By Marie Illner, Germany

Germany has received more than 1 million refugees in 2015 and 2016, who had a significant influence on the society, political agenda and culture. We spoke about these challenges with Olaf Zimmermann, secretary of the German Cultural Council. The Cultural Council was founded in 1981 and is the head organization of cultural associations in Germany. It acts politically independent as an umbrella organization for 247 cultural actors.

 Some Germans fear refugees threatening the idea of a “poets and thinkers” nation. How true is that?

The nation of poets and thinkers is not imaginable without refugees. We are who we are because of immigration and emigration. There was a lot of influence from all over the world which is reflected in our country and history.

What do you mean by integration as a cultural challenge?

Integration means the clash of cultural values. The exciting thing is that we have such a wide variety of cultures that we do not want to merge them to the point they are not recognizable anymore. The challenge is to live together with people from other cultures, whose views and values may be different. That is something we need to negotiate over and over again. The cultural challenge is therefore always linked to a cultural debate. The different cultural influences can enrich us and help our culture to move on in a positive direction. We, both the old-established and the new people, need to be open-minded. The question, how we can familiarize the refugees with our culture, is really exciting.

How can cultural actors contribute to integration?  

Culture supplies the preparation for successful integration, but we are not meant to forget that refugees are not coming here because of our culture. They are seeking shelter and work. So there are tasks that concern economy and companies. We need to raise questions on how we can get jobs for refugees, and how society can give the people the chance to find their personal happiness. The aim that refugees earn for themselves is also decisive for a cultural feeling.

How can refugees practice their cultural traditions in Germany?

We have to accept that we are an immigration country, which also means accepting the culture and history of the immigrants. For example, we should not only play the well-known repertoire in theatre, but bring diverse people to cultural institutions so cultural opening can be successful.

The German Cultural Council (GCC) co-founded alliance for cosmopolitanism”. What is it?

The alliance is an idea by the “German federation of trade unions” to stand together with cosmopolitanism by joining and promoting democratic values. In this case “we” means the entire civil society, which cannot be pigeonholed. It includes such spheres as environment, sports, social institutions, trade unions, employers, religious organizations and of course the cultural sector. We cannot divide our responsibility, but accept it together.

GCC calls on sensitive media coverage of refugees. What is sensitive?

Many media use simplified assumptions like “The people from Syria, Afghanistan or Libya are like this or that”. However, it is crucial to differentiate because all-inclusive answers do not exist. Statements like „Men from North Africa like to rape young women” are not true. Sensitive coverage opposes every form of generalization, especially in the cultural sector. More than that, we know too little about the people coming to us and the cultural backpack they carry.

 How can German language connect locals and newcomers?

It is really important for refugees to learn our language, not only to communicate at administrative offices, but to recognize the beauty of the language. Sometimes, it takes months until the refugees are granted asylum, so they have a lot of free time in their centers. In this case, it is a great to learn German and access our culture through it even when a person will not stay here in the long run.

 What is the role of politicians for cultural integration?

Culture needs to be taken seriously as a part of integration process. We have therefore – together with the government, the heads of civil society organizations, the churches, the media and the social partners – founded the initiative of “cultural integration”. Together, we work on answering the following question until May, 21, the international day of cultural diversity: “Who shall be integrated into what with the help of which instruments?” This is not only about refugees, but about everybody who lives in our country. We plan to summarize 10-15 theses, which describe the core of living together in Germany. If this works, it means we have made a big step. You can check the process on our website.


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