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Berlin Kulturbuddys
Image: DW/T. Walker

To be or belong

Tamsin Walker
April 28, 2017

The immigration issue booms loud and clear in this busy year of European elections. But what of its quieter, yet close cousin, the integration issue? Tamsin Walker listened for its voice.


WorldLink: Understanding integration

I recently watched a documentary called Neben den Gleisen, or Off the Tracks, which, set in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, observes the comings and goings at a railside café in the aftermath of Angela Merkel's decision to open the nation's gates to refugees.

Though collectively colorful, the film's cast includes several characters with achingly monochrome views about the job-stealing, system-milking opportunists that cross the border with outstretched palms only to be handed charmed lives.

However aware I am that such opinions are alive and well in German society, they always rile me anew. For all the obvious reasons, but also because they're so willfully ignorant of what it really takes not just to be in Germany, but to be a part of it. To reach a state of "integration." And perhaps even become an integration state.

The word itself is puzzling. I'm not saying I fail to grasp its definition, though it does vary depending on your dictionary of choice, but that its usage in the contemporary climate of immigration versus anti-immigration begs as many questions as it grants answers. Not least, when, and how is it reached?

A paper with different words for learning German
Der, die das... not always easy, but an effort worth makingImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Wolf

I'm not the only one in the dark. Last year, the German government passed an Integration Law, which aims to clarify the meaning of the word by setting out the respective rights and obligations of both refugees and the state.

Support and challenge

A key aspect of the novel legislation are integration classes, which offer an insight into the history, values and legal system of the host country, and which asylum seekers have to attend.

Likewise language courses. For the record, I think those of us with non-refugee backgrounds who plan to stay here would be equally well advised to acquire some grasp of the fickle nature of the German article - or articles. And on that, the railway café-goers and I may even find an isolated scrap of common ground.

The same day I watched Off the Tracks, I met a group of young refugees and students from all over the world who had come together in Berlin to share their experiences of the city and country they now all call home. They swapped stories about visits to different authorities, about life here and about their families back home.

A group of people around a table
Integration in the making?Image: DW/T. Walker

Most spoke in German, many of them extremely well, and as I listened to the chatter, laughter and occasional burst of song that filled the shop front room where they had gathered, it occurred to me that what I was hearing was quite possibly the sound of integration in the making.

A couple of dozen people who, regardless of their respective pasts and journeys, had ended up in the same place at the same moment in time. Some German, some not, they shared a wish not just to be in this country, but to be a part of it. Together.

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