Integration debate

The “Heroes” Of Berlin-Neukölln

„Heroe“-Logo; © Strohhalm e. V.„The “Heroes” logo; © Strohhalm e. V.Boys are strong and brave, girls are chaste and obedient. This is particularly the case in Muslim families. Strangely enough, it is not just the girls who have a hard time dealing with this, it also puts considerable strain on the boys. There is now a project in Berlin that is to help the boys break with such traditional behaviour patterns and to stand up for an end to honour being used as a means of suppression.

“Imagine my sister goes out one night and something happens to her. The neighbours would find out about it and then, no matter where I go, I can kiss my honour goodbye,” says a young guy indignantly at one of the “Heroes” workshops. “You have to decide whether you are going to keep an eye on her or lock her up – she needs a life, too, you know,” counters Deniz, one the Berlin “Heroes”. It requires a certain amount of courage to challenge the traditional concept of honour prevailing in the Turkish community.

“Being a “Hero” means you have to take risks and that in itself is quite a risky business where we live,” explains Deniz self-confidently. The 20-year-old high-school student is one of five young men working on the “Heroes” project in the Berlin district of Neukölln.

Talking about taboos

The “Heroes” Gökay, Onur, Okcan, Deniz and Turabi (from left to right); © Strohalm e. v.The district is a melting pot with people coming from over 160 countries. 40 per cent of the residents are immigrant, in the north of Neukölln as much as 80 percent of all people under 18 are from an immigrant background. Most of them have Turkish or Arab roots and they brought their traditions and values with them from their home countries. These values and traditions very often differ those of the Germans, especially when it comes to the roles men and women should play. This is where the “Heroes” particularly feel they have a job to do.

“We talk about topics that are not so pleasant, because we want to change things,” emphasises Ahmad Mansour. He is a student of psychology and has lived in Germany for five years. He is the group leader and has been supervising Deniz, Gökay, Onur, Okcan and Turabi, along with Yilmaz Atmaca, the actor, for six months. The boys went to lectures, exhibitions and took part in discussions on such topics as codes of honour, self-determination and equality. The aim was to help them break with old ways of thinking and to gather convincing arguments to be used when standing up for their sisters and girlfriends – also to serve as role models for the young people around them of the same age.

To do this they worked out a few small role plays to be used in schools or youth clubs that also get the participants involved. For example, the father is furious because the son has not been keeping an eye on the daughter, the brother hits his sister, because she came home late … In this way Aki and Abdul find out what it is like to be in Asiye’s or Alima’s shoes.

A full-time job for the “Heroes”

Gökay (l.) and Erdem (r.) performing a role play at the Swedish embassy;
© Strohalm e. v.Avni and Ufuk also took part in a workshop at their school. “A girl was beaten up because she was wearing a mini-skirt and had been out with her boyfriend late at night,” as 17-year-old Avni recalls the role play. Quite a lot were laughing and found it quite normal – probably because they had been through the same thing, 16-year-old Ufuk assumed. Both of them agreed that boys and girls were treated differently and Ufuk went on to say that parents trusted their sons more than they trusted their daughters. “After the role plays we had a discussion,” he continued. “There were various opinions, a lot of questions were asked and the “Heroes” answered them.”

If they are prepared to listen to each other and try to understand, then that is a start, at least, said Ufuk, who is quite sure he would never resort to violence. One of the teachers involved, Marianne Johannsen, would like to see more projects like this, in particular, ones that would span a longer period of time. Her students have such a weird concept of honour that it often affects their learning abilities – even the slightest form of criticism insults their honour. “The “Heroes” would have a full-time job at our school,” she says. Unfortunately there is no was they could do that – they are still at school or college themselves.

Getting them to think about the problem

We made it! The “Heroes” proudly present their certificates with the team after the awards ceremony; © Strohalm e. v.The idea behind “Heroes” comes from Sweden. Dagmar Riedel-Breidenstein, sociologist and head of the registered society called Strohhalm, introduced the idea to Neukölln and coordinates the project; another sociologist, Anna Rinder von Beckerath, brought the experience she gained from a similar project in Sweden and manages the project in collaboration with the gender researcher, Jenny Breidenstein. Since 2007 “Heroes” has been funded by the World Childhood Foundation.

Soon the second group of “Heroes” will have finished their training and will be ceremoniously awarded their certificates and then there will be twelve young “Heroes” between 17 and 21 in the team. Deniz recalls the way he started. His mother told him about the project. He had a few long chats with Ahmad and Yilmaz and then slowly started to take a few other young guys along. “My family and my friends are behind me on this,” he says, “and if a I get the odd strange reaction, I am not bothered at all.” He is fully aware that he cannot change the way these young guys think in a matter of a few hours, but it gives him a sense of achievement if he can at least get them thinking about the problem – even if sometimes it is only for an afternoon. This is also the reason why he is still part of the project.

Regina Friedrich
works as free-lance journalist in Berlin.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
February 2010

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