Picture courtesy of Zachary Gallant
Tell us about yourself and how you got into your line of work? What were you doing before founding your own non-profit, Integrationswerkstatt?
I started in refugee work in the town of Unkel as a teacher of what I called “Survival German” for refugee women who had, due to their children’s ages or their husbands’ schedules, not yet been granted a place in an official German course. My course, funded by the Catholic Church, taught them the vocabulary of the basics of life in Germany, from bureaucracy to shopping to doctors’ visits, as well as important cultural and social norms, all from the perspective of a migrant with a non-European ethnic and non-Christian religious background, allowing me to act as a sort of bridge between refugees and German society.
I know you have an incredibly full plate. Can you briefly–if that’s possible–outline what your organization does?
After nearly a year of my Survival German course, many of my students, who had by then become my friends, expressed their gratitude to German society for all they had been given, and expressed a desire to give something back, but they expressed dissatisfaction at the fact that they had no social contact with Germans under the age of 70. This all coincided with the town of Unkel trying to find a use for the 23,000m2 green space surrounding the former swimming pool, a huge public space that had been lying unused for nearly a decade. Before letting it get privatized and lost like other playgrounds and green spaces in Unkel, we began building a space of meeting for old and new neighbors and named it the Integration Workshop (Integrationswerkstatt). Integration into society is a hands-on act requiring continual maintenance, and we pursue that goal through cooperative work in our bike repair workshop and community garden, through shared play on the basketball, soccer, and beach volleyball pitches, shared food and drink in our little Café and grill space, and shared worship in our planned interreligious prayer space, as well as shared celebrations of Easter, Passover, or Eid, and many other social activities.
You have done other worthy projects creating awareness around war and refugees. Can you share a bit about your book War: A Children’s Book? I know VICE News did an article about your book. Where did your idea for that come from?
While I was researching post-conflict redevelopment in Serbia and Bosnia, my 6-year-old cousin asked “Why is there war?” and I couldn’t give him a child-appropriate answer. My ancestors came to America fleeing war and genocide themselves, and I wish I’d had an answer as a child. After researching conflict and working with refugees from Sri Lanka, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Libya and the Balkans, the impetus to actually finally create the answer came when I was going to have children of my own. I knew it was vital to take all of these experiences and create an answer for when my kids asked. I wrote 200-line rhyming explanation that has been edited by refugees and soldiers and teachers and parents and has been translated into 8 languages (all of which are still seeking publishing!).
Your organization successfully raised money for a project to benefit the town of Unkel in Germany where you live. Can you tell us about the project?
The Integrationswerkstatt was nominated for the 2019 German Integration Prize, which is a crowdfunding competition that gives financial rewards for the top ranking projects. We were the only small-town project nominated, competing against 43 projects from Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne and other German cities. Unkel, with its population of 5,000 people, mostly 50+, couldn’t compete with the crowds built by wealthier, younger projects in the major cities, but nonetheless we came in fourth place and took in over 30,000€ for our project, and with a massive volunteer publicity campaign in Unkel we showed what refugees had been doing for the village.
Thanks so much for sharing your work with us, Zachary. In closing, can you provide some insights into any trends you’re seeing in this space? Things your excited about or causes for concern?
Possibly the most important element of the Integrationswerkstatt is the public image of refugees giving back to their societies. The [German] generosity and altruism of 2015 are gone, and they are being replaced in the press and in politics by fear and jealousy. The public wants to know what value refugees and migrants add, and the press is pushing too many negative stories and suppressing too many positive stories. New studies are showing the economic boon that refugees are beginning to provide to German society, but very few outlets are publishing those stories, whereas a story of a single refugee who misused the social system will provide days of headlines. There will be a broader movement against migrants in the near future if we don’t start broadcasting the good.
Additionally, ethnic and religious minority groups in Europe need to stop allowing themselves to be played against one another. In the US, intersectionality is strong between minority groups, with synagogues opening for Iftar and inviting non-Jewish neighbors to Passover, and Muslims protecting synagogues as just small examples. This has not occurred on anywhere near the same scale in Europe. Jews and Muslims allow themselves to be instrumentalized against one another, just as Kurds, Arabs and Turks do against one another, and anti-African racism is the one trait noticeable from all segments. Europe must become more intersectional in the coming years, or the far right will tear these fragile societies apart, and the most vulnerable communities, top among them refugees, will suffer first and worst.