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Image for Berlin: free theater workshops for refugees. 

Berlin: free theater workshops for refugees. 

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Default profile picture Catherine Combes

Caring for refugees: Wilkommensklassen in Berlin can attend free theater workshops that the prestigious Staatsoper organizes every week. 

10 200 refugees have arrived in Berlin since January. That figure will reach 24 000 at the end of the year, in addition to the 54 325 migrants who settled in the German capital last year  (source RBB).

Initiatives have been blooming throughout Germany since 2015, especially in Berlin, close to the Reichstag. Associations organize picnics and "refugees welcome" events, individuals can offer a room in their flat on dedicated housing websites, theaters, museums and restaurants set up fundraisers. Berliners have many opportunities to get involved by gifting their money, their stuff or just their time.  

The Berlin Staatsoper is no exception, and it collected thousands of euros after each performance last year, according to Rainer O. Brickmann, director of the Jungen Staatsoper (the kids and youth equivalent of the Staatsoper). But in 2016, they wanted to go even further. Rainer Brickmann asked Ronan Favereau, an actor and Theaterpädagoge, to organize a workshop for the Wilkommensklassen, the classes that have been created in German schools to take care of young migrants.

Today, Frau Schröder's class is meeting at 10am in front of the Staatsoper. Ronan will lead the workshop with Jeruscha, a Musikpädagogik student at the UDK, Berlin's arts university, and who wants to teach music in schools later. "It was important for this program to be rooted in music as well as in theater, since those are two art forms that opera develops. That's why I asked Musikpädagoge to help run those workshops with me", Ronan explains. 16 pupils, age 13 to 16, 6 girls and 10 boys, sit in a circle as Ronan asks them to do.  First assignment: they have to introduce themselves and associate one gesture with their names. First issue: nobody understands the word "gesture". Second issue: it's hard for the pupils to contain their excitement and to get everyone to repeat the name and reproduce the gesture together.  Tough. In the course of three hours, the pupils dance, walk, mime, listen. German, Arabic and Albanese are spoken, they sing in Farsi, in English and in Kurd. The highlight of the day are short imporovised theater scenes - in German. Soon, we forget that those pupils are new to Germany (most of them have only been there for a few months), they're so much like the European pupils. In the group of 16 students, you find chatty girls, shy boys, some who play-fight, some who get there late, don't remove their hat and don't apologize, that one funny kid who can't stay in one place, that other kid who stays with the adults and will only talk with the teacher,... It's as strange as it is amusing. But one thing is different with those kids: they're highly dynamic and motivated to participate. Even those who were reluctant to sing at first participate full-heartedly in the other activities. Their favorites? The alphabet - "we walk in the room, I say a letter, and you have to find a noun that starts with that letter. Then you have to give its gender and its plural form. Kids yell out answers, raise their hands:: fruits, vegetables, animals, music instruments,... they've learned their vocabulary lists and have fun using it! Another highlight of the workshop takes lace around the piano. Jeruscha plays Beethoven, Yann Tiersen, Mozart in front of a completely silent audience. Then there's applause, and Ronan asks, after each piece: "How was it? Sad, joyful? What animals could you hear?" Many raise their hands to share their feeling with the others: they see tigers, elephants, birds, mice. Their imagination hasn't gone lost in the journey.  After the break, we walk through the opera house's main room. The kids sigh in admiration as they take a seat in the balcony. Some of them have been to a theater in their home country, in Lebanon, for instance. Others have seen plays or operas on tv. 14-year-old Asel listens to Ronan, wide-eyed, as he tells them about the children's choir, which they can join this year if they wish to.  The workshop ends with improvised skits. "What do you find funny about Germany?What's different from your home country and makes you laugh?" It's hard for them to answer the question, those are such different worlds... Rather, then mention amusing incidents: "a lady stepped out of the subway with her grocery bags, she tripped and all of the fruit rolled onto the ground!", "a man was dancing in the street, naked, while holding a bottle of alcohol." A flow of anecdotes, in a German that's not flawless, but perfectly understandable. Impressive. Ronan then splits the class into three groups, each of them has to perform a skit that illustrates a German expression. All pupils understand right away, they already know those expressions well: "wie bitte ?", "Ach so !". They come up with ideas very easily, they only speak German, sometimes help each other and translate a German word into Arabic if needed. Ahmed, who is taking the workshop very seriously, complains that some pupils spoke in Arabic during the show: "Redo it!" They sit in a circle at the end. Time to review the workshop: "what did you like? what was less enjoyable?" "The alphabet", "the skits" are the most beloved activities. Many pupils take the time to thank the two hosts and feel grateful for the chance to spend time in the opera house. They're all very enthusiastic. Only Jilo voices a minor concern: some exercises might have been too difficult because of the language. That's true, and Jeruscha admits she spoke a lot, too fast, and without using her hands to describe the pieces she played on the piano. It's hard to blame her, for a while even we forgot that those children had only been learning German for a few months! 

Interview with Asel, 14, from Bagdad, Iraq :

How long have you been in Germany for?

I've been in Germany for a year, and I've been going to school in Berlin for one month. Before that. we were in Hanmburg and Schwerin. I came with my mom and my two sisters, my dad died in Iraq. My mom speaks a little French, but she's forgotten a lot of it, and so have I. Her English is very good, though. I'm learning English online. I have a friend online, her name is Deborah, she lives in the US. She gave me that bracelet.  

Are your sisters also going to school?

Yes, they're younger than I am, and they learned German very quickly, so they're now in reglaur classes with German pupils, and I'm a little jealous! 

Had you done theater in Iraq before? 

No. I knew of theatre, I had seen it on TV, but I had never performed myself. I used to play the guitar and sing in Bagdad (during the workshop, she sings My Heart Will Go, from the movie Titanic).  I've asked the teacher if I could register with the opera choir, I'd really like to be able to sing here. 

Would you like to stay in Germany, or would you rather go back to Iraq? 

No, no, I want to stay here. I want to study medicine and become a doctor. 

Frau Schröder, teacher at the Friedensburg-Oberschule, Berlin

How did you come across that workshop? 

The coordinating center gathers everything that's made available to refugees and sends the information to school directors. We get many offerings from theaters, museums that offer free admission, and also from political institutions. It's really quite incredible, and very interesting for us to participate in those activities. 

What is the goal of the Willkomensklassen ?

We want to teach the kids the vocabulary and grammar they need to get by and integrate more easily. I think it's a good, important thing that we all are certified teachers. The students are taught exactly what the other sections learn: respect, group dynamic,... The problem is that they tend to stay amongst themselves, which means they don't speak much German outside of class. Many are still living in emergency refugee housing. But it all depends on the school. Other places make sure students mingle as much as possible. 

What characterizes those students?

Their motivation. They're very eager to learn the language and to become familiar with the culture of the country that welcomed them. The problem is that their attendance is irregular (during the day, they often have to go to medical or administrative appointments, many were sick this past winter). This year, three of my students never came back, which was hard to see, since I'm trying so hard to build a cohesive group, and those three students much have felt left aside. 

Ronan Favereau, comedian and Theaterpädagoge, and Jeruscha Strelow, Musikpädagogin

At the beginning of each workshop, you ask the group which languages are spoken in the group. Which are the most common ones? 

R : I'd say Arabic, Romanian, Farsi and Kursish. 

J : There was once a group with 16 different languages! Most of the youths speak many languages. 

You also offer to complete some exercises in the language of the students, for instance you'll teach the class how to say "right" or "left" in Arabic or in Kurdish. Is it important to promote the culture of everybody during the workshops? 

R : I think that when you're part of a minority in a very European country such as Germany, it's easy to develop an inferiority complex. It was crucial to me to make those youths welcome and free to speak in their mother tongue in an institution such as the Staatsoper, which is traditionally frequented by a certain European elite. 

J : At a point of the workshop, pupils can sing in their mother tongue. There was once a boy from Afghanistan who wanted to sing a song but couldn't remember the lyrics because it was prohibited in his country. He stood up again 20 minutes later and asked if he may sing it. 

R : It was a very emotional moment, for him and for us, and that's probably the most beautiful song I've ever heard. 

We've talked a lot about cultural differences, the various faiths and customs of the new migrants, but I was surprised to observe that those workshops didn't differ much from any other "normal" class. 

Opera has an image as a rather closed, elitist institution: how were those workshops received by the people who belong to that universe?  

R : The opera's intendant, Jürgen Flimm, stepped in early to reach out to refugees. He organized a free concert at the Philharmonie in the benefit of refugees and volunteers. He's very eager to open up the opera to everybody, regardless of their socio-cultural background. Daniel Barenboim embodies this philosophy (he is the Staatsoper conductor, was born in Argentina but is also Israeli, Spanish and also holds a Palestinian passport). 

Interview with Rainer O. Brickmann, director of the Jungen Staatsoper

What projects is the Jungen Staatosoper involved with?

The Staatsoper offers shows for adults, operas and concerts, while the Jungen Staatsoper endeavors to set up a program specifically for children and teenagers. It's also the house to many projects and clubs. We also work together with associations such as SOS Kinderdorf or the Dimicare Anneliese Langner foundation.

It was important to us to reach out to all social backgrounds. Opera is often restricted to an elite, tickets are expensive and the works are arduous, and that's why we felt it was important to make it more accessible through those projects. 

How did you come up with the idea of workshops for the Wilkommensklassen ?

Last year, as the main wave of refugees arrived in Berlin, we were all ready to get involved. We collected donations, but we also wanted to get involved more immediately. With our tools, music and theater, we wanted to offer a fun way to get acquainted with this foreign country, to learn the language, communicate and become familiar with a certain "german way of life".

Do the workshops make room for the past, to each person's individual story, or do they look ahead, towards the European and German future of the participants? 

The workshop doesn't raise that problematic. It's meant to be for the present, now and here, with the group who is doing the workshop on that given day. We want to make it fun, enjoyable. Of course, some of the information they're learning will be useful in the future. We offer some activities that German pupils do in school: clap while sitting in a circle, listening to one another, feel comfortable within a group. 

You are working and haved published many books and articles on the topic of scenic, musical and theatrical interpretation. Are the workshop valuable for your research?  

This project is part of the "Learning by opering" program, which is funded in cooperation with the Deutsche Bank Foundation and the Akademie Musik und Theater.

We asked them to finance ten workshops because those allow us to gain experience on the topic and help us develop our research. After each workshop, we write down what we've learned over those few hours, what was successful and can be reused, and what didn't work. We're constantly striving for quality and growth. 

The many German public and private cultural projects, especially in Berlin, make France look pretty bad. How do you account for this deep involvement of Germans with the refugees that have arrived over the past two years?   

I think it was a reaction to the disturbing images we see in the media. Many Germans really want to help out, which is one positive aspect of the current situation. The negative side is that far right movements arise, Pegida being the most visible of them, and those bring to mind the nazi period, which we thought was over. A lot of people strive to show the world that they are not representative of today's Germany. 

These demonstrations of solidarity have given me strength and energy. It's a great feeling when you see many others sharing those feelings and getting involved. 

There's a German saying, "es gibt nichts gutes, außer man tut es" ("the only good there is is the one you do"). It sounds very much of the 70's, but a lot of Germans live by it. "Learning by doing", "learning by opering", people get very creative. Many projects die but many also thrive, and what matters is to do, and learn on the way. If an institution such as the opera can reach out, so can everybody. 

Aside from the workshops, the Junge Staatsoper works on another project for migrant children, 1000 erste Wörter (« the first 1000 words »). What does it consist in? 

We go to refugee centers to work with children and help them learn German through songs. Music is a great means to learn words, but the lyrics are often difficut, with a syntax that's old-fashioned or adapted to fit the melody.  We alter the lyrics to make them easier to grasp while still grammatically accurate. For instance, we change "Bruder Jakob, Bruder Jakob, Schlafen Sie ?"  (« Frère Jacques, dormez-vous ? ») into « Ich bin Jakob, ich bin Jakob, wer bist du ? » (« Je suis Jakob, who are you ? »)

Translated from Berlin : des ateliers de théâtre gratuits pour les réfugiés