Refugees learn German with Goethe on stage | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 03.09.2012
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Refugees learn German with Goethe on stage

Young refugees are learning German with the classics. Performing modified and modernized versions of works by Goethe gives them the courage and confidence they need to participate in a new, foreign society.

"Only an idiot thinks the devil is a millionaire." Mephisto never said this line in Goethe's "Faust." But when Diallo from Guinea says it in broken German, he comes across as a completely plausible Mephisto. Diallo and 20 other refugees make up the cast of an improvised and modernized version of the great German tragedy.

Until recently, none of the actors spoke a word of German - they were thrown in at the deep end. but the concept laid out by the Cologne-based aid organization In Via has proven successful. The group has discovered the German classics and made the roles their own.

Diallo, a participant in the Cologne theater project for young refugees

Diallo plays Mephisto

Goethe has rarely been so multicultural. The young actors, some still minors, are from all over the world: Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Guinea, Iran, Iraq and China. They have come to Germany as refugees and most haven't been here for more than a year. Before they arrived, war or persecution impacted their everyday lives.

A door to society

Now the young refugees are going to school in Germany, or completing vocational training programs. Acting is a way for them to learn German - and gain self-confidence by speaking in front of an audience.

In many German cities, there are programs for refugees to participate in theater, since it's a way for them to present themselves to the public in a non-political setting. Through theater, they can take on other roles, and participate in social discourse.

For the past 10 years, the In Via project under the leadership of Hans-Peter Speicher has been using the stage as a vehicle for integration. Speicher has directed works by Shakespeare, Schiller and Wedekind with young refugees.

German on and off stage

Hans-Peter Speicher and participants in the Cologne theater project for young refugees

Speicher (left) has been directing the theater project for a decade

The Goethe production is a first for him. The final result is something of a potpourri of various characters and elements from Goethe's works, which the actors themselves helped create.

"I write a shortened version of the piece and let the actors work with it," explained Speicher. "They add in youth slang, hip-hop and dance. I want to inspire their talents."

The concept is dynamic, without a strict structure - and sometimes the participants just whip out a few dance moves or drum beats. But the plot stays true to Goethe's work, says Speicher, and the metric rhyme was also retained.

Speicher is convinced that such a masterpiece of German literature is not a problem for German learners. On the contrary: "They even talk to each other outside of the theater in the language from the play."

Life of fear

The group is tight; similar life experiences have brought them closer together. But most of the participants are not inclined to talk about the reasons why they had to flee their countries. Morteza fixes his gaze on the ground, but then starts to talk on his own.

Morteza, a participant in the Cologne theater project for young refugees

Morteza enjoys being able to go to school for the first time

He came to Germany from Afghanistan two years ago, with a stopover in Greece. There, he slept on the streets and under bridges. His family has disappeared, or died. He doesn't say, and perhaps he doesn't know. Fear is constantly with him.

"I've seen so many wars," he said. "I can't even look at police officers any more."

Morteza is going to school for the first time in his life, like many in the group. "I'm so glad; I'm doing so much better than before," he said. "I've made lots of new friends from different countries and different religions."

He enjoys doing theater and would like to continue, not only because he's gained self-confidence, but also the chance to learn German and attend school.

Back-up cast

So has Xiaovao from China. She came to Germany alone last year, leaving behind her family and friends. Her official residency status is "tolerated," which means that she won't be deported immediately, but doesn't have an official residency permit. She is one of 162 underage refugees who came to the city of Cologne in 2011.

Participants in the Cologne theater project for young refugees

The actors overcome their own insecurities

Xiaovao is able to forget her troubles in the theater program, and her shyness disappears when she goes on stage. She hadn't heard of Goethe before, but now she is performing the role of Lotte, from Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther."

Xiaovao enjoys her role. "Lotte is not as shy as I am," she said.

Speicher always double-casts the roles because he knows his young actors frequently run into problems with the authorities, due to their precarious visa situations.

At the end of September, the group - with Xiaovao as Lotte and Diallo as Mephisto - will perform for the last time as part of Intercultural Week in Cologne. But the participants are determined to continue their new found passion after that as well.

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