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6 Degrees Berlin: A Recap

Bard College Berlin students at 6 Degrees Berlin (Credit: Kerry Bystrom)

On Monday, November 12, I headed from Pankow to Pierre Boulez Saal at the Barenboim-Said Akademie with my classmates from the Global Citizenship course to attend an event organized by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship with a prominent guest list. I had skimmed through the program a couple of days before and saw that participants included people like Giorgos Kaminis, the mayor of Athens, and Bernhard Schlink, award-winning author of The Reader—a book I read back in my junior year of high school addressing the struggle of the post-war German generation in comprehending how their parents and grandparents could have committed the atrocities of WWII. I woke up at 6:30 a.m. very excited but without any concrete expectations for the event ahead.

The forum was designed as a conversation about resolving the massive challenges we are facing in this era of movement and displacement of people across the globe, highlighting our responsibilities to help counteract the emerging problems of marginalization, dehumanization, and exclusion that come with forced migration.

Sitting on a round, bright pink-and-blue platform in the centre of a circular room, the guest speakers shared their expertise and discussed with each other as the audience watched and engaged with them from the outer circle. I kept linking what the speakers said back to the articles, novels, and essay excerpts that professor Kerry Bystrom had assigned to our class. The discussion brought me back to the very beginning of the course when we questioned even the title of the class itself: What is “global citizenship” and what does it mean to be a “global citizen”? My definition was awareness of and cooperation in political and social developments on a local and global scale—and, coincidentally, that was what 6 Degrees was all about.

For the first discussion, 360: Where We Stand, we all sat packed like sardines together on the last row, still a little shy and formulating smart sentences in our heads since we knew one of us would be picked to speak by Scott Young, Director of Ideas & Insights at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, or Abdul-Rehman Malik, journalist, educator, and organizer. (Also, these are two of the coolest guys I’ve ever met; they told us everything we needed to know about 6 Degrees). But as soon as the round of introductions started, we loosened up. Bard College Berlin was heavily represented, but we also got to know a group of young women of four different nationalities who created the Berlin-based magazine Encounter in which they publish stories in German, French, Arabic, and Farsi on the importance of dialogue and exchange. We also met a woman who is originally from Ecuador and is currently constructing a museum there. They all looked for inspiration from the event. We were surrounded by truly amazing people, not only from all sorts of backgrounds, cultures, and ages, but also with various passions, professions, and purposes.

The grounds of the conference were set by John Ralston Saul, award-winning essayist, novelist, and co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, who got straight to the point by saying that diversity is a fact and we must give inclusion a chance. This statement could be considered the slogan of 6 Degrees—not in the radical and violent sense of “integration,” whereby immigrants are compelled to find their place in an already existing hegemony by being “less immigrant,” but in the sense of opening up and finding there is something fundamentally wrong but remediable with society as a whole and its mechanisms, not with the people it has been rejecting.

So, as the Catchbox (the plush-covered cube-shaped soft microphone) was tossed around the room, the audience voiced their diverse opinions. What stood out to me most from this first session, and what I feel should be shared further, were the following:

Guest speaker Dany Laferrière, Haitian-born Canadian novelist and screenwriter, commented on how people often wrongly refer to the concept of refugees being first- or second-generation refugees, as if one’s life starts again after migrating. The life of a refugee starts when they are born and continues when they are forced to move elsewhere: it doesn’t stop and begin again.

Another aspect raised by Bendetta Roux, Director of Public Affairs and Development at Bard College Berlin (BCB), was that humanitarian work shouldn’t be subject to criminalization. This topic is particularly important for us from the BCB community as fellow student Sara Mardini, a refugee from Syria, is currently in prison in Athens, Greece, for working with a Greek NGO helping other refugees who arrived at the shore of Lesbos. Regina Catrambone, Co-founder and Director of Migrant Offshore Aid Station, touched on the issue precisely as follows: “In the sea there are no politics: someone needs help and your job as a human being is to save them.”

We hope to have raised awareness of Sara’s case at the event.

The next discussion, Art and Protest, had no one less than Ai Weiwei as a speaker. Whoever knows me well knows I’m a huge fan of his work, and it was a remarkable experience to listen to him talk about his past as an artist who’s been through so much trauma and grief, including being arrested and exiled from China for his political activism. The main points made during this round were mostly related to his battling censorship and advocating for the right to freedom of speech through his art. What stuck with me the most was that, when asked why, after what his own country has done to him, he still considers Beijing his home, Ai Weiwei responded that he proudly identifies as Chinese because of his people and his land, not his nation’s government.

The afternoon discussion, 360: Where We Go, referred back to our morning seminar and not only raised many further questions of identity and perception, but also uncovered a lack of answers to those questions. I remember one of the first people to share something was Sushan from our class: he started comparing dumplings to doner kebab. Yes, all of us, including host Charlie Foran, CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, took an extra second to realize that we hadn’t heard him wrong, which could easily have been the case as we had just returned from lunch. Now, what do dumplings and doner kebabs have in common, and what do they have to do with immigration? Sushan explained that while both are nowadays considered Nepali and German dishes, respectively, both were brought to Nepal and Germany by immigrants. Indeed, the doner was “Germanized” to Germans’ preferences, but it was originally a Turkish dish.

Sushan’s observation connects to the argument made by Amer Alqadi, Palestinian entrepreneur guide at SINGA Business Lab: migration is regarded as a threat to security and easily associated with terrorism rather than viewed as an opportunity—to expand culture, for example. It is unfair to ignore the many benefits that immigrants bring to the table (literally and metaphorically). However, treating people as transactional also isn’t the correct approach. In other words, solely accepting immigrants into society because of the economic, cultural, or culinary prosperity they may bring is not an adequate reason for welcoming immigrants, as it neglects their intrinsic value as human beings. Amer also mentioned the factor of race, which can’t be forgotten: A white refugee who arrives in a predominantly white foreign territory will most certainly not be treated the same way as an Arab refugee.

Naika Foroutan, Director of the German Center for Integration and Migration Research (DeZIM), stated that recognizing Germany as a country of immigration is easy, but making immigrants feel part of German society is much more difficult. Even with official criteria fulfilled, such as having no criminal records and renouncing any previous citizenships, one is still not considered a “proper” German citizen by the German population. After all, “to really be German, your skin colour should be white. It is imperative that you are able to speak the language. Most importantly, you should be able to speak the language fluently.” And so on, and so forth… The way I perceive it, it almost seems as if the unofficial requirements matter more than the official ones.

Another problem that came from the crowd was the distancing of “us” and “them” when referring to immigrants. But who is “us” and who is “them”? Who’s who? It is impossible to properly “integrate” people when such rhetoric of dissociation is used.

What’s Next wrapped up the event on a positive note. The stage was given over to the public, and everyone pitched in with observations, personal anecdotes, critiques, and solutions to the major borderless problem of forced migration being examined throughout the day at 6 Degrees Berlin. A question that generated multiple reflections, posed by a “third-culture” filmmaker born in Pakistan, who grew up in the United States, and later moved to China and now is in Germany, was simply “Where are you from?”

He said: “Have you ever thought about how that’s one of the first things people are curious about when they first meet you, and that sometimes your answer doesn’t really please them?”

This man explained that throughout his life he has had to deal with strangers repeatedly asking him the same thing because they couldn’t accept the fact he would answer anything other than Pakistan. Some have the tendency to mistake “Where are you from?” with “Where do you feel like you belong?”

Lilas Al Loulou, a Syrian refugee and BCB student, then spoke about fear, a theme brought up earlier. She expanded on this, and stated that while the host country may have fears of opening its borders to a large amount of people, we also ought to consider who is on the other side. Immigrants are filled with anxiety, doubts, and apprehensions of their own. This brings me to another aspect taken up, which is that it is common to talk about refugees and much less common to talk to them. The ones present in the room themselves said nobody ever asks them what they really need. This discussion reminded me of one of the definitions in the 6 Degrees Dictionary, which was available on the television screens and postcards being handed out and which guided me throughout the day. The term refugee was defined (among other definitions) as 1) One who escapes despair, walks across the Sahara, is abused, raped, beaten, used as slave labour, and finally risks their life on a boat only to be categorized by Europeans as economic migrants. A form of persecution. 2) You don’t want to be one. 3) Requires courage.

Broadening this 6 Degrees circle we are in and gradually including others with the same open mindedness and positive attitude is a priority. We live in a time where there are many needing support, and it is absolutely necessary that we address this situation where people don’t feel included—whether in Germany, in Europe at-large, or anywhere else. Talking about how we can lend a hand is the first step. As Adrienne Clarkson, 26th Governor General of Canada and Co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, said: “Let’s gather more and more people willing to debate; the ones who purposefully opt to be ignorant are practically impossible to reach out to. And the worst thing you can be is ignorant.”

Finally, during What’s Next, a comment made by a fellow Brazilian national reminded me of my own cultural space. He told us how his mom makes Islamophobic comments because she is misinformed or uneducated on the subject. He said that, as far as he knows, she has never even met a Muslim person in her life. This applies to some acquaintances I have back in Rio too. Many Brazilians find it easier to generalize and believe every Muslim is a terrorist rather than educate themselves on this topic. Given that the recent refugee crisis is so distant from South America and people’s daily lives there, many don’t see the need to actually try and understand the situation better. So this guy said (in a very funny way, I must add) that when he finally returns to Brazil after three years this December, having learned more about forced migration in a country of immigration like Germany, he is going to ruin Christmas.

I can relate.

By the end, discussions had taken much longer than expected as time flew and more than half of the participants had their hands up, wanting to contribute and share their point of view. It made things hard for the moderator who tried to tie together the abundant ideas. I guess what’s left for those who didn’t get a chance to speak or attend this time is to continue the conversation with friends, family, and professors at BCB, whenever and wherever possible. We don’t need to wait for conferences to discuss these issues, and we can’t afford to either. So keep talking and bring even more insights to 6 Degrees Toronto, or to the next edition here in Berlin in 2019.

This article originally appeared on Die Bärliner, the Bard College Berlin student blog, on November 27, 2018.