′HEROES′ - Breaking patterns of traditional patriarchal behavior | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 19.01.2016

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'HEROES' - Breaking patterns of traditional patriarchal behavior

As Germany grapples with the challenge of integrating hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Arab World, a Berlin-based initiative helps young Muslim men rethink patriarchal patterns and embrace equal rights.

Migrant children and teens grow up in a society where they are expected to live up to different groups' expectations. They are caught between their parents' traditions and cultural and social backgrounds on the one hand, and the demands from German society on the other.

Traditional Muslim families and German society often don't see eye to eye on concepts such as honor, equal rights, and the roles men and women should play.

Thousands of mostly Muslim girls in Germany are not allowed to join a gym, participate in physical education or have a boy friend - all in the name of patriarchal structures within the families, where honor plays a key role. Boys, on the other hand, are handed responsibility for the traditional family honor and the girls' virtue in many Muslim families, a code of conduct that often spawns physical violence toward the girls.

Challenging traditional concepts

That's where the Berlin-based organization "Heroes - Against oppression in the name of honor" comes in. In a nutshell, "Heroes" helps young men from predominantly Muslim families take a critical look at the traditional patterns of their patriarchal background.

"But we don't say: That's good, that's bad, this is right and this is wrong," says Yilmaz Atmaca, a senior "Heroes" team leader in Berlin.

Change takes time

Created nine years ago, the project has received several awards over the years, and has expanded to seven other cities nationwide. Initially funded by the World Childhood Foundation, its work is now financed by the state of Berlin.

The Heroes reach out to young men between the ages of 16 and 23 who come from patriarchal backgrounds, aiming to help them question their traditions and get them thinking about gender equality and roles.

refugees in snow in Germany

Germany registered more than one million refugees last year

Peer-to- peer education

The team leaders work closely with small male-only groups for a year, meeting once a week for training units that also include a lot of role-playing, Atmaca told DW. Since the socialization process begins at a very early age, Atmaca says, unraveling it takes time, too.

"Heroes" teams - made up of an experienced team leader and two new young "Heroes" - also regularly reach out to the community and visit schools in the Berlin area, offering workshops where they discuss concepts of honor, equal rights, identity and human rights, with the goal of teaching the kids to take a critical view of their roles.

Increasingly, refugee shelters and social workers who look after teenage asylum-seekers have been getting in touch with Berlin's "Heroes", requesting support with young male migrants.

"We can't simply transfer our Berlin-tested method onto the refugees, however, many are traumatized and don't speak German," Atmaca says, adding that the team has to figure out their background and where they're coming from in order to come up with the proper concept for refugees. "We can't just say: you've come to Germany, now you have to fit in, take on the country's values and norms," the Berlin team leader concludes. "It's not that easy."

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