Integration means enabling communication

Friederike Aps has been a mentor in the Unionhilfswerk integration mentorship programme since August. It has brought her a new friendship – and the experience of immersion in a different culture.

von Friederike Aps

Illustration: Claudia Klein
Illustration: Claudia Klein

Integrationspatenschaft is one of those complicated German words. The German language is not known for its simplicity, that’s for sure. The young woman I’ve got to know through our integration mentorship comes from Syria and is 21 years old. For the purpose of this article, I’ll call her Leyla. Her father introduced me to her. He was taking part in a course for refugees I taught in an accommodation facility run by the Unionhilfswerk charity.

It was a very hot day and I remember I had just passed my oral examination at university. I was tired and looking forward to a shower. But my colleague and I extended our lesson that day because the later course leaders hadn’t turned up and the participants were looking at us with curiosity and anticipation, eager to learn. After a double session, Leyla’s father thanked us with fruit and coffee in his apartment. That was how I met Leyla. Shortly later, we made the mentorship official with the Unionhilfswerk as facilitator.

Leyla studied medicine in Syria. She’s the youngest of six children. She and her father initially fled to Turkey. They have been in Berlin for a year and three months now, with the rest of the family partly still in Syria and partly scattered all across Europe. She’s a very determined young woman with a dark sense of humour. Her discipline is very impressive; she’s currently working on her C1 German course.

With Leyla, I’ve discovered a new form of femininity. We’re both women and with her, that’s not just a designation – it makes us allies. When we meet up we talk about her family, look at photos, mess around with her smartphone, talk about her German lessons. Or she shows me documents and letters she doesn’t understand. In most cases, I don’t understand them straight away either and then she says, ‘But you’re German, aren’t you…?’ and laughs, and I say, ‘Wait a minute, I’ll get it in a moment…’
I don’t ask many questions; I like to give her some space. She usually just talks about whatever’s on her mind. Stories come out gradually, about her flight and the war. I come to our meetings with a ‘We can do it’ mentality and advise her with a ‘Show me the problem’ attitude, not making a big deal out of her issues. When we practiced debating for her oral B2 exam, I wasn’t sure who was teaching whom. She loves to challenge me and she sees the world with a cool but affectionate perspective. The two of us giggle over girls’ stuff and I find it wonderfully refreshing.
That’s what makes these mentorships so important. They give newcomers the opportunity to be simply people again. Over coffee recently, we talked about the term Integrationspatenschaft. She had to translate it into Arabic on one occasion and found it almost impossible. She had to make an entire sentence out of it, she told me, to express the meaning properly in Arabic. We think there ought to be a more relaxed term for it. Maybe something like integration friendship.

Tearing down the wall between newcomers and longstanding residents is the most difficult part of the integration process. You can’t just walk into a home, point a finger at someone and say, ‘Right, let’s go.’ And the refugees themselves don’t know how to approach the locals either. The first contacts they have are mainly with authority figures in official positions. What a horrible thought. So a mentorship is a very effective and extremely important way to eliminate that wall. All that is left is two people who want to get to know each other.
Integration means nothing other than making communication possible. And that includes listening. As a mentor, you have to be willing to learn and be open to other cultures. You mustn’t deny your own personality, though.

There are tricky moments: when I happen to meet men I know while I’m with Leyla, the men are invisible for her. That’s the thing with men. But I don’t blow it up into a problem, and neither does she. We tend to go by the unspoken rule: ‘You say a quick hello and I’ll wait for you over there.’ In general, Leyla knows she can’t always avoid contact with men here, but she restricts it to the bare necessities. Sometimes she gives a wise smile when I tell her about my experiences with men from the home. I ask one of them how he is and the answer is a whole string of heart smileys and the question of whether he can kiss me, and I ask another if he needs any help and he breaks off all contact in response. And of course there are the male refugees who are now my friends, whom I also support. I’m getting to know quite a broad range of integration forms along the way. All individual, with no one-size-fits-all formula.

I wish Leyla will one day be able to come to my home so we can cook or bake together, or watch a film. But I want to get to know her and her father better first, soften him up gradually. I’m still hoping for a natural solution to present itself because I don’t want to put either of them under pressure. I can tell Leyla is ready to be more emancipated from her father and becoming more willing to engage with me. She sees my world and her own. She loves her world, with all the veneration it demands. And she wants to find a way that enables her to respect the rules of her world and also take part in mine. I don’t want to push her, I’m happy to wait. I drop the odd comment about her father coming along too – time will tell.
I don’t share her love of horror films but she watches them in German, which makes them educational. When we went to a consultation session for refugees at the Humboldt University recently, the interpreter felt more than superfluous – and I almost burst with pride.

What we do have in common is our favourite drink: coffee. A few days ago she asked me over latte macchiato whether I spend time with her as a form of volunteering or I’m her friend. You can guess what I answered, and then we ate her homemade lasagne on a park bench and later said goodbye for now, one kiss on each cheek.

Friederike Aps, born in Wittenberg, studies Media Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin. She works in layout, volunteers for the Unionhilfswerk charity as an integration mentor and giving German language lessons, and blogs about the beauty of life.

Translation: Katy Derbyshire