They have come from war-torn countries across the globe without parents, often risking their lives for a better one. But they face an uphill battle forging new lives in Germany, even with help from voluntary guardians.
"I was 10 years old when I hugged my grandmother for the last time. I was 10 years old when my childhood was taken away from me." The audience is quiet as 15-year-old Rojin N. reads a poem about her lost youth in her hometown in Syria.
Rojin is taking part in a youth culture festival for unaccompanied minor refugees and their guardians being held by the Protestant social welfare group, Diakonie Wuppertal, in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
At the festival, the young asylum-seekers are reading texts about their experiences of fleeing their homeland. They are part of the Berlin-based group The Poetry Project.
Initiated in 2015 by Susanne Koelbl, a foreign correspondent from weekly news magazine Der Spiegel, the project aims to help the young refugees overcome feelings of alienation in their new country and express themselves through poetry.
‘Look forward, not backward'
After she fled Somalia in 2015, 17-year-old Mushtaag A. is grateful for the chance to share her story on stage. She came to the festival accompanied by Monika Küpper, a teacher she was connected with through a project of the Diakonie Wuppertal called "Do it!" Küpper volunteered to be the teenage girl's guardian.
"These young people are not here for no reason," Küpper says. "I had no idea what it meant, to flee your homeland," adding that she learned from the students how difficult such a journey is. For Küpper, the current hostility towards refugees in Germany is incomprehensible when taking into account "how good we have it here."
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Mushtaag is emphatic with her desire to continue learning; she wants to improve and strives to get better at German and at school. Her wish is to graduate and go to university. Mushtaag hopes to become a math teacher just like her guardian, to "look forward, not backward."
Küpper explains that Mushtaag's father was kidnapped in Somalia. She said her journey to Germany was treacherous, even if Mushtaag came by plane instead of a dinghy across the Mediterranean.
'All the little ones were dead'
But others came by sea, like Shahzamir H. "There were so many children in the boat when it capsized. I was terrified," says the teenage boy from Masar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.
He describes the deadly horror he saw on the passage from Turkey to Greece. "Everybody was screaming, me as well." Shahzamir reads his poem in Dari, then it is translated for the audience: "A mother drowns before my eyes, her child in her arms." There were 65 people on board. They waited for two hours in the cold water to be rescued. "Of those, 20 people survived. All the little ones were dead."
The 17-year-old was brought to a hospital where, after 20 days, he was able to call his mother. He assured her that he had arrived safe and sound: "How could I tell her that for 10 days all I could manage was chocolate milk because my body was full of salt water?" Visibly moved, the audience is silent, then everyone claps their hands.
"When people ask how we're doing, we keep it light and friendly, we say that we're doing well," but the trauma is unforgettable for the teenager.
With their poems, the young refugees want to show "that we are not bad people," he says. However, Shahzamir adds that he is "completely terrified" of what will happen once he comes of age because Afghan asylum-seekers are increasingly being deported from Germany.
'Fortune lives here, but so does hardship'
An Afghan refugee who grew up in Iran, Yasser N., 15 years old, dedicates a poem to his brother who stayed behind: "Believe me, it's no paradise. Fortune lives here, but so does hardship."
A poem by Robina K., 17, also deals with injustice and hardship. "It is not a crime to be Afghan," stresses the teenage girl who fled Kabul.
Robina believes that Afghans are "underestimated" and that every country is capable of producing philanthropists, geniuses and criminals.
"Why are we Afghans all punished for behaving badly," she asks. In her poem, the daily reports of bomb attacks in her homeland weigh in heavily. "So many people die, children, women," she reads but struggles to finish as tears stream down her face. "Stop torturing us," she continues, almost pleading with the audience.
'If you have a goal, you'll get there'
All in the group want to graduate from high school in Berlin, and every member of the group appears determined.
"It's tough at high school," says Rojin from Syria, but that doesn't deter her. "If you have a goal, you'll get there. It was my goal to learn German, and I've achieved that, too."
Robina's guardian, Sophia Schlette, points out that despite arriving in Germany in a traumatized state, Robina still managed to finish with top marks at her Berlin high-school class in the summer semester. Schlette is supporting her case with immigration authorities.
While state custodians are responsible for many youths, a voluntary guardianship means one-on-one care. In Wuppertal, the "Do it" project connects volunteers with young people and teaches prospective guardians what they have to consider in their interactions with traumatized people.
They take part in workshops on intercultural competence, learn about the duties of a guardian and how to work with the state department for youth welfare.
'My life is safe with them'
"Do it" matches refugees with guardians. One happy example of their successful pairing is Halimatou D., 17, from Guinea and guardian Raffaella Di Lucrezia. Halimatou fled from an arranged marriage. Di Lucrezia is Italian and, before coming to Germany, she lived in the UK for a long time — she herself knows what it's like to feel like a foreigner.
Like most unaccompanied minors, the Guinean teenager lives in a shared accommodation that is intended to get them on their way to independence. Halimatou cooks with Di Lucrezia and goes to kickboxing, visits museums, and relatives of her guardian and her husband, Burghard Klenke. They share happy moments filled with laughter.
The 17-year-old, who lost her father and fled to Europe across the Mediterranean, feels secure. "When I'm with them, my life is safe." She is grateful for the assistance and the chance it gives her to learn. "If you don't learn, you have no future," she says.
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Taking a stance against racism
The feedback coming from the schools the teenagers attend is overwhelmingly positive, says Maria Shakura, a consultant for Diakonie refugees. "They are all so enthusiastic to learn. But they are also concerned that the social climate is deteriorating."
Shakura recalls the eagerness expressed in the community to accommodate refugees in 2015 and 2016. Now, she says, they receive strange looks and there has even been a change in treatment in their experience with authorities. "Even employees who have always been totally friendly now behave differently," she says.
Even worse, says Shakura, is the increase in racist insults and violence. She speaks of an incident where a young refugee from Afghanistan "was beaten to a pulp," noting that the incident went unreported.
Monika Küpper sees her guardianship as a stance against racism and exclusion. "It's wonderful to have got to know her," she says. "It has changed and expanded my view of the world. I would recommend it to anyone."