Who is a German? This is a question not only for my research that I pursue at Teachers College, but a question a young Berliner, Ezgi, faces each day. I had the chance to speak to Ezgi during my summer research as part of my fieldwork for the Anthropology program at Teachers College. She told me that in many ways she feels German. She grew up in Germany, she speaks the language fluently and she has plans soon to go to college nearby. She also loves being Kurdish, the music and language, and does not dismiss them from her life. Likewise, she sees no conflict with being Muslim and German and explains how she is grateful for the protection of religion in the German constitution. She notes her headscarf would be forbidden in many public spaces in Turkey, including university. Yet, frequently on the street in Berlin she suspects others would take one look at her and dismiss her as a foreigner because of her headscarf or for speaking Turkish or Kurdish. They would not allow her these multiple identities. However, at MÄDEA, an after school center for girls in Berlin and the central site of my research, Ezgi can not only comfortably express these different layers of herself, but is encouraged to explore them. At MÄDEA she exclaimed proudly: “I am the future of Germany!”
Questions of Where do I belong?, like Ezgi’s, are becoming more frequent in Germany as its society grows more diverse. The question of “Who is German?” does not have an obvious answer in today’s world. Though being born in Germany does not guarantee citizenship, as in the US, in recent years it has become easier to become German, at least officially. Many immigrants who came in the 1960s to help rebuild Germany’s economy after World War II stayed and made their lives in the country. Now their children and grandchildren are part of the face of a new Germany. But this changing landscape of people has caused worry and confusion for many, as Ezgi notices on the street. Even the leader of Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, told a young audience in 2010 that “multiculturalism has failed” as a policy. But what alternatives are there, especially for young people with migration backgrounds? Ethnographic research provides a powerful means of illuminating this issue.
At the forefront of these questions about a new Germany are Ezgi and the girls of MÄDEA youth center. Most of the girls were born in Germany, but a majority of their parents have diverse origins: Turkish, Kurdish, Arab, Slav, Portuguese, Dominican and more. The youth center is located in the heart of Wedding, one of the most immigrant-rich neighborhoods in Berlin. Historically an entry point for new arrivals to the city, it remains economically disadvantaged, but not without some bright spots. Sitting on a busy commercial thoroughfare, MÄDEA offers a dynamic and creative setting for local girls to spend time in after school. It was here that I spent time interviewing many of the girls and viewing their many different media projects.
Around 2pm the colorful rooms of MÄDEA receive the first girls of the day, many of which walk over from neighboring primary schools. They put up their school things and filter into a number of different activities: making tea, working out a dance routine, or just sitting around and talking with friends. A little later, older girls like Ezgi arrive. Some stay four hours, some just to chat for awhile. The girls like to spend time with their friends, and many parents are grateful for the free help with the girls’ homework.
Quite often the girls get the chance to join an art project, led by local musicians and performers. A poster project many of the girls participated in prompted the questions of “What is a homeland? Can you have more than one?” Ezgi, with the three sisters and some other MÄDEA girls, helped put together a theater piece aimed at their families. Some parts of it were for the parents who came to watch: the girls played out scenarios about siblings and dating that might otherwise have been conversations too uncomfortable to have one-on-one. A fifteen year-old girl led the vocals on a song about friendship, “Amiga Boa”, which was eventually recorded and made into a CD. The song challenged the listener to consider the complex identity of the singer, who responds in the song to the question “Who are you, with the black hair? – I am Greek and also a Berliner.” Many of the younger girls painted enormous colorful canvases of themselves with their families or with each other standing in front of famous Berlin sites.
Belonging is complicated for teenagers in general and especially for those with migration backgrounds in Germany. MÄDEA provides the girls with different ways to reflect their experiences to the world and also gives them a safe and amazing space to be themselves. It also provides a window into the “sticky engagements” of larger discourses about immigration and integration at the level of daily life. Ezgi, along with the older girls and the staff, ensure that the lessons and wisdom they received at MÄDEA are passed on to the younger ones. The girls learn self-confidence foremost, but also how to talk–or draw or paint or sing–about their lives, with all the complexity left in.
Post by Bruce Burnside