutions, transport, and other structures in east Germany – has undergone serious revitalization.

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(Pictured: The Abandoned Communist Youth Theater, Frankfurt an der Oder)

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(European University Viadrina, Frankfurt an der Oder, Germany)

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(Façade of the Reichstag, Berlin, Germany)

The university I studied at was closed by the Soviets, but has been built back up by the country to become a well-known international educational institution. In many ways, though many buildings are abandoned and still destroyed – the infrastructure in East Germany is better than the west, as its become more focused on making its students cosmopolitan. Therein lay the biggest cultural difference I saw in Germany – the way children are brought up to know their own history more thoroughly than anything before they broaden their knowledge to the world. The Holocaust is a giant scar on German history, and the Nazi period is a taboo subject for many in the United States. However, in Germany, people fully recognize the past’s mistakes, as the old slogan “never again” truly means something to them. In discussing their history, Germans were very blunt and thought the only productive way to move forward was to recognize the past so as to understand the problems of today and solve them. Though most Americans know their country’s history, the attitude toward it, and attitude toward education here is far different than the German one, and I honestly wonder now what changes developing these attitudes and approach toward a more efficient infrastructure at a local level, particularly here in Montana, with the presence of historical trauma on reservations and a lack of proper education structures for many, could make.

Going Abroad

When I first signed up for my Australian summer abroad program, I had no idea what to expect. It was only going to be a month long, so I thought “how am I going to learn much?” But after being there for about two hours, I already knew this was going to be a very busy month.

After driving up a mountain for what seemed like hours, we arrived at the Center for Rainforest Studies. The access road had no signs indicating that was the entrance, and that was the intention. It kept us even more isolated from the rest of civilization. The “center” was really just a small building in the middle of the Australian rainforest and it had a small classroom, a common area for the students, a kitchen, and the staff’s offices. Behind the center was a muddy path that led to the cabins, where we slept. After being given a small tour of the area, we had lunch followed by a hike around the site, and then a few lectures which introduced us to our schedule.

Our schedule started at 7 a.m. every day – we woke up, had breakfast and did dishes, then we split up into groups and did different activities. At the end of the day we had dinner, did the dishes and went to bed. I did so much in such a short month; I installed animal traps in the pouring rain on one day, the other I went to a town called Kuranda and interviewed the local residents, another day I did transect surveys of native plant species. I snorkeled in the great barrier reef and learned to identify bleached corals. I did bird surveys and platypus surveys in the early morning. I set up camera traps to capture images of pademelons and bandicoots. I went spotlighting for opossums in the night. I did so much, and I learned so much in that month, that now I believe every student should take the opportunity to study abroad if they can.

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.

Maternity Ward

After the first few days of getting a feel for the hospital operations, I decided to spend most of my time in maternity because of the high number of births that happen every day. One of the nurses estimated that the hospital saw between 3 and 7 births every day–and that, of course, does not count the births that happen at home with Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs). With so many pregnant women and new mothers, the maternity ward was overflowing.

My main duties were giving treatment to new moms. They all got antibiotics for seven days after they gave birth and many also needed malaria medication to reduce the risk of complications during pregnancy, delivery, and breast feeding. I helped mix the medicine, drew it up into syringes, and administered it through cannula ports that were inserted by the trained nurses. (I am definitely not qualified to put in an IV.) I also helped clean wounds after women had to get C-sections, weigh and clean babies after they were born, and bring the newborns and their mothers back to their beds in the ward. I loved seeing the little newborn babies–they looked like aliens, but really adorable aliens.

Birth in Uganda is very different than birth in the US. There are no epidurals and doctors very rarely, if ever, assist in births. That task is left up to the nurses and nursing students. The mothers have to provide their own waterproof sheet to lay on during the delivery as well as all of the bedding for her hospital bed, all of the towels to clean the baby and all of the blankets to swaddle it. Additionally, mothers have to bring sterile gloves and a sterile razor blade for the nurses to use during the delivery. The nurses use the bottom of the gloves to tie the umbilical cord and then use the razor blade to “cut” the cord (its more of a sawing motion rather than a cutting motion).

The mothers are rarely accompanied by anyone and certainly not a husband. There were never any men (besides the male nurses and doctors) anywhere near the labor suites. The women were mostly quiet, occasionally moaning with the contractions, but there were never any screeches or screams that Americans would usually associate with childbirth. The women in the ward ranged from teenagers having their first child to women in their late thirties or even older having their fifth, sixth, or seventh child. In Uganda, the total fertility rate is 6.7 meaning that, in her lifetime, an average woman will have about seven children.

The women I met in the maternity ward were so hardy and strong and inspiring. They cook all of the food for their family, they fetch the water, they clean the house, and they give birth with little help from friends, family, or modern medicine. Like the rest of the hospital, the maternity ward has not changed since the 60s and could really use a face-lift.

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These are the rooms that the women give birth in.

Adventuring in South Africa

I have been living, working, loving, and traveling around the tip of South Africa in Cape Town for the last five weeks. Yesterday marked my “midway point” to my trip and it was quite a shock. I have already done so much here, yet want to get so much more out of my trip.

I have been working in a township of Cape Town, Khayelitsha, at the Treatment Action Campaign. This is an HIV/AIDS foundation in the heart of the townships. They work nationally to better the quality of life through means of education, policy, and awareness. Their mission,  is, “To ensure that every person living with HIV has access to quality comprehensive prevention and treatment services to live a healthy life” (About the Treatment, n.d.). There are three core sectors that are run under the Treatment Action Campaign: Prevention and Treatment Literacy, Community Health Advocacy, and Policy, Communications and Research. The Prevention and Treatment Literacy sector and Community Health Advocacy sector both fight to reduce stigma towards HIV positive individuals, decrease gender based violence, and increase the knowledge about HIV and its associated illnesses within the respective communities. While the Policy, Communications and Research sector aims to protect the rights given to the people by the South African Constitution that are not being upheld. This sector fights in the courthouses, at the government, and with the local police.

Currently, I have been doing a variety of things at the organization. I have helped to organize files for branches and freed up time for others to do their work while I focus on the administrative side. While this is not my focus, I realize that working in a grassroots organization is not always going to be hands on, but rather fulfilling all of the little details in order to get anything done.

I have also been able to observe adherence councilors for ARV treatment which has been a very interesting process. The healthcare system is very different here and being able to observe these sessions has allowed me to see more into the lives of nurses, councilors, and HIV positive patients. I am only beginning to understand the struggles of HIV in this country and what the lives are like for the people living in poverty in the townships.

While I spend thirty hours a week at this organization, the rest of my time has been spent exploring Cape Town.

I have climbed Lion’s Head to see the sunrise and sunset over Cape Town, I have hiked along the base of Table Mountain and has seen the entirety of the city from above, I have also seen the city from the sea on a sail boat. I have visited the District Six museum to better understand how the displacement of peoples happened in this city, and have walked around the old and new districts to see the changes made.

I have also traveled along the eastern coast of South Africa along the Garden Route and bungy jumped, saw elephants, walked along a gorgeous beach, and stayed at the coolest hostel I have ever slept at. There is always so much to do in Cape Town like moonlight bike rides, exploring the quirky restaraunts and shops, and always finding something new.

There is so much to see here, I am sure that my next five weeks will be just as eventful, if not more.

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Observational Ecology

In addition to our interactions with the local people, great emphasis was given to our understanding of the land.  We spent time everyday exploring the woods and the water.  We practiced the lost art of a naturalist; giving up end goals and destinations in exchange for close observation and timeless discovery.  Days were dedicated to finding mushrooms, catching aquatic species, and tracking wolves.   Keeping journals of our findings, we documented new sights, sounds, and smells.  We used group discussion to interpret our findings, map and compass to orient our path.

The Swan Valley is a geologic wonder.  Carved by glaciers, mountains rise on either side and hold acres of federally designated Wilderness.  Grizzlies traverse the diverse forest types and feed on the abundance of huckleberries.  We did the same.  Learning about forest fire regimes, plant communities, and the interconnected webs of energy throughout the ecosystem I grew in my appreciation for the natural world.  We spent days hiking the creeks, wading through ponds, and enjoying a fen (a rarity in this region).  I learned about new species on the macro and micro scales.  I learned the importance of a keen eye.  I learned the complexity of managing a forest.

My observation, experience, and memories will continue to drive me to be engaged in conservation efforts.  We as humans are damaging the earth, but ecosystems are resilient.  When we communicate with the landscape and align our goals with nature, the beauty can remain.

Students and Instructors stand at the edge of a pool dug by bears.  Black and Grizzly bears will frequent these holes during hot days to cool off and to play.

Students and Instructors stand at the edge of a pool dug by bears. Black and Grizzly bears will frequent these holes during hot days to cool off and to play.