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Julia Metzger-Traber – Welcoming as Collaborative Creation

I wasn’t terribly disappointed to be heading home early when nobody showed up on Thursday, as Wednesday had nearly sucked me dry.  I gave every ounce of myself while facilitating. That is the case every week. My brain is exhausted by the week of coordination leading up to our meetings, between the two different schools and administrations I am working with, the four Willkommensklasse (the welcome classes) teachers and their four different schedules, the reporting, the documenting, the budgeting… and that’s without even planning the pedagogical and artistic content.

When I enter the room (hopefully successfully booked and full of willing and ready participants), my body is pushed to its limits as I transmutate into a transpersonal clown. I try to communicate with every cell of my body.  I hope that if I extend my arms high enough, expand my eyes wide enough, open my pores big enough and stretch my aura far enough in enough different directions simultaneously, that even Ali and Noor will be able to understand me, though they just arrived from Iraq last week, and Demachmet will connect and be able to focus for once, and Mohammad will feel safe and Yusef will feel challenged and inspired. I try to get them excited with the energy of my voice, feed them with its power, try to lift their hearts with the strength of my own.  I try to give them structure and freedom to create from their own imaginations; try to see beyond their shields and masks with my extrasensorial perception, and find the little light that wants to shine and dance and sing. Yet, this is of course a Sisyphean task, and at the end of the day I collapse, empty. So, that Thursday I was ready to go home, lie down and stare blankly or weep for a couple of hours, as I’ve become accustomed to do after work.

The news, the streets, my thoughts and my work have been increasingly occupied by the questions of uprooting, rerooting, borders, integration and differentiation that this “refugee crisis” poses.

But, when I ran into Mohammad and Baker leaving the football field and getting ready to go home, I stopped to talk, was happy to see them. They are best friends. Baker, a proud and playful Palestinian 15-year-old from Damascus, here with 30 members of his family, a double refugee, and Mohammad a sturdy, mischievous and quiet 16-year-old with a face like a fox, from Afghanistan, who’s here all on his own. We walked to the metro station together, Baker was going to be taking the train across the city to a suburb where he lives with his family. Mohammad only needed to go one stop to the home for unaccompanied youth where he lives. While we walked and talked, I suddenly saw an opportunity, an opening in the unexpected cancellation of the class, and I asked Mohammad if I could accompany him home to see where he lived. It is my plan to visit each of their homes over the next few weeks. He gladly agreed, and so we got off the train together and walked the few blocks to his apartment building.

According to UNHCR, almost 80,000 people arrived seeking asylum in Berlin in 2015, at least 4,000 of them have been unaccompanied minors. These numbers are at the peak of four years of steady increases in new arrivals. I have been in Berlin since the spring of 2011, also known as the Arab spring, and the beginning of what is now the war in Syria and the resulting refugee crisis.  The news, the streets, my thoughts and my work have been increasingly occupied by the questions of uprooting, rerooting, borders, integration and differentiation that this “refugee crisis” poses. These questions need to be reckoned with and the way they are engaged will transform the shape of societies.

Since September 2015, Germany has been making unprecedented gestures toward the hospitality of refugees, primarily those from Syria, so the face and energy of the country and its capital has been changing rapidly and everyone (excitedly, fearfully or furiously) is talking about welcoming. The word Willkommenskultur (welcome culture) has practically been elevated to the status of a mantra, or a curse. So, as a resident, an immigrant and an elicitive peace worker, the questions I am begged to ask are: what is the transformative potential of this Willkommenskultur?  Who is to welcome whom?  What “home” are the refugees to be welcomed to?  And how does one welcome another anyways?

After a short walk from the metro stop, Mohammad welcomed me into his home, a shared flat with three other boys his age, and onto his prayer rug where we drank tea, listened to Persian music, and looked at photos of his village in the mountains.  There he told me his story.  After fleeing the Taliban in 2012 with his family and the entire population of his small farming village, he lived in Iran for two years. There, with thousands of other Afghan refugees, he was not allowed to attend school, and his parents were working for slave wages. At 13 years old, he decided this was no way to live. So one night he took the deposit from his apartment, and ran away, over the mountains, to Turkey.

I spent two hours with Mohammad, listening, and asking and sharing, offering him my full presence. He sucked on sugar cubes before filling his mouth with tea, explaining that that was how tea was sweetened in Afghanistan. I found out that he plays the flute and has been curious about learning theater but too shy to dare. So, I’ll bring in a flute next week and we’ll find a way for him to play in the performance. Today is the first time I’ve ever been able to talk to him alone. In the workshop he oscillates between smiling shyly and putting on a tough guy mask while he listens to German gangster rap.  Now, I got to see an entirely new sides of him.  In fact, it is precisely this multiplicitousness that I am trying to engage and elicit through my projects, but usually I just get to dip my toes into it during the workshop hours. Every single one of the 30 some odd kids I am working with has their own set of stories, and experiences that thwart the attempts of easy narratives.

If we understand people to be multiplicitous, transforming selves, then the way we think about and enact home and welcoming shift.  So, my question becomes, how do I create and facilitate projects that welcome multiplicitous and transforming subjects? In the mainstream discourse, the problem of the refugee crisis is called one of integration. However, according to the theory of the five peace families, transrational peaces are necessarily about integration and differentiation, as harmony without expression and recognition of difference can be dangerous, suffocating, even oppressive and violent.  How can I, as an artist facilitator, play a role in challenging this dominant interpretation of Willkommenskultur by engaging the more-than-rational layers of being and by helping to expand welcoming from a process of integration and practical skills-building, to a transformative process of collaborative and imaginative society creation?

Currently, the two central, and overlapping, projects that I am running (“In Mir Zuhause” and “HOME”) are working with youth attending “Willkommensklassen” at public high schools around Berlin. These classes (sometimes called learning groups) are for youth arriving from non-German speaking contexts in order to quickly and intensively learn German and catch up on basic educational requirements and then enter into the mainstream school system. The greatest emphasis of these classes is on language acquisition as a gateway into the German society.  There are now more than 300 such Willkommensklassen in Berlin, having tripled since 2012.  Every week new students are arriving from situations they have fled – homes they have had to abandon for one reason or another.

The challenge for the teachers of these classes is immense. They have students of all genders and religious faiths, from ages 12-17 years old, from Roma and Sinti communities, wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, from Kosovo, Bosnia, Romania, and in my experience also Spain, Portugal, the Dominican Republic, Thailand and Poland. Many are living here without family, or in huge refugee homes with their families, surrounded by hundreds of others. They are learning new letters, words, sounds, movements, dress, norms. The teachers I have been lucky enough to work with, are teaching with great love and commitment, but the Willkommensklassen are not designed to meet these students in their multiplicitousness. They are being trained to adapt and survive. So, how can my little afterschool art programs go beyond this narrow view of welcoming?

The word “Willkommenskultur” has practically been elevated to the status of a mantra, or a curse.

Working creatively and collaboratively, through movement, voice and rhythm enables one to reach beyond linguistic layers of engagement and encounter such paradoxes. Holding the space and training the tools for this is my lofty aim with these projects. I am trying to train the muscles of collaboration, listening and harmony as well as independent expression. I am doing this by bringing in all of the tools and media I have access to: drumming, dancing, theater, mindfulness, video, singing, collage and sculpture. The final events will be multi-media performances accompanied by a sculptural collage of sorts.  It will be a 4-dimensional tapestry, a colorful whole woven of many truths, of many homes.

As I often do, I came into this project harboring an active tension within myself between the impulse to offer structure, a clear artistic concept and aim on the one hand, and the impulse to leap into the unknown of the work on the other, leaving room to be surprised and follow the nature of the project and interests of the participants as they emerge. Both are challenging in their own ways, and the dancing negotiation between the two never ceases. The lines are blurry: when does freedom enable and when does it inhibit? The same goes for structure.

In the first weeks, I worked a lot with image theater, inspired by theater for living. The images worked alright, I could even animate them sometimes, but the channels for reflection and verbal expression were missing, the tools necessary to go further into that work. I’m a dancer, so I know words are not only severely inadequate, but also sometimes stones in the path to one’s truth. Yet, for collaboration, the verbal sharing of thoughts and experiences is crucial.

I long to figure out how to let their insides out, their voices be heard.  Sometimes I feel at a loss. I have 20 kids in a room who speak five different languages, and have at least 100 different stories that are asking to be told, so how do I meet them where they are at? How do I invite them and follow them, be invited by them, welcomed into alleyways of their internal labyrinths I would never see at first glance?

A few weeks ago, after a meditation, we were all seated on the floor, cutting pieces of paper and gluing collages that reflected our inner images of home. I decided to put on some music on to accompany the process. While looking for something to play, Le Trio Joubran came up, a Palestinian trio of brothers who create music to Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry. I pressed play and immediately every Arabic-speaking participant looked up. Noor squealed and pointed, “Arabisch! Arabisch!”, Ali smiled and looked around proudly, Baker shouted down from the loft, and Mohammad, who does not yet speak a single word of German, but speaks novels with his eyes, lit up, looked at me and said with great seriousness, “Darwish”. Barely one line had been recited and he recognized the poet. It was a flash of insight into his depths, his past, his passion. I saw a light turn on and followed it. Mohammad’s favorite Darwish poem, The Dice Player, will now be the backbone of the performance. Suddenly he was a co-creator.

As much as I agonize over the curriculum, trying to carve a path to their inner labyrinths, connection does not always happen in the moments I intend it to. It is often in the moments when I let go of the agenda that inspiration strikes. Welcoming is probably similar, it requires intentional, structured spaces, planning and education, but equally, the openness to listen, allow for difference and expression, serendipity and transformation, to be welcomed oneself. Welcoming is not linear or unilateral – we enter one another. If we welcome one another, as curious visitors and generous hosts, maybe we can transform each other and collaboratively create a home that does not yet exist. At least that is what I’ll be trying these next months, but… who am I to say to you what I say to you?

… Who am I? 

I could have not been inspired 
Inspiration is the luck of the lonely soles
The poem is a throw of a dice
on a board of darkness that may or may not shine
and the words fall like feathers on the sand

I play no role in the poem 
I only obey its rhythm:
the movements of sensations, one modifies the other 
intuition that brings a meaning
unconsciousness in the echo of the words
an image of myself which has transferred
from ‘my own self’ to another 
my relying on myself 
and my longing for the spring…


Excerpt from The Dice Player, Mahmoud Darwish