Refugees in Berlin get dose of culture

Berlin, February 2016 - Three renowned conductors give a rare classical concert for a refugee audience and volunteer aid workers. The Berlin International Film Festival — the world’s biggest film festival — gives its top prize, the Golden Bear, to a documentary about refugees.
This is Berlin, the German capital, where steady streams of refugees arrive — more than 80,000 in the last year. Their plight has become part of everyday life in the city.

Berlin prides itself as a world cultural capital. Officials have made a pronounced effort to help refugees feel at home – “Willkommenskultur” they call it in German. Refugees are offered a glimpse or even participation in the rich cultural life of the city.

Berlin’s top classical orchestras performed on one stage in March. The Konzerthausorchester’s conductor, Iván Fischer, joined with Sir Simon Rattle of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. World-renowned musician Daniel Barenboim joined his Staatskapelle orchestra on the piano for a Mozart piano concerto. Seventy percent of the audience was refugees who rewarded the conductors and orchestras with enthusiastic standing ovations.

At the world’s biggest audience-driven film festival, held from 11-21 February in Berlin, many of the 400 films highlighted the refugee crisis. The director of the festival, Dieter Kosslick, did not tire to raise the issue of refugees and the responsibility of society whenever he spoke. The Golden Bear was awarded to the documentary Fuocoammare by Gianfranco Rosi, a film about life on the Italian island Lampedusa where refugees first arrive in the European Union. A lively political spirit was perceptible throughout the ten-day festival, beginning with George Clooney speaking out and then visiting both the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a refugee family.

Everywhere at the cinemas and at the European Film Market, where the industry was making big deals, there were huge collection boxes for the Berlin Center for Torture Victims. In the drive to open up culture, refugee groups and students were attending certain screenings.

(c) Anli Serfontein 2016

The Berlinale Talents programmes aims to forge a life-long international film network. Every year 300 young, international filmmakers meet and exchange experiences, get mentored and listen to luminaries such as the president of the jury, Meryl Streep.

Opening the session on 13 February, Kosslick told his audience, some of them refugees themselves, “There are 60 million people walking around looking for a home.”

(c) Anli Serfontein 2016

A few days later, speaking at the Africa Day of the World Cinema Fund, Kosslick again underlined: “We have a catastrophe in the world and we must stop the religious and economic misunderstanding.” He pointed fingers at his own country, stating that Germany is the second biggest weapon exporter in the world. “The only way to stop this is to cooperate and understand how other people live and operate.”

He made a plea for the post-2001 world to be tolerant and accept diversity. The Berlinale is seen as the most political of the major film festivals, something that as Kosslick pointed out may have something to do with it being founded on the ashes of a war-ravaged city, full of ruins. When the Berlinale was founded in 1951 in post-war Berlin, most of the refugees were Germans, he said.

“We are obliged to work for peace with our ‘weapons’ and that is film,” Kosslick encouraged the African filmmakers.

At the same event, the German Foreign Office head of culture and communication Andreas Görgen spoke about the “social power of culture” which includes “creating a perspective on others.”

Berlin libraries are trying to attract new readers and multi-media users by making their services available for free to all refugees. In the library, there is a coat carefully spread out on the floor. When I look up, a tall man is standing with outstretched arms silently praying, while his Iphone plays the Adhan (call to prayers). Nobody bats an eye.

Many Germans have firsthand experience of being refugees. The older German generation has either grown up with stories of flight or experienced it themselves after World War II. In the 40 years after that, many East Germans fled to West Germany, spending their first months in transition centres, rebuilding lives.

After 1990, in a deal brokered between German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev, nearly one million ethnic Germans and Jews came from the former Soviet republics, two centuries after their forefathers left for Catherine the Great’s Russia where they were later persecuted by Stalin and forbidden to practice their Protestant religion. In Germany, they also had to learn to integrate.

Waiting for an underground, an elderly lady had just spoken to a refugee, also waiting on the platform. “He says he fled with five children, imagine how difficult that was?” She asked rhetorically, visibly upset. “My Mom only fled with me in that hungry winter (of 1944/45) and that was difficult enough.”


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