Since 2009, young Germans have traveled from Tajikistan to Argentina to take part in the program "kulturweit," the volunteer service of the German UNESCO Commission. The program is now 10 years old. A success story.
"After graduating from high school, I was faced with a difficult decision: What do I do next?" says Serdar Temizbas. "So I looked around to see what possibilities and one of them was to go abroad."
It was 2009 and he was 18 years old and ready for an adventure. So, he applied to "kulturweit," the then newly-created volunteer program of the German UNESCO Commission. He was selected as one of the program's new participants.
In the 10 years since, 400 young people who like Serdar are interested in being involved in projects abroad have been sent around the world on six to 12-month assignments.
Serdar's experiences at the German school Instituto Primo Capraro in Argentina were certainly unique. His students ranged in age from kindergarten to 12th grade and attended the school to learn German and acquire a language certificate which would allow them to study in Germany. The school is especially popular among Argentinians with German roots who want their kids to learn about their ancestral origins.
"I was the link between pupils and teachers," recalls Serdar. "I often sat in class, went on excursions with the kids and did much more. I was a kind of person who would help with everything." Photos on the "kulturweit" website show past and present volunteers and alumni playing football, hiking, cooking together — with no shortage of laughing faces.
A German volunteer makes friends in Ghana, one of the countries where "kulturweit" organizes programs
"Kulturweit" is by no means a development project, or a one-way street for German volunteers looking to take experiences from their stays abroad without giving back. Rather, the idea behind the program is to facilitate a meaningful cultural exchange where volunteers and those they are working with see eye to eye, as program director Anna Veigelt emphasizes.
"Young volunteers should not go abroad thinking they have all the answers," says spokesperson for the organization, Peter Martin. Instead, they should "learn to understand why things might work differently elsewhere." Martin, who was also a past participant of the program, says he "learned to overcome borders — not necessarily political borders, but interpersonal and personal borders" while volunteering in a home for the elderly in Romania.
Exploring new parts of the world
Tajikistan? When Lukas learned what country he'd been assigned to in Central Asia, he first had to grin — and then Google, because he knew nothing about it and it certainly sounded far away. For six months in 2015, he helped give German lessons at a school in the capital city, Dushanbe. There, he discovered "a country full of ruptures and contradictions — and full of warm hospitality" he told DW.
The volunteer work of "kulturweit" relies on partners around the world who offer places for volunteers to lend a hand. The network includes the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), the Goethe-Institut, the Pedagogical Exchange Service and the Central Agency for Schools Abroad, the United Nations Cultural Organization as well as the Deutsche Welle Academy in Bonn.
A farewell tune for the road
Those who go abroad with "kulturweit" are intensively prepared for ahead of their trip through seminars which are not necessarily focused on the politics, business or the history of the countries to be visited. Instead, they aim to sensitize participants to the foreign culture they are about to experience. After all, according to "kulturweit" spokesperson Peter Martin, the volunteers are automatically seen as representatives of Germany.
"Kulturweit" is celebrating 10 years of sending young German volunteers around the world to work on cultural projects
According to his statistics, around a third of all volunteers last year were active in Latin America, while another third were placed in countries in Central and Southeast Europe and Eastern Europe. There were fewer placements in Africa (just 13%) and the Middle East (1%).
This fall, "kulturweit" celebrates its 10th anniversary. Brainstorming workshops are planned in mid-September, and Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has also announced his intention to attend a ceremony for the program in Berlin.
Serdar Temizbas spent an entire year at the German School in Argentina. On one of the last days before he went home, he was eating in the school canteen when he suddenly heard a chorus of voices shouting his name. When he stepped outside, children began to sing a song they had rewritten for him. "At that moment," he said, "I had to cry with joy, and grief, but also with gratitude!"