Curious Experts, Witty High-Schoolers – The WeberWorldCafé „Refugees in the City“

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„What is needed?“ – Detail from the exhibition of 7xjung.

WeberWorldCafés are always somehow experimental. First of all, you never know how the “table hosts” (experts who moderate the discussions) will act, whether they will tend to hold a monologue or really encourage the participants to exchange views and experiences as they are supposed to. Especially for scholars, who are used to classical formats like panels and speeches, it seems to be quite a challenge to have a chat with non-experts about their subjects. But most of the researchers are intrigued by the idea of doing just that – for once communicating outside the box. That is why they travel around the world, fly from Japan, India, the US or South Africa to Germany in order to discuss their research in simple terms for a couple of hours with an audience for whom their topics are fascinating and novel.

Secondly, you never know beforehand how the participants will engage. My impression is that many of the students who come to our events are used to ex-cathedra teaching. They listen and take notes – but they are afraid to participate in the discussion, because they think they do not know enough about the subjects. But this is exactly the point of the event: Experts exchanging thoughts with non-experts, on equal terms. It is fine to be a non-specialist. Sometimes you can challenge an expert more with a naive question than with a specific inquiry. After the organization of five WeberWorldCafés, I must say: while most of the PhD students and other participants partake and ask questions, undergraduate students often hesitate. Although I graduated from university eight years ago, I can still remember how debate culture was not genuinely promoted there – hence the surprisingly poor involvement of students. For us, the organizers, it was difficult to understand why students so far had been so reluctant to embrace all opportunities to freely discuss their interests and ideas with experts from all over the world over a casual cup of coffee. Or are we mistaken? Should we have instructed the table hosts to address their silent listeners with direct questions? Anyways, we wanted to try something new this time, targeting a new audience.

High School Students – a new target group
This is why we decided to take a chance and organized a WeberWorldCafé with high school students. Of course this idea was not compatible with all topics – our last WeberWorldCafé on the Cold War for instance offered a very historical perspective, something usually thought to be less engaging for teenaged students. So, we came up with the idea to offer them a platform to talk about a topic that is currently at the center of heated debates in Germany, the so-called “Refugee Crisis”. This, we hoped, would allow for intensive, albeit broader, less academic discussions. We anticipated the youths would be aware of the worldwide flight movements, since the topic has been omnipresent in the German news for over a year now. They would have heard in the news, at home, or at school that many people have come to Germany, particularly to our cities. We assumed they would have an opinion on, or at least an impression of the issues. We alleged they would have many questions. And so we – the Max Weber Foundation and the Forum Transregionale Studien, in cooperation with the Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) and the Federal Centre for Political Education Berlin – set up a WeberWorldCafé on “Refugees in the City” in the heart of the German capital. As a location we chose the venue of 7xjung, an exhibition usually dealing with the problems outlawing, xenophobia and anti-Semitism; a very dynamic but also welcoming place.

After months of preparation including various exchanges with teachers, experts and cooperation partners we were kicking our heels to finally see it happen. This time most of the “tables” were no tables at all. Rather they were meeting places: some with seat cushions, some with carpets, oriental pillows, or benches. After coffee, cake, chatting and our short introduction, the event began.

 Nora Brezger's table "Willkommenskultur und Integration" a few minutes before the WeberWorldCafé began.

Nora Brezger’s table „Willkommenskultur und Integration“ a few minutes before the WeberWorldCafé began.

Narratives of Exodus and Arrival
I visited Nora Brezger first. Nora is working for the Refugee Council Berlin and was accompanied by a group of Syrian students who told us not only about their experiences during their escape and their arrival and current life in Germany. They also shared their stories about what Syria was like before the war started. Damascus, for instance, was quite comparable to “our” Berlin, people went out at night, studied, and attended cultural events. We also found out how the situation changed between 2011 and 2015. First there were demonstrations, and then arrests, eventually friends started to disappear. Rumors surfaced that all young men should be forced to join Assad’s army. That was when they decided to go into hiding and leaving the country. “No one left Syria on their own free will”, the students from Syria explained. The schoolers, quite impressed by the courage and honesty of the group, nevertheless asked many questions. Time flew, and when the 25 minutes of the first round of discussion were over, I had to urge people to move to another table.

After a short visit at Erol Ülker’s table, where a young lady bombarded the historian with questions about exodus and xenophobia in Istanbul in the times of the Ottoman Empire, I attended a discussion initiated by cultural studies scholar Ela Gezen, a fellow with with Europe in the Middle East – the Middle East in Europe like Erol. Ela’s work focuses on Turkish writers and intellectuals who emigrated from Turkey to (West) Berlin and their contributions to (and transformation of) Berlin-based cultural institutions and traditions. She introduced us to “Rnbesk”, a certain style of music that was created by Turkish and Arabic migrants in Berlin. It is a mixture of oriental sounds from the Arabesque and classical R’n’B and Hip Hop elements, combined with German lyrics. The music reminded me of my old clubbing times and made me want to dance. Interestingly, I found out that I actually hanged out with one of the most famous “Rnbesk” artists when I was 16 years old – Muhabbet grew up with me in Cologne. Music is something universal, and most people can relate to it. After a while, Ela listened more to the teenagers’ debates than she explained and moderated.

Journalistic Perspectives and Human Engagement
At Julia Prosinger’s table we discussed the term “refugee”, by contrast to the German word Flüchtling. Julia is a journalist who decided to get involved with young refugees in Berlin. She reported about camps in Berlin, accompanied volunteers, and observed the administrative affairs in the German capital. One day she woke up and realized that although journalists should do their utmost to keep a certain distance, in this particular situation, she wanted to engage. Ever since she has been coaching a group of teenagers from Syria, and she even convinced them to join the WeberWorldCafé. In the conversation I attended, they told us that they felt sick of being labeled all the time, of having their whole existence reduced to that single category of “refugees“, and of being pitied. Their frustration made us search for a better term, but we had to conclude that there is no good alternative, since it is not the word that causes humiliation but the status and its implications. Julia, curious by nature, then asked them how they received information about what is happening in their region. They answered that they sometimes refuse to read or watch the news, because they feel either anxious, or helpless, or angry, or guilty, or everything altogether. Or they feel – and that must be even worse – nothing, just numb. In the meantime some of the participants from Julia’s group started to chat in Arabic with other schoolers from Berlin. It was diversity at its best.

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Daniel Heinrich and the students discuss “Nutrition, Accomodation, Dignity: Supply for Refugees”.

Next, I spent some time standing at the table “Nutrition, Accomodation, Dignity: Supply for Refugees”. The table host Daniel Heinrich is a journalist working for Deutsche Welle and Deutschlandfunk. He recently travelled to Turkey and Jordan to visit and report about the living conditions in refugee camps. Since his table was jam-packed in any round, I just popped by to get a quick impression of their discussion. They were talking about prostitution and forced labor, the fact that young men in refugee camps are usually unable to exercise, since there are no gyms or the like around. That caught the attention of the young men at the table, who deemed it a terrible problem –but not because they were insensitive to other, worse aspects of living in a refugee camp, but because exercising is something they care about and can relate to, a vital part of their everyday life. Listening to Daniel’s compassion for the people in the camps and his anger about international politics when it comes to the protection and fair distribution of the many refugees in Turkey and Europe, the students later declared that it seemed impossible to them – even for journalists – to remain non-engaged.

Further Voices of the WeberWorldCafé
Unfortunately, I did not have the chance to participate in all discussions – one of the principles of the WeberWorldCafé is just that you have to choose four out of eight tables. Sanaa Alimia, a researcher with ZMO working on documented and undocumented refugees and labor migrants in Pakistan later told me that she had a feministic discussion  a with a group of girls. They were wondering why female voices seem to be rather ignored in Pakistan, when Sanaa brought up the marginalization of female voices in general. Miriam Stock, a cultural geographer who deals with questions of migration, urban transformation, consumption and food cultures between Germany and the Arab region, brought her friend Ziad Mahmood from Syria. Our Science Reporter Amina Yousaf mentioned in her WWC documentary on Snapchat that Ziad was sharing his experience of how his relationship to traditional food changed in exile. Amina nicknamed Miriam Dr. Falafel, since the researcher wrote her PhD thesis on gentrification and the expansion of falafel restaurants in Berlin. The last table, hosted by Marwa El Chab, a doctoral fellow at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, and Reinhard Fischer, officer at Federal Center for Political Education Berlin, was overcrowded at all times. Sadly, this meant that I could not join their talks on “Education for Refugee Children”. But the limited time and the element of choice are always the crux of the matter with the WeberWorldCafé – in the end, everyone wishes to participate in more discussions, regardless of their capacity to focus longer than the two hours already spent on intense conversations. All things considered, we believe our timing was appropriate for holding each WeberWorldCafé. We are convinced that it is better to leave an event curious than unable to cope.

After all, table hosts and organizers were left with the impression that the exchange with the schoolers was inspiring. Everyone was well informed, they were unafraid to ask questions, even the most delicate. Participants were empathic and analytical at the same time. And they did not leave a single lettuce leaf on the buffet. So we are all looking forward to organizing our next WeberWorldCafé with high-school students – hopefully in 2017!

If you are interested in the schoolers‘ responses to the WWC, you can find a collection of interviews with our young participants here.


Gesche Schifferdecker

Gesche Schifferdecker works as a press officer with a focus on online communication at the Max Weber Stiftung. She is editor of various scientific Blogs (e.g. trafo.hypotheses.org and wwc.hypotheses.org) and organizes the "WeberWorldCafé".

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