Bread Rolls and Bread-and-Butter Issues

A visit to a breakfast-time surgery held by Berlin’s ‘integration pilots’

von Theresa Schmidt

Berlin 2016. Foto: Juliette Moarbes
The consultation hour is about dealing with burdensome paperwork. More than that, it’s about meeting others and regaining lost confidence. Berlin 2016. Photo: Juliette Moarbes

Sajedah Abu Saoud puts a big cheese platter in the middle of a long table. There are small bowls of olives, cucumber slices and bread rolls around the table and a woman is serving hot water for tea. Smaller tables have been pushed together, as is the case every Wednesday in the social room of the Containerdorf (container village) in Berlin’s Lichterfelde district. Some 15 women have come, laid the table and are chatting with each other. There are kids romping around. Breakfast time with the Integrationslots*innen (integration pilots) from the Diakonisches Werk Steglitz and Teltow-Zehlendorf – a social welfare organisation – is for many the highlight of the week.

Sajedah is one of these integration pilots. The Jordanian has been working for the Berlin-wide support programme since 2008. The idea is for people from immigrant families who have been living in Germany for some time already to act as intermediaries – particularly language mediators – between newcomers and authorities. Sajedah speaks Arabic and is today joined by three colleagues who work in English, French, Farsi and various Ethiopian languages. The communal breakfast is a type of open consultation hour. “The women bring letters with them they don’t understand, for example,” says Sajedah. “We translate, help them to understand what needs to be done and support them if necessary.” She takes a slice of cheese and puts it on one half of her crunchy bread roll. A woman on the other side of the tables shouts something to her in Arabic and holds up a white bread roll. The pilot replies. Another woman joins in and points to a plate of waffles. Everyone laughs. Translating, Sajedah says, “She asked which bread rolls had more calories in them – whole grain or white bread rolls. I said that multigrain rolls have more calories in them but they also keep you feeling full for longer.“ She dabs a few crumbs from the table with her fingertip. “Sometimes we also use the breakfast for vocabulary training: ‘butter’, ‘knife’, ‘plate’, it works really well.“ Sajedah has been in Berlin for almost 20 years and has established herself professionally and privately, but she knows what it’s like to be a foreigner here. “For the first six years, I was at home alone and had no contacts,” she says. “Six years! Back then, there was no compulsory German course and you didn’t need it at home anyway. I was very unhappy.“ Sajedah, a qualified teacher, is wearing a denim jacket with a fur collar. Her patterned hijab goes well with her chain. She says at some point she pulled herself together. She started teaching Arabic in an association and took a German class. She discovered the integration-pilots programme, which was then still called Stadtteilmütter (district mothers), via the local job centre. She also took driving lessons and passed the test – “no errors“.

Berlin 2016.Foto: Juliette Moarbes
The integration pilots act as intermediaries between newcomers and authorities. Berlin 2016. Photo: Juliette Moarbes

Across the table, another pilot, Karima Houdaibi Al-Jayat, is talking with Aisha, a woman from the container accommodation. With Karima translating for her, Aisha says, “Breakfast here reminds me of Syria. We always met up with neighbours or the family and drank coffee together.” A shy, gentle woman, Aisha has missed none of the nine breakfasts held so far. She enjoys talking with the other people and sharing experiences with them. As she continues speaking, Karima suddenly puts her hand on Aisha’s arm. Karima then translates Aisha’s touching words, that without the support of the pilots she would have no idea what to do.

Like her colleague Sajedah, Karima was also once a newcomer in Germany. She says that she came from Morocco in 1995 and that she was also unhappy for the first few years. “I had studied law and here I was suddenly illiterate. That made me sad and I was never satisfied with myself.” There was no integration-pilots programme back then, or anything like it. Karima says she didn’t have the courage to go to a language class and wasn’t aware of any other education or information opportunities. This is something she wants to change with her pilot work. “I’d like to show the women the opportunities that exist and help them make the most of them,” she says. “We’re trying to make the route we took shorter for them, and to encourage them.“ Karima had to do everything on her own initiative – and she did it. Her dark eyes are shining with optimism. After completing her German course, she even took a correspondence course to become an organic food consultant before starting her work at the Diakonisches Werk in 2011.

A small curly-haired girl pushes herself between Aisha and Karima. It’s Hanan, Aisha’s youngest daughter. Karima greets her with a kiss on the forehead. Hanan has just turned six. Karima told Aisha before breakfast that compulsory education starts at six in Germany and that she would enrol Hanan in a ‘welcome class’. Integration pilots also help out here in the same way they help find nursery places or provide support at parent-teacher meetings. Aisha strokes her daughter’s head before Hanan runs back to the corridor. Aisha also has three young sons and an older daughter who has made an asylum application in Jordan. The family has been living in the emergency accommodation on the edge of Berlin for five months now. The next goal is for the family to have its own apartment. “Bit by bit,” says Karima as she again puts her hand on Aisha’s arm.

The cheese platter is by now almost empty. There’s a clatter of crockery as the breakfasters clear the table and wash up. They laugh, shake hands and say “šukran” – ‘thank you’. The consultation hour is about dealing with burdensome paperwork. More than that, it’s about meeting others and regaining lost confidence.