Before coming to Germany in 2007, my knowledge of the country was limited to the history we were taught in high school in my native Zimbabwe. Because of my grades, I was fortunate to be part of a group of students in an upper-level class.
I knew about the Berlin Wall, and it was fascinating to finally see it in real life. Most of the history instruction in school centered on World War II. We came to know about military operations by the Nazis such as Operation Sea Lion and Operation Barbarossa. Outside that, I knew the best cars were made in Germany, and that the beer was internationally renowned.
I really didn’t choose to come to Germany and leave Zimbabwe voluntarily. I happened to have been selected to attend a global journalism course in Berlin for two months, alongside other talented young journalists from all over the world. Unfortunately, I couldn’t return back home immediately because I learned my name had been blacklisted by President Robert Mugabe’s notorious secret service because of my critical political stories about his regime.
A newcomer becomes suspicious where no need for suspicion exists. Failure to speak the language makes you become an alien.
The sheer, distinct ocean of differences in culture and way of life between Germans and the nation’s host of migrants and refugees makes it very difficult for newcomers to quickly integrate and also master the German language. Most of them arrive without prior knowledge of the country’s history or heritage.
It took me at least a year to rouse the courage to find my way and finally register for my first elementary language course. It’s not easy to understand German ways. For that reason, especially without proper appraisal and background knowledge, one is trapped in a meandering maze full of thorns.
When I landed in the country almost a decade ago, my everyday encounters first in Berlin, then Hamburg, and finally Cologne where I now live, introduced me to a culture shock beyond measure. For a young African, everything was the opposite of what I was accustomed to in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. It was just the opposite in Germany, in terms of lifestyle and laws to be observed.
It all felt like a motion picture, but reality hit me: I had to battle the confusion and anxiety in the new, fast-paced environment. It remains fast even for many foreigners who have been in Germany for years. Germans are culture vultures with large appetites for literature, theatre, music and art. Without an appreciation of all this — as most of it is a luxury where I come from — one is in a ground zero of sorts when it comes to integration. No more drinking binges, and you have to be courteous with others and respect their privacy and peace.
Without the necessary German language skills, life can become a living hell. It’s hard to make friends or have contact with the mainstream society. Thus many refugees end up losing patience with themselves and resort to group dynamics, which can be dangerous and unhelpful. It seems as if native Germans are gossiping about you even as they go about their innocent conversations. A newcomer becomes suspicious where no need for suspicion exists. Failure to speak the language makes you become an alien. And shyness takes over, thus making a fool of you in situations where you could save your day with just one simple German word or sentence.
One time in Berlin, it took me over 30 minutes in a supermarket just to find salt. A colleague, also from Zimbabwe, and I had gone for a week eating meat without salt simply because we didn’t know what it was called in German. Also, the product arrangement in German supermarkets is peculiar. It doesn’t follow, for example, that where you find bread is where you can also find margarine or butter nearby. Likewise, it’s also not the case that meat products are displayed near vegetables and fruits.
It’s tough to learn the ropes of the language alone, and in my case I ended up learning by doing. The other secret was television. Children’s programs such as cartoons were really helpful, and when I was in Berlin, a former neighbor from Poland gave me a tip: Take time to talk and interact with kids, for you can communicate with them and quickly understand many things without feeling embarrassed about your mistakes.
Another Zimbabwean friend who had first come to Germany as a teenager to join her father, who was a professional soccer player, also proved very helpful. Time and again, I would take the opportunity to watch cartoons with her son, or go out to play a little soccer.
I was also amazed that one could drink in public without harassment from the police. In Zimbabwe, public drinking is an offense and you can be locked up overnight or charged an exorbitant fine. In Germany, people drink freely, but I ended up learning to consider the situations in which one can drink. Although you can get away with drinking on the train, I later realized before quitting the booze that sometimes it makes other passengers feel uncomfortable.
It’s important to know all these little details, even the issue of litter. A journalism instructor in Hamburg once told a student from Zambia in our training group that he had to pick up his empty biscuit packet and put it in a bin. If he were to leave it on the ground, it would contribute to untidiness on the city’s streets.
In the streets of the Zambian capital of Lusaka, it’s no big deal dropping litter here and there. But in Germany, it’s different. As small a practice as trash disposal appears, newcomers need to be educated about such norms. Zimbabweans also have a habit of throwing litter around in public because no one cares, and citizens often end up having verbal spats with city street workers. The people know they cannot be punished for littering.
Not everyone in Europe is greeting refugees from the Middle East and Africa with open arms and a smile, as some locals in countries such as Serbia and Hungary have reportedly expressed their discontent with the piles of litter that asylum-seekers have left behind during their travels. Plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, empty plastic packets and untouched humanitarian aid are some of the items in photos and videos that have gone viral on social media, sparking panic among native citizens over hygiene concerns.
There are a host of other things that must not be overlooked in helping refugees integrate. Many men in Africa, for instance, can quickly go behind a tree to urinate in public, if no one is watching. Even if there are onlookers, often nobody cares, especially if the men are drunkards.
Such theatrics have no place in Western culture. There are also issues such as the abuse of women and domestic violence. In many Asian and African cultures, women remain downtrodden and oppressed, and their husbands fume at the thought of their spouses’ emancipation and laws prohibiting such abuses in the West. A good number of women, especially from Africa, choose not to report their husbands’ abuses to the authorities for fear of tearing their families apart.
In Germany, federal government authorities are trying their best in the area of encouraging refugees to integrate and improve their German language skills, although more can be done. Culture and integration centers can be of help, especially for those just arriving. Having a social place where you can commune in basic German can go a long way. These centers can be in the middle of Germany’s tourist centers, which can be found almost in every town, disseminating useful information such as hotels and accommodation, places to visit, popular sites, city plans and museums.
Yes, in this digital age, apps exists that can ease the process of learning German, but it’s always difficult doing it alone. In culture centers, one has social contact, and newcomers can quickly gain interest and enthusiasm in German culture. Such centers also present an added advantage: A refugee or asylum seeker is already a step up because the setting allows for an informal integration course ahead of the official one. Social contact and friendship give asylum seekers the confidence they need and boost their otherwise hidden love to make Germany a home away from home.
The list of things to be taught and learned goes on and on. Refugees need to learn the culture of punctuality and avoid making noise in public and not abuse animals, to mention but a few. A close friend of mine in Düren had numerous encounters with police because of playing his radio at full blast, to the chagrin of his poor neighbors, until he was told about the regulations regarding home partying at night. Police would say babies and elderly people are enjoying their sleep, and my friend need not turn their dreams into nightmares with noise pollution.
It takes time to eventually get it right, and when one does there is a sense of serenity, knowing that you are no longer a rascal. I took a good five years to adjust to the basic everyday life in Germany. But still to this day, I’m reminded by my German friends about many other things that I must not overlook, such as table manners and keeping yourself clean and presentable whenever you go out for work or to meet people for official purposes and business.
For me, integration into Germany has been an uneasy battle.
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