(My apologies in advance. This is probably my longest post ever.)
Ever since I started this whole being-an-author thing, I’m getting increasingly involved with people from different countries all over the world. The one thing I keep learning, is, that no matter how many similarities we may have, no matter how many bridges we build, there are some chasms that will remain. Call it mentality, call it mindset, paradigm, or whatever you want, fact is, whenever you talk to a stranger, you can only assume that the words you use hold the same meaning for them as they hold for you. Every tiny bit of information we receive passes through our internal filters, and we hear what we want to hear, were taught to hear, or need to hear at that precise moment. There’s no such thing as an all-encompassing reality. On top of that, the information we receive has already passed other people’s filters. Chances are, you’re happily swimming in your biotope of like-minded people, and the informations you seek are of a quality that will validate your beliefs, and your biases. And you rarely step out of that biotope, because the water is nice and warm and it’s cold outside.
And yes, I know that I’m actually stating the painfully obvious here, and you’re a good person and your biotope is a very good place. But, just for a moment, think about how many times you exclaim, “How can they say a thing like that? They must live in another world!” or, “I really don’t understand how anyone can believe this!” And now, remember that those people you refer to as living in another world, those stupid, ignorant, biased people who fail to grasp the most simple of things…they feel the same about you.
Anyway, this is getting a bit long for an intro to what is actually a post about something else entirely. What I’m aiming at, is, we need a broader perspective. We need to try to understand other people in such a way, it enables us to use their words to explain our world to them. And we need loads and loads of information, from many different sources. Information that has gone through different filters. Jigsaw pieces to form one big picture.
My intention now is to offer one more source for you to collect such jigsaw pieces. I’ve been reading what the right-wing US media have to say about what’s going on with refugees in Germany, and it’s truly amazing how a simple twist of words can lead to cries of outrage among the masses. For example, after what happened in Cologne and other German cities on New Year’s Eve, one imam in Germany said something silly along the lines of, that’s what happens if you give young men alcohol and throw them in with scantily dressed women. Duh. Thanks for the cheap excuse and the victim-shaming. Twist this statement, and it reads, keep giving them alcohol and this sort of thing will keep happening. Twist it a little further, and you’ll have a headline reading, muslim demand a ban on alcohol or the sex attacks will continue. Impressive, isn’t it? All it takes is a handful of poorly used words, and you, too, can become a successful fearmongerer!
I’m Austrian by birth, but Germany is where I happen to live. The two countries never quite get along, it’s a bit like Canada and the US, grudging mutual respect and tons of snide remarks, which is why I, naturally, was a bit reluctant to move here. When Angela Merkel last year spontaneously decided to open the borders, I was, for the first time ever, proud of my chosen country. One of my US friends told me, Merkel is going to regret that. Swept away on the happy summer welcome feeling all over Germany and Austria, all I could think was, never, why should she? Everything is awesome, isn’t it?
Well…not quite. The first enthusiastic wave of volunteers has long gone home, and only a few remain to deal with the new arrivals every day. Authorities are unable to cope with the surge of asylum seekers, there’s never enough beds, a good part aren’t even registered yet – 600k people, my US friend tells me, that’s a fucking army! You’re being conquered! – but the worst about the whole situation is, we haven’t really given much thought on what to do with all those people, how to deal with the culture clash, how to integrate them, how to keep ghettos from forming, all that. And the politicians we’re looking to for answers don’t seem to have any (other than, you know, arm’s length), which quickly transformed the happy welcome feeling into one of general unease and insecurity. It’s only a small step from insecurity to fear, and another small step from fear to aggression. According to the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, 2015 saw more than 800 attacks on refugee shelters, more than four times the number of 2014. Terror attacks in Germany in 2015? Zero.
And then Cologne happened, and everybody was like, see? We told you so! Concerted attacks! You’re in danger! Get out while you can! You’ll be living under Sharia law before you know it!
This weekend was the carnival weekend in Germany. Carnival is a huge thing here, and I usually keep well away, because it’s loud, shrill, inhibitions are low, and I’m not fond of drunken idiots making sexist jokes and trying to grab every passing ass. No, I’m not talking about refugees here, I’m talking about your average German male. The kids love it, though, because the procession in our little town passes right by their grandparents’ house, and there’ll be fancy dresses and sweets and, well, you get the picture. This year, I came along. Why? I’ll admit it, my first thought was, let’s all stay home. Remember Cologne. We don’t know what might happen. Last year’s procession got cancelled due to a terror warning. But then I thought, no, wait. I don’t want to spoil the kids’ fun. And I don’t want us to be reigned by fear. But in all honesty, I didn’t trust Grandma to read the signs, so I wanted to be there, lioness in waiting, to protect my kids if need be.
It was strange, standing there, trying to sense the vibes. The weirdest thing was, there was no sense of fear, not even of defiance. Just a happy crowd. And you know what? Nothing happened. Nothing. All over Germany, hundreds of thousands of people dancing in the streets. The perfect aim for any terrorist organization. And nothing happened. No bombs, no shootings, no concerted sex attacks. Take that, fearmongerers.
But what to do about the fear and insecurity? There’s only one logical solution, and that is, get involved. There are real human beings behind the scary word ‘refugees’. Get to know them. And get them to know you. What we fear is the unknown, the strange, the things we don’t understand, and it’s a mutual thing, but if we start talking, we might, together, find a way.
A few weeks ago, a refugee shelter opened up a few blocks down the road. Once they’ve all moved in, there’ll be 156 people crammed into an old gym hall, single men, single women, families, with a group of unaccompanied kids in the building next to it. Our neighborhood reacted amazingly. No outcries, no rage, no panic, instead a general sense of, we can do this. Together. We’ll make sure these people will feel welcome and safe, and get a chance to integrate into our society. Last week, me and my husband went to get a certificate of good conduct, because you need that if you want to volunteer. There’ll be a meeting two weeks hence, to inform the neighborhood about the situation and about what sort of help is needed, and I’m pretty confident they can use someone who speaks a bit of English. I’ll keep you updated about it, and if I can, share the refugees’ stories with you.
(And in case you’re wondering why I keep that US friend around when he clearly upsets me…that’s where we get back to the beginning of this way too long article, because I do the same to him. He literally told me that he keeps people like me around to force him to think, to question his beliefs, and the same is true the other way round. I’m his much appreciated lab rat, and he’s mine. You know who you are, dude. I’m grateful to have you xx.)