“Identity Is Not Something We Talk About at School…” – an Interview With Berfin Kolcak, Participant at “Your Story Moves!” From Germany

Berfin Kolcak (left) during the first encounter in Tel Aviv
Berfin Kolcak (left) during the first encounter in Tel Aviv

Berfin is a dialog moderator and alumna of the project “Dialog at School”, Master student in political sciences and currently residing for an exchange semester in Australia.

Have you always been interested in such an exchange or did the program come to you?
I have always been interested in participating in such an exchange, especially in a non-European territory. One day I was in the university and looked into my mailbox and there was an Email from “Dialog at School”. I read it and felt that I should definitely apply.

Did the topic of migration stories in the youth exchange catch your interest?
Definitely! I work in political education and work with a lot of people with migration background. I myself have a migration background my parents come partly from the Middle East, therefore I am totally interested in this topic.

Did you have specific expectations from the project? What did you imagine and what surprised you later?
The exchange program was with Israel and I personally assumed that it was an anti-Palestinian project. I did some research around it, got to know a few things about the cooperation partner which was the Arab-Jewish Community Center and it became clear to me that it is not what I imagined. We have prejudices about Israel. I had never met any Israelis in Germany myself and I did not know how to deal with the Palestinian conflict in Israel. I did not know if I can even mention Palestine at all. When I got there, I realized that was not the case at all. This calmed me down and made me happy that I decided to take part. Eventually everything in Israel was a highlight, because everything was new. Every minute was a sort of “wow!” for me. The country is very pretty, the people are kind, the participants of the program especially. It was an open space where you could exchange opinions. At the same time, it was clear to me that I should definitely go back to Israel to get to know further perspectives as well. During the exchange program we experienced a very open group but it is important for me to also discuss with other people who are not so open. This is part of understanding the land in depth.

Would you say that we sometimes have a black and white thinking about the region?
Yes, we do. In my case it could be because I grew up with many Palestinians at school. Moreover I get mostly informed from media which represent the Palestinian side. When all you see is the videos of the children, the war and the Israeli army, you only get exposed to one side of the story. I think I was probably somehow biased before the project. When I decided to take part in this project my friends were a bit shocked at first. They said I should first get informed about who organizes this event and what kind of people I will meet there. Alone the project partner “Arab-Jewish Community Center Tel Aviv-Yafo” gave me the impression that this is something more than what I had first imagined.

Migration stories in Israel: Did you know that Israel is a country of migration?
I knew from the media that many Jewish Israelis come originally from Europe. This was my rough knowledge about it. What I saw in Israel opened my eyes and showed me that this country is a melting pot of cultures. People come from all over the world and yet they do not say that they come – for example – from Europe, but that they are Israelis.

Is it different in Germany?
Yes! When someone in Germany asks me where I come from, I usually reply that I am Kurdish. Unless people have a different intention with the question, then I say that I am a German with a migration background. The answer always changes, depending on the situation.

Did you discover new aspects regarding your own migration story during this encounter?
I found it very interesting talking about these topics in Israel. People see themselves as Israelis, even though their background goes far beyond Israel. I thought, why do I then always say that I am Kurdish? Why do I identify with the Kurds, although, when I am in the Kurdish part of Turkey, I want to go back to Germany? When I’m abroad for a long time, I always miss Germany. There is always this conflict: Am I German or am I Kurdish? If the people in Israel say “I was born here and identify with the culture here”, why do I say “I’m not German.”? I feel like there is some sort of an identity crisis.

What could help us deal with these issues in a less conflictious way?
We should invest more energy and resources in civic education. In our school there was no such thing as talking about identity issues in ethics lessons. The more important thing was to stick to the strict curriculum. Quite often I realize when I’m at “Dialog at School” that the students themselves do not know what they are. They think they know, but when you look at them and ask a few questions, they themselves get into an identity crisis.

Could the personal stories and biographies of young people become an important part of learning?
If you make these biographies visible, you show these students that you value them. Otherwise they feel ignored by the school system. It’s interesting to know what the kids bring with them. The thing that usually happens is to give them the migration stamp and that’s it. No one is interested in what they or their parents have been through or are still going through today. We do not care much about how structural racism shapes our lives and how we are exposed towards it. I do not mean only right-wing racism, but also all kinds of intercultural conflicts. As a Kurd, I also experienced racism with many Turks. We share the same history of suffering and migration history but we still have the hatred among our ancestors, though this hatred shouldn’t be there.

What was important for you to show the other participants in Berlin?
Obviously, they should see Kreuzberg (laughter). We had an exchange with an English school and when they walked around Berlin they noticed “Oh, there are many Turks here”. This really surprised them. One could say that Kreuzberg in Berlin is a city within a city and that the cultures live together peacefully and enrich each other, for example with the different cuisines.

Did you have the feeling that also the Israelis came here with a certain fixed views, which they later questioned?
I did not have that feeling. Among other things, I asked a participant if they still hate Germany. One does not forget his story and a little bit of anger always persists. I had the impression that they had no biased opinion towards Germans. They actually came to us openly, without reproaching the past. They were ready to get to know a new perspective in Germany. As far as I am concerned, I thought they would see me as Kurdish or “Middle Eastern” rather than German. But they didn’t give me the impression that they see me through my culture, rather simply as a human being.

How did you feel when you realized that you share many similarities?
Again, I think I was a bit biased in how I viewed them before. I used to follow a few pages where I mostly saw Israeli women with green eyes and brown hair. I almost thought that everyone in Israel would look like that. At the same time, I knew for example that many Ethiopians live in Israel, and I thought these would be the participants with migration story. When I saw the people, I thought, they could be Berliners as well. We were all so similar, had so much in common. I immediately told my friends about it when I came back. In the beginning, they were afraid at the thought that I am visiting Israel. They thought there were bombs flying around all the time. When I told them how I felt in Israel they were very happy to hear. They will be definitely there on the next project (laughter).

Did you learn something new in the topic of dealing with history of the Shoah?
We saw a video on how different survivors deal with the Shoah and then danced to “I will survive”. I paid special attention to the reaction of the Israelis. They actually reacted in a very mature way. I would have expected them to get angry. From a German perspective, you think that people are biased against Germany, that they still think about history and are still very angry. But the Israelis I met in the group handled this inner conflict well. They learn how to process it while never forgetting it. It was very surprising to see how they reacted to it compared to the Germans.

What has been your experience on this topic with young people with migration history in Germany? Is the past relevant to them at all?
My overall impression is that they are not particularly interested. I have often heard pupils refer to each other “You Jew!” as an insult. When I confronted them they replied with a simple “sorry”. They were not aware how serious it is to say something like this. Once I heard from a high school student shouting the Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free). This was a youngster with no immigration background. It was pretty shocking to hear him say it. I was wondering, what did this boy even learn in history lesson? Was it never discussed in his class or did he just ignore it? That made me really sad. I cannot imagine how someone who is personally or biographically affected by the Holocaust would feel by hearing something like this today.

What does our school system need, in order to enable a more sensitive approach to history?
Exchange programs such as this one make the difference. If you only see things through the TV screen, then you can easily suppress it and avoid dealing with it. When you meet people who have gone through such a story or lost loved ones, the way you view history changes directly. I think it is a good idea, especially in schools with a high proportion of immigrant students, to put more emphasis on biographical learning, to enable students come in contact with people with personal stories. Unfortunately, nobody spends time and energy on such projects, but I think they have to be part of the school curriculum in high school or even in elementary school.

Did this encounter shape you in further ways?
Mostly in how I see the Middle East. It was just the beginning for me. I want to do something like this again. Before the program I saw things mostly from the TV screen, Facebook and Instagram. When you see it from outside it is very easy to talk about it, but when you experience a place in real, when you get to meet the people who are involved in it, only then you learn and you can contribute to the discussion in a whole new way.

Educational tools are necessary for this, which educators don’t always have. Did the program contribute in you gaining further educational tools?
What I learned is that you have to learn how to control your emotions and separate them from the political. As an educator in school classes with “Dialog at School” you are also a kind of role model. You have to show how you deal with such conflicts. I compare it to the Kurdish-Turkish conflict; when I talk about the conflict as a Kurd, I also have to hold back my emotions and try to remain neutral. That’s difficult, but educators have to learn how to do it.

Migration is still a challenging topic in Germany. What can Germany learn from Israel?
In Israel everyone comes from a different country, and yet they all identify with one connecting culture. In Germany I have the impression that this is not the case. Many people suffer from this inner conflict which I described before. The question “What am I?“. We need to try and create a more inclusive culture in Germany which can connect everyone, so that we can be both our identities, without needing to choose or justify ourselves.

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