I just finished a book by Tupoka Ogette. It was published recently. exit RACISM is the title of a guide by the Berlin based anti-racism trainer who has been teaching about racist structures in Germany in day-care centers, schools and management seminars. In one episode of her book, she talks about a Black German boy traveling to the USA with his father. At the sight of a Black police officer, he looks at his father and asks uneasily “Is he allowed to do that?” What shouldn’t he be allowed to do: be Black? Be a Black police officer? Handcuff white criminals? The mere idea seems to upset the little boy’s image of society, and what that says about his self-image is shocking. Ogette offers a number of examples of children who, with their transcultural biographies, are still unable to find their rightful place in German life. So, is that the reality in which we find ourselves after intensive engagement with our diverse society? That and the topic of migration is what young people from ten schools in Berlin will speak about at the New Experts! congress this morning at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW).

“Oh, but that’s no issue anymore, especially for the youngest,” says an adult in the audience. “Hardly any kids care whether their friends have brown skin or are named Ali these days.” Tupoka Ogette calls the place where this statement would be entirely true Happyland. The young people in the audience also disagree. Ever since they started working with Berlin artists on the topic of migration, they’ve been noticing the potential for conflict among themselves much more clearly than before. But also their similarities. They sprawl peacefully on the cushions in the main foyer at HKW, sit between teachers and artists in the large hall and exchange views about prejudices, unequal opportunities and their everyday lives together.

HKW calls them “New Experts” because they experience their environment under very different circumstances than teenagers even ten years ago. Refugees and migration are omnipresent topics today. Most children who grow up in big cities have friends with different ethnic or religious backgrounds, and multilingualism is part of everyday life for many. Especially for the students of the bilingual State Europe School Berlin, a personal family history of migration is a matter of course.

For many young people, a family history of migration is a matter of course. Impressions from the New Experts! student congress. | Photo: Sebastian Bolesch

Nevertheless, Jasmin Ibrahim is nervous when she takes the podium. The young woman isn’t speaking here for the first time; she’s been part of the management team of the Jugendtheaterbüro Berlin for a while. But she’s still a little shy. “I used to be much more insecure,” she tells the young people in the auditorium. “Always the so-called migrant child, always the one everyone already had an opinion about.” She tells us how it feels to be born in Germany and yet never quite to be part of society. How much the perception of others still excludes her; but also that she’s doing something about it now. “You don’t have to accept everything,” she calls into the audience. “We don’t want to be cast as dagos anymore, work at the supermarket checkout, clean. We want to play Faust on the big stage.” Thunderous applause ensues

One student from the audience hesitantly says that until the start of this project she didn’t know about the racist experiences some of her classmates have to put up with daily. Murmurs of, “That’s right,” “Me neither,” “Yeah, sick,” are heard from the rows. Especially those who have spent their entire lives in Berlin in a homogeneous, white environment seem to be tackling the idea of migration for the first time. All of a sudden, it’s not just about exotic destinations, wars and refugee routes or images of the ghetto. Whether recent young refugees, fourth-generation Berliners of Turkish origin or descendants of the Huguenots – the family always comes from somewhere. “Migration is a natural process,” many in the room now agree. They discuss the negative connotation of the word that’s been transferred almost unnoticed to anyone who doesn’t seem to fit into the cultural setting.

Film director Constanze Fischbeck sought out the issue in a film. For One Minute Bahnhof Zoo she asked students at Schiller Gymnasium and a “welcome class” to film around the Berlin station. The result is illuminating. Most German high school students mainly notice the unpleasantness of the place, the filth, the beggars, the run-down conditions. For the “welcome” students, by contrast, it’s a place of opportunities – with cafés where people can linger, free internet access, etc.

“Arrival sucks when boats are sinking.” Impressions from the New Experts! student congress. | Photo: Sebastian Bolesch

The “Mirror(ing) Exercises” that Branca Pavlovic does with another group are mainly nonverbal. The choreographer doesn’t even mention the word migration in her project, but instead brings the teens closer together through movement. In pairs of regular and welcome students, they examine each other’s posture, gestures and facial expressions and, without many words, learn something about their counterparts. In direct conversation, their different opinions clash, sometimes with no filters. According to educational scholar Caroline Assad, “Many of the regular students repeat what they hear on television and the Internet, especially the constant demands for security and adaptation,” also for cultural behavioral changes for the sake of the majority or language courses for better arrival. “ Arrival sucks when boats are sinking,” students from the welcome classes retort.

But they all concentrate and listen when Silvia Fehrmann speaks. The initiator of the New Experts! comes from South America. Her grandmother once emigrated from Germany to Bolivia. “My grandma had three silver spoons,” says Fehrmann. “And they were exclusively for the native domestic workers.” When she asked her grandma why at some point, she replied, “Silver cutlery is easier to disinfect.” Fehrmann nonetheless grew up believing that all human beings are the same – that’s what her mother taught her. She has been living in Germany for fourteen years now, and people are still surprised when she says she’s an immigrant. Since Fehrmann is blond and speaks accent-free German, she is automatically perceived as belonging.

Not the case for Izadora Nistor, who came to Germany two years ago. Together with filmmaker Merle Kröger, she developed a project for New Experts! about the question of who one is and who one is made out to be. Izadora is fourteen and doesn’t speak German very well yet. A few weeks ago, Kröger was with her at a Berlin school authority. She wanted to know why the girl was still in a welcome class after two years. After all, being “welcomed” couldn’t be a permanent state. She didn’t get a definitive answer. Constanze Fischbeck, meanwhile, also has begun questioning the well-meaning welcome class concept, saying, “Isn’t it mainly about adaptive measures?”

Translation: Faith Ann Gibson