Being a newcomer in Germany in the past and today

"When I came to Germany" - A conference held under the auspices of the International Women Space, for women to come together and exchange their experiences

von Oula Suliman

Photo: Shaheen Wacker
Photo: Shaheen Wacker

On the 28th and 29th of October, 2017, the International Women Space organized a two-day conference titled “When I came to Germany”.

The various topics addressed were impressively live-translated into six different languages in order to reach each and every woman sitting in that heart-warming conference room on a cold Berlin day.

Throughout the two days, the discussions were centered around various aspects of the struggle of women who came to Germany at different periods of time. Topics varied from guest workers in east and west Germany in the 50s, to refugee women in east and west Germany, racism and violence from the 90s until today, the emergence and influence of the term “with a migrant background”, and feminist activism in the context of migration.

“We thought, women’s stories shouldn’t stay invisible, that’s why we founded the International Women Space.” shared one of the organizers.

The conference did not only demonstrate a rich overview of the complex laws, migration difficulties, conflicts, and struggles that migrant women had to face, but also highlighted the speakers’ personal experiences, feelings and their remarkable stories. A number of films and videos were screened, illustrating the speakers’ childhoods, their journeys while wandering between countries, and special moments in the social and political movements and strikes organized by immigrants in Germany.

The migrant’s situation in Germany has indeed been a difficult one for both men and women, especially in terms of inequality, low income in comparison to their colleagues, and unstable residence permits until they receiving the right to stay, but there are some hidden narratives that are unique to the experiences of women and are hard to find in literature or media.

“There’s a rarely known fact; There are women who came to Germany alone, before their men. They thought of bringing their families after they settle. You could have seen men saying that the work is hard and wishing to go back, but no woman ever said that” says Figen Izgin from Turkey, who came to Berlin in 1979 at the age of 14 with her family. She currently works as a certified social worker with unemployed people from different countries. Throughout her journey, she had to move between Turkey, Germany and Austria due an unstable financial situation and regulations changes, and had to change eight schools before she turned ten. Her latest school in Berlin was Turkish with the assumption that these families will go back to Turkey. Yet, she managed to be the only student in her class to continue her higher education in Germany. “Now it seems like torture when I look back” she says.

Mai-Phuong Kollath born in 1963 in Hanoi, Vietnam, who came to East Germany in 1981 as a contract worker, remembers sorely the hard regulations towards women in the 80s in East Germany. “Without knowing one word in German, we traveled to Germany. We were tested for diseases and pregnancies. We weren’t allowed to get pregnant because we were brought here to work. They didn’t take into consideration our cultural differences that our culture didn’t allow us to have sex before marriage at all. Once we arrived, a doctor started examining us; we were exposed in front of strange men.” said Mai-Phuong, as a counselor, coach and diversity trainer she has supported various organizations, associations, and unions in their intercultural work for many years. She was the deputy chairwoman of the Federal Migration and Integration Council (Bundeszuwanderungs- und Integrationsrates), as well as a representative of the network of migrant organizations in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

You could feel the atmosphere of the conference changing and developing during every session. Each session started with compassion each time a speaker narrated difficult parts of her story and ended with admiration and empowerment when she spoke about her achievements. “We caught ourselves sometimes smiling, just by reading about the great speakers, watching interviews they did, reading articles or books they wrote, and of course by listening to them”, said the organisers.

However, the audience in return took the chance during the “Q&A” sessions to address newly occurring challenges for refugee women, to name a few: sexism and discrimination against women in their home countries. However, these challenges are still underestimated by the law in Europe.

The conference was documented on film and will be available for viewing online, because the organisers believe it is important to give access to what was said in this room to every woman did not experience it in person.

Here a few impressions from Shaheen Wacker:

Photo: Shaheen Wacker

Photo: Shaheen Wacker

Photo: Shaheen Wacker

Photo: Shaheen Wacker

Photo: Shaheen Wacker

 

The conference was documented on film and will be available for viewing online, because the organisers in the International Women Space believe it is important to give access to what was said in this room to every woman did not experience it in person.