Young Arab men and women with an interest in promoting democracy in their homelands are spending a month as guests of the German parliament in Berlin.
For the first time in its history the Bundestag is hosting a group of young people from the Arab world for a comprehensive four-week scholarship program aimed at giving them an insight into the German federal parliamentary system.
In their home countries these young men and women are engaged as journalists, doctors, librarians, or teachers in schools, universities and foundations. All of them have an active interest in politics.
They were greeted at the start of their visit by the Bundestag's President Norbert Lammert. The aim of the program is to help contribute to the development of democracy in the visitors' homelands.
The Bundestag's four-week program includes lectures about the history and workings of the German parliamentary system, sitting in on plenary debates and parliamentary committee meetings, and an internship with a member of parliament so that the participants can learn what their position entails.
They're also learning about how Germany has dealt with its experience of dictatorship, with visits to the Stasi memorial center in Berlin and the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp, as well as a seminar on the subject of "Religious and Ethnic Minorities."
Practical experience of the democratic process
Egyptian student Menna Ged holds a degree in German, and is currently working for the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in Cairo. Menna is very enthusiastic about her experiences in Berlin so far. "We visited the parliament, and on one occasion we were able to sit in on a meeting with Mrs Merkel herself," she told Deutsche Welle. "It's good to get practical experience of the democratic process. We don't have the opportunity to do that at home, unfortunately. Here everything is open; you can see and find out about everything."
Abdallah Hamad from Jordan has been to Germany several times before. He did a master's degree in international media studies at the Deutsche Welle Academy in Bonn, and now he's working with a non-governmental organization specializing in political education. For him, this program is a unique opportunity to visit the Bundestag in Berlin and exchange ideas with colleagues from other Arab countries.
Insights into German culture and history
Another of the 24 students is André Sleiman from Lebanon. He is an adviser to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Beirut, and is also working on his PhD in sociology in Paris. Sleiman comments that not only have they gained an insight into the German parliamentary system, "but also into various German foundations, as well as German culture and German history."
The Egyptian university lecturer Mohamed Shehata works in the fields of German and Islamic studies at Cairo's Al-Azhar University. He says they've been able to share a lot of experiences over the past few days, and there was one thing he found particularly exciting: "We played a parliament simulation game, which I thought was great. I've written an article about it." Shehata also emphasizes that in the past few days he's come to realize that, in a democracy, it can take a long time to reach a decision.
Mona Hegazy is a librarian at the famous library in Alexandria who occasionally organizes programs for young people interested in politics. When she returns to Egypt, Hegazy wants to pass on what she's learned about the parliamentary system in Germany. "That would be very useful in my country," she says.
Visiting the Stasi Memorial and archive
A few days earlier the Arab students visited the memorial center for the victims of the East German state intelligence forces, the Stasi, and its archive. Afterwards, they watched the award-winning German film "The Lives of Others." which addresses this subject.
A visit to the Stasi archive provoked discussion about how countries should deal with a repressive past
Young Moroccan Abderrahim Essadi is part of the politically-active Moroccan youth organization associated with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Morocco. He found the film deeply affecting. "That was very interesting and important," he says, adding that it made him think about Germany's path from dictatorship to democracy over the past 67 years.
26-year-old Arwa Abassi, who works at the German-Tunisian Chamber of Commerce, is convinced that much of what she's learned in Germany will help her "decide which political party I'll get involved with in my country."
After the visit to the Stasi memorial, Abassi explained that seeing state security files is also an important issue for Tunisia: "Our government was also diligent in spying on its own people, and we want to see the files and see what was reported about us."
Seeing and understanding
For Kamal Mukarker, a Palestinian from Bethlehem who gained his master's degree in international project management in Germany five years ago, the visit to the former Stasi headquarters was important because "people should see and understand how organizations like this operate. If they want to strengthen democracy in their country, things like this should not happen to its citizens. People's rights should be respected."