My story of leaving and arriving

Being a newcomer himself, the Scottish musician Liam remembers his first time in Germany. He describes how he relates to the experiences of other newcomers who came here as refugees and discovers what they share - and what differentiates them.

von Liam Cairns

Fariaha Hussen, Muna Hussen und Klaus Rodewald in a production of Burkhard C. Kosminski , EIN BLICK VON DER BRÜCKE / MANNHEIM ARRIVAL. Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

At 23 I was living in Scotland with my German girlfriend and preparing to become a first-time father. Due to my partner’s wish to be closer to her family and my interest in trying a new environment, we both agreed it was best to move to Germany. Her relatives gave me the luxury of a support unit when I first arrived. I’d spent most of my life in my home country and I took on the change with excitement and ignorance. It was challenging switching from a position of relative stability, working as a professional musician, to one of insecurity. I had no secure job, very little language skills and no social circle.

A friend of my girlfriend’s introduced me to Markus Sprengler, a former member of the “the Busters” and “Palatinate” in late 2014. I was keen to establish contacts in Germany and through him I began to get involved in various programmes. These, rather quickly, led to events promoting migration and refugee support and integration. The first large concert was organised in conjunction with “Mannheim Sagt ,JA’” in January 2015. I was eager to be involved as the spread of misinformation and hate campaigning, across media platforms, at the time, was stoking fear and innate prejudices. Although my speaking abilities were really restricted at that time, when I was on stage playing with people, of various backgrounds, it was easy to connect in seeing each person’s joy and passion, in doing something they enjoyed, transcending language, and perceived, cultural barriers.

The National Theatre Mannheim (NT) has been a very keen participant in the assistance of refugees. Encouraging greater interaction between arrivals and local communities and conceiving projects to share their stories. I was fortunate to get a role as the assistant musical director for an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” run, end-to-end, with “Mannheim Arrival” (Peter Michalzik). The former was reworked to include refugees from the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe, amongst other places. The latter allowed misplaced persons to tell their own stories. The project let me experience the mixture within the people being labeled “Flüchtlinge”. It should not be necessary to mention this fact, as so many people from different parts of the world are forced to leave their homes and families, unfortunately it still is.

We all socialized in the dressing room, listening to music and conversing. I’d never, knowingly, met many refugees however much of the media, I saw, attempted to condition me to feel fear and hatred for these people. Some of the stories I’ve been told, during my time here, have been harrowing. Whether it was events in homelands, travelling here or even in Germany itself. I’d harboured a wish to move to Germany, in the years before I met my girlfriend. Living here now I can’t imagine how difficult it would’ve been to come here alone. All the bureaucracy, language and cultural barriers and, if I was a refugee, these would likely have been compounded with racism, bigotry and jealousy. At this point the biggest difference between being a western-European immigrant or being a Syrian, Nigerian etc. refugee becomes obvious. Just being seen as an individual with all your professional skills and abilities is even harder if you can’t get rid of the label “refugee”.

Benjamin-Franklin Camp Music Workshop. Foto: Markus Sprengler
Benjamin-Franklin Camp Music Workshop. Photo: Markus Sprengler

At the same time there are many people that have their own refugee experiences – that are less regarded and linked to the stories of recent newcomers. My grandmother has lived in Scotland for 65 years now and no one, outside the family, could tell that she was once a refugee. She, like 31 million ethnic Germans, fled her homeland in Eastern Europe. Fleeing from Pillau, East Prussia to Szczecin and then Sopot, in Poland. For nearly 3 years she witnessed some of the most barbaric things a human could see. And somehow she survived it all. She eventually reached Germany, where people declared she was not a ‘real’ German. Facing hatred from many she met my grandfather and moved to Scotland, where she married. She’s never allowed herself to be a victim, although the wounds of what happened never left her. Many in Europe seem to ignore it’s own refugee history. Forgetting how many Europeans were, and are still, refugees both here and around the world.

But back to my story. Late 2015. I’d been struggling to get the same level of music work in Germany as I’d had at home and had been working on my filmmaking and other art-based ways to earn. I was hired to make a music video (“The Cost of Freedom”) for Markus. He wanted to combine footage of Mannheim, and its many cultures, with interviews and shots of the group we were working with at the NT. We filmed conversations that tried to give insight into their thoughts on the true costs of freedom. Each person spoke a few sentences. “No war.” “No skin colours.” “Integrated and independent.” “With family.” “All religions being tolerant and accepting of each other.” These were some of the sentiments expressed by them. Ideals with which many can relate. It emphasized to me that these people were not extremists but victimized by extremism, whether through religious, political, gender-based or cultural persecution. Most of them wanted to live a peaceful life.

Hassan Mohammad Nazeri (Afghanistan) - unterrichtet fellow Refugees songs aus seinem Heimatland. Foto: Privat
Hassan Mohammad Nazeri (Afghanistan) – Teaching fellow Refugees songs from his homeland. Photo: Private

In Benjamin-Franklin-Village, a disused American military base- turned-refugee camp, I began co-running a music workshop, with Markus Sprengler. It was organized by the Kulturschule arm of the NT, with some of the camp residents. Over the months they have changed from strangers into a musical family. Participants from a variety of countries and religious affiliations write songs, rap and jam together. There is no standard ability level and thus I’ve tried to create a common musical foundation, from which to develop. My wont is to educate the band members as fully as I’m able in order that they have both fun working together and, for those that wish, learn the skills they need to become gigging musicians. The songwriting has proven successful and is, sometimes, a great exercise in tolerance and negotiation.

One particular example was the writing of a new song, about the internet as a dating ‘tool.’ A division emerged between the males and the females. The women had a more traditional view of how people should find partners, whereas the men were more positive about the possibilities of new technologies. Since there were more men than women, on this day, a ‘democratic’ poll wouldn’t have worked and therefore I took on the role of mediator. Some of the men believed that songs have to be positive and uplifting, not full of negative views. I tried to illustrate how showing plurality of belief, acceptance of others’ opinions and cooperation, in the face of disagreement, were extremely ‘positive’ messages for a song. We agreed to equalize the lyrical components having respective thirds opposing, for and comparing the topic. There wasn’t total happiness with the end result but we had created a song that seemed to encapsulate the variety within the group.

Becoming a father and the realization of the increasing cultural diversity, in ‘our world’ today seem more evident to me. My experiences clarified that, if I want my son to enjoy the future then, I have to show him that you mustn’t fear what you don’t know, or understand. Instead, embrace it and take part so that you can learn!