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Berlin, Germany

What the Volk?! The NICeR Project

Citizens For Europe & Theater X/Jugentheater Büro

March 27, 2018

Using the language of theatre to explore ideas about identity and culture with refugee youth and their peers

copyright Davide Bergamini

In 2015, more than a million refugees arrived in Europe, fleeing war, terrorism, poverty, hunger, searching for safety and a better life. Among them were many refugee youth.

Organizations in seven European cities, working with professional artists and coaches, responded with a flexible performing arts training project designed to bring young refugees and local youth together. Called the NICeR Project (Nouvelle approche pour renforcer l’Intégration Culturelle des jeunes Réfugiés) the idea, says Tamara Hodas Garcia, Fundación Juventud y Cultura in Seville, Spain, was to use the tool of the performing arts to foster interaction and build relationship between refugee and local youth, develop their creative skills as well as strengthen youth participation in cultural and social life at the local level.

The European partners decided on a common, cross-cutting project theme: identity. Each local organization would interpret the theme in its own way, working with groups of fifteen refugee and fifteen local youth.

Collaborative and inclusive theatre

Citizens for Europe, a Berlin based NGO and social enterprise that seeks a more participatory and inclusive society, partnered with Jugendtheater Büro / Theater X, a collaborative “CommUNITY-Theater” in the district of Moabit. Theater X is the only theater company in Germany that is collectively co-managed by adults and young people. In recent years it has become an important centre for new approaches at the boundaries of self-organized and collective art production, as well as cultural and political education.

To get the project started, recalls Séverine Lenglet, Citizens for Europe’s Media and Communications Officer, organizers connected with local settlement agencies and schools to identify and bring together neighbourhood youth aged 15 to 25 for informal breakfast sessions over a couple of Saturday mornings to introduce the project concept: “Potential participants had the chance to try out a theatre workshop session, get to know each other through games and icebreakers, and become familiar with the setting and the staff.” Later, a core group of thirty young people continued on to theatre and drama training workshops followed by a session that focused on the dramaturgy.

Gaining the youth group’s trust was a critical part of the participatory approach and co-creation journey. As Lenglet observes, issues of trust also shaped the decision not ask participating youth for proof of their refugee status: “We could not act like the administration or police asking them for their identity, and putting them through one-to-one interviews that can create a feeling of discomfort at any age – and not at this stage of the project, notably within the refugee group, where it might recall previous traumatic experiences.”

Furthermore, says Lenglet, given that the focus of the production was on identity, it was important not to label the young people as “refugees” but to acknowledge the fullness of their individual identities. The solution?  “Newcomer” was used when helpful to distinguish refugee youth from their locally-born peers – but mostly the idea was to avoid labels altogether.

Culture, language and intercultural competence

All partner cities in the NiCeR Project recruited youth participants in the Fall of 2016 with the goal of delivering a youth-led project. Co-funded by the European Union, performing arts projects with (not ‘for’)  youth were organized in seven cities:

  • Molenbeek, Belgium
  • Liverpool, England
  • Nicosia, Cyprus
  • Rome, Italy
  • Timisoara, Romania
  • Sevilla, Spain
  • Berlin, Germany

The project was developed in three phases: exploration; performing arts skills development; and finally, performance. During the first few weeks, project leaders used a variety of participatory processes to explore the interests of the youth group while focusing on team building.  As Lenglet says “the group dimension was essential.”

Theatre workshops as well as sessions on cross-cultural and language training were organized in early 2017. Cultural diversity was a key element of the production and at the heart of the project itself. The language learning process was integrated into informal city-wide activities for all 30 youth, such as visits to exhibitions, shows, tours around the city and so on.  The young people who already spoke German supported, translated, and helped the newcomers, accompanying them towards their common goal. In some cities, newcomer participants were encouraged to bring their own traditional music and translate it for the locals.

Soon participants were exploring acting, singing, dancing and the theatre space itself to help them determine what they were most interested in. They were also encouraged to identify the backstage roles needed to create the production. Building relationships among the youth and theatre educators was essential to the co-creation and production process.

Multiple identities

Copyright Severine Lenglet

Through a process of dialogue and facilitated discussion, participants explored the identity theme and its different meanings. The Berlin group decided to divide the identity theme into three sub-topics: nation, culture and language. The youth were interested in looking beyond issues of personal identity to what identity might mean in the broader context of national narrative.

Over the two first workshops, the layered and expressive possibilities of a single German word captured the group’s imagination: how the concept of ‘Volk’ {people] and ‘Nation’ overlap in German, and have come to embody both positive and negative messages. ‘Volk” as an expression of the collectivity, or nationhood (“we, the people”) on the one hand, but also as a concept often linked to nationalism, right-wing ideologies, discrimination and exclusion.

Having established the connection between the identity of the people (personal identity) and that of the collectivity that constitutes the nation, the group were ready to tackle the dramatic challenge of how to represent these ideas on stage – and the play’s central character was born. The young people invented an imaginary character named ‘Völker’ and split up into three groups to try and answer together the following questions: Who belongs to the ‘Volk’/Nation? Who does not belong to it? Who are the others?”

What the Volk?!

“What the Volk?!” the play evolved out of these discussions. A “little more” than thirty kids from Berlin, Kosovo, Syria and Afghanistan in 4 months of workshops and production process. In addition to Völker and Frauke, the ‘typical’ Germans, a cast of secondary characters emerged,  richly imagined like ‘Heba and the shark-nation’.

Lenglet says a participatory approach where the youth were co-designing all aspects of the theatre production was important.  As participants began exploring their interests, members of Theater X/Jugentheather Büro worked with them to develop the skills and talents necessary for their parts in the production.

By Spring 2017, the young people were rehearsing and getting ready for their first public performance. In June they performed twice for 350 people at the JugendkulturzentrumPumpe theatre in the Mitte district of Berlin. Later  that summer, Theater X presented the play again during the FESTIYALLA arts festival which attracts up to 5,000 visitors a year, providing a great performance opportunity for young people from Berlin, Germany and around the world.

Impact

Lenglet says that the project was transformational, not only for newcomers, but for local youth as well. While all the young participants became more informed and fluent on issues of migration, diversity, and notions of nation, local youth who were initially overwhelmed by the experiences of the young refugees quickly became allies and champions of their newcomer peers. Their sensitization had a multiplier effect in their networks, as they shared their insights and newfound knowledge with friends, families, communities, schools and beyond.

Lenglet commented on the importance of creating a safe space where kids could feel understood, empowered, protected and helped: “Some participants told me at the end that they felt at home. For the first time they were in a place where they were not ‘I am the refugee,’ they were just individuals, making friendships and learning.”

The progress in skill development and confidence among the newcomers was impressive. One example is the young boy from Syria who initially needed translation during the workshops and ended up performing a very complicated German piece in the final performance.

Success

The NiCeR project, was realised by a European partnership, coordinated by the CIOFS-FP (Italy) as leader, with Alfea Cinematografica (Italy), Molenbeek St-Jean – MCCS, and Pluralis asbl (Belgium), Fundación Juventud y Cultura (Spain), KISA (Cyprus), Intercultural Institute from Timisoara and AIDRom (Romania), Citizens For Europe (Germany), and Rare Studio (UK). The multi-city partnership sought to explore inclusive approaches aimed at refugees at the local level, under a European perspective.

According to Oana Bajka of the Intercultural Institute Timisoara, Romania, NICeR partners also experienced deep impacts: “The organizations from the different countries worked together, not separately, finding meaning and transmitting a joint message to everyone in Europe: You can build partnerships just like we did. You can be part of something special using art and young people. You can do this in your country, just as we did it in ours.”

United in their convictions, NICeR Project partners clearly expressed their rejection of any approach to integration which “is in reality assimilation” as well as their commitment to a human rights-based approach and the importance of developing exchanges and cooperation based on mutual respect between refugees and local citizens. To this end, NICeR has documented an impressive collection of projects (“Good Practices”) from the seven host cities and countries, produced a report on their Methodology and Evaluation, as well as a practical NICeR pedagogical guide that offers “practitioners from specialized and non-specialized settings, alternative ways to teach, using intercultural education as their philosophy and artistic expression as their tool.”

 

Making it Work for You:

  • Build the project with a participatory methodology, i.e., co-creation, co-design with the youth participants.
  • All youth participants have something to contribute and to learn, and so do your colleagues and partners.
  • Work with theatre partners that embrace this co-creation approach.
  • Work with youth to build on their interests and support them where they need help, but give them leadership in the project.
  • In an environment where right wing populism, xenophobia and a generalized anti-immigrant narrative can create fear and mistrust, it is important to make young newcomers feel safe and valued.
  • Showing young newcomers that they are trusted partners is powerful. Find ways to illustrate this trust, whether by not asking for identity documents, proof of status, or creating a safe and positive environment.
  • Work with project partners to develop a common approach, but implement in a way that makes sense locally, to participants, and to your organization's mission and culture.
  • Integrate lessons learned from your partners into your local environment.
  • Look beyond the immediate project goals. It’s not just a theatrical production, it’s an inclusion project. Build in time and resources to build skills, connections and shared learning for both the creation of a final production - and long-term societal change and impact.

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