Building bridges together

From Paula Troidl

This is a translated version.

Around 25 percent of all people living in Freiburg have a migration background – many of them experience discrimination in their everyday lives. Associations in Freiburg are fighting for peaceful coexistence. But does this really help those people? 

”Nobody is free from discrimination and nobody is free from racism, no matter how open-minded you are”, Esther Röcher is convinced. She is 24 years old and has been working for the association “Start with a friend” in Freiburg for 10 months. She brings people with and without a migration background together. Röcher’s goal therefore is to create encounters between people so that prejudices can be dismantled. “Start with a friend” normalises the encounter between locals and people who have immigrated. ”It creates contact points where there are none otherwise“, says Röcher. 

She also initiated the connection between Abdullah and Clara. I meet them at a café in Freiburg. When I arrive, Clara is already waiting. After a few minutes, Abdullah comes up to us and hugs Clara.  We enter the café and sit down at a table in the middle. Clara and Abdullah begin to talk about last night. Together with other members of the association, they made a torchlight hike to Schlossberg. They look at the pictures with a smile on their face. The two of them seem as if they know each other well.

Abdullah heard about “Start with a friend” in his German language course this summer. He registered for the association and was invited to a first interview. In a questionnaire, he should indicate his interests and his motivation to participate in this programme. Clara had her first conversation with Esther Röcher. She and her colleagues thought Clara and Abdullah would be a good match and informed both about that by e-mail. They agreed to the meeting and received each other’s contact. Their first encounter followed in October.

Since they met, Clara and Abdullah have been spending time together regularly. Like today, they meet in cafés, attend events or go for walks. Abdullah says, ”Before I signed up for “Start with a friend”, I didn’t spend much time with other people. Meeting Clara made me go out of my comfort zone.” The meeting with Clara also gave him new insights into the German language. Clara often uses informal terms that Abdullah doesn’t hear of in his German language course: ”Before I met Clara, I thought I knew a lot about the German language. But after a few meetings I realized: I really don’t know anything at all,” he says laughing.

Clara also noticed a positive influence with the beginning of her participation in “Start with a friend”. The friendship with Abdullah allowed her to broaden her horizons. In the meantime, she seems more open to people and their stories and has become more sensitive to prejudices: “People with a migration history are often denied individuality. It just always depends on the person and nothing can be generalized. You can’t say: the Syrians, the Albanians. No, we are all individuals.”

Clara learned that the way a person grew up does not have to influence its values. Abdullah grew up in a completely different political situation than she did here in Germany. Nevertheless, they both share similar values and strongly overlap their thinking patterns. It was only through the meetings with Abdullah that Clara noticed that she had not considered this possible. “Many people are not aware of their own bias until they meet a person who makes it clear to them. So encounters can reveal and break down their own prejudices.”

Sherin, who founded the association “Coexister Germany”, is also committed to a society in which people accept each other. The 22-year-old first learned about “Coexister France” while working in the Arche in Grenoble. The values and activities of the association convinced her so much that after her return to Germany in 2021, she decided together with other young people to establish a German vision of Coexister as well.

The first meetings took place via Zoom due to the Corona pandemic. But in October 2021, all members met in presence for the first time in Bonn. The aims of the association were defined. Frankly, it is to bring together people with different religious beliefs, values and backgrounds, and thus promote the exchange between them.

A year later, “Coexister Germany” held a conference in Worms, where people not being members could also come to get to know the association. This meeting was very emotional for Sherin. She says that people with very different stories and backgrounds came together that weekend: “I met people with a completely different life reality from mine and could learn a lot from these encounters.” The exchange with a young woman who, like Sherin, was a Muslim, showed her new perspectives: “In part, you get to know people with a different worldview within your own religion.”

The local groups of “Coexister Germany” are now present in numerous German cities and regularly organize joint actions. The group in Freiburg for example organized a film evening in November, followed by a discussion. The participation is generally open to all people between the ages of 15 and 35.

For Sherin, “Coexister Germany” is a place of encounter. She emphasises that all people are welcome in the association and everyone is allowed to participate: “Every person should come with what is part of their identity and should bring in what is important to them.” This would expose and reduce discriminatory attitudes. Sherin is convinced that this can be achieved throughout the association: “Coexister Germany brings together the most diverse people with whom one would probably never have come in contact with otherwise. The exchange with them changes your own attitude over time. You build up trust with a person from a completely different community, which can break down your own prejudices.“

Whether it is “Start with a friend” or “Coexister Germany”: The goal of these two associations is to realise a discrimination-sensitive society. But is the anti-discrimination work in Freiburg sufficient to fulfill this vision? 

Esther Röcher points out the limits of anti-discrimination work. According to her, such projects only address those people who are already open to diversity: “In order to reach the people who are significantly involved in discriminatory structures, completely different work has to be done. First of all, it has to be investigated why racism exists and which milieus are affected,“ finds the 24-year-old.

She also criticises the fact that the majority of associations in Freiburg that work for anti-discrimination are not funded by the state and are thus attributed a low status: “Anti-discrimination should not be a job that is done on the side.“

Although the current anti-discrimination work in Freiburg is not sufficient for a discrimination-sensitive society, according to Röcher, she sees the projects as a good start for a necessary change: “Even if these offers probably only address certain people, it is true that we all live in this system and have prejudices. No one is free of these and I therefore think that the projects can also have a lasting effect on people who are already open to diversity.“

About the author:
Paula Troidl

Paula ist 22 Jahre alt und am Ende ihres Studiums der Heilpädagogik/Inclusive Education. Neben und im Rahmen ihres Studiums setzt sie sich viel mit gesellschaftspolitischen Themen wie Rassismus, Ableismus und Sexismus auseinander. Sie liebt es, neue Menschen und ihre Geschichten kennenzulernen.

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