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The Lessons I Learned As A Teacher Of Refugees In Germany

I was overcome by just how similar we were.

14/04/2017 4:59 AM AEST | Updated 14/04/2017 6:55 AM AEST
Ina Fassbender / Reuters
Germany welcomed more than 1 million refugees in 2015.

The inhumane nature of war has never been so obvious.

The chemical attacks in northern Syria perpetuate an already well-known fact in a painfully truthful way. War takes innocent lives and no civilian of a war-torn country is exempt from such horror. The politics of war embody an unjust power struggle between global superpowers at the cost of widespread loss of life and homeland.

Over half of the Syrian population has been killed, wounded or displaced in the civil conflict that has dominated the region for six years. Many refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have fled to the European countries that are willing to help them.

One country dedicated to this aid is Germany, and last year I was lucky enough to live there. I resided in a small, Southwestern university town called Tübingen.

Siobhan Kenna
The beautiful university town of Tübingen in Southwestern Germany.

While I was living and studying there, I joined a group of people called Teachers on the Road. The group spent hours every week offering refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan German language lessons in addition to those they already attended.

Teaching refugees German, when my mother-tongue is English, was both a challenging and fascinating experience. Interestingly though, it was the time spent getting the bus home from classes together, or chatting in the break that I gained an insight into the lives of these people.

I remember my preconceptions of refugees being completely shattered. While it sounds awful, I was taken aback by just how normal they were. It's easy for people in the Western world to feel distanced from the war-torn Middle East as it can seem so far away. It's easy to think that we have nothing in common with people who are refugees because we don't seem to share similar experiences.

I was overcome by just how similar we were.

One of the funniest and most insightful conversations I had was with a Syrian gentleman from Damascus. We got talking about how different German society was compared to those we grew up in, both having recently moved to Germany from our home countries.

He explained that in Damascus he owned both a bar and a restaurant.

"Once the bar was closed at around 4 am, all of my mates would come and drink with me as I was cleaning up," he explained in German. "Our way of life is about enjoying time together, we don't need much sleep, we want to live."

The Damascus he lived in had a rich culture of food, drinks and night life. He said he loves Germany, and was very grateful for Angela Merkel's work, but it just wasn't the same as home.

"'I'm half Christian, half Muslim," he said. " I drink, I eat pork." He looks forward to a day where he can return home, but he just doesn't know when that will be.

One Wednesday evening, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on Aleppo in November 2016, I was working with two men, trying desperately to explain how compound words work in German. It wasn't going well. We decided to take a break. One of the men was from Baghdad, Iraq and the other, I discovered quite quickly, was from Aleppo in Syria.

The man from Syria explained in broken German that he was the only member of his family who managed to get to Germany and while it was the plan for his family to come to Europe, that prospect now seemed less certain. This chat was raw and human and it was something I had never experienced before. He was emotional, and he was vulnerable and it was so obvious the immense personal loss he was experiencing at the hands of a multinational power struggle. The contrast between global power and the authentic human was, in that moment, incredibly overwhelming. War and humanity are tragically but inextricably connected.

The man from Baghdad then outlined his incredible journey to Germany, which saw him travel on an overcrowded bus for 15 days through nearly 20 countries. But he was resolute that this conflict wasn't going to last forever.

Essentially, we are human and we are inherently alike. Displaced people are the same as all of us.

I asked him: "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

He responded: "Back in Baghdad."

My view of the Middle East as war torn and unlivable was completely subverted. Having moved to a different country myself, in less tragic circumstances of course, I can understand a yearning for your homeland. The difference is that I had the choice of when and if I wanted to return. This is a privilege not afforded to the people I met when I volunteered in Germany.

Not only have people from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria been forced away from their countries with no return date, they have lost everything that makes their homes what they were. And yet they are so similar to people from peaceful countries.

Essentially, we are human and we are inherently alike. Displaced people are the same as all of us. They have families, likes and dislikes, flaws and talents and ultimately, they, like all of us, are seeking to belong. In this world of change, uncertainty and terror, what connects us, our humanity, hasn't really changed that much at all.


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