In their own words: Berlin support groups give refugee women a voice

BERLIN, Basma Elmahdy (dpa)- Displaced by war, women from the Arab world found security in Germany - and the harsh reality of coming to terms with loss in an alien environment. Berlin's support groups offer them an alternative home.
The lyrical Arabic word "fadfadah" means the act of revealing what makes one's heart heavy. The process itself is painful for eight Arab women, their lives ripped apart by conflict, as they struggle to find a voice in Germany.

The women meet every week at a cultural centre in the largely immigrant neighbourhood of Neukoelln in Berlin to heal the wounds of war and find ways to rebuild their shattered lives.
Seated in a trusted circle, they were chatting about family, work and children until the facilitator of their support group session interrupted to ask: "Who has done the homework?"
The homework involves writing about their feelings on an assigned subject, which is part of the second edition of the Fadfadah workshop, a storytelling group launched in March that runs until October.
"This week's theme was asylum. What does the word mean to you?" asked Marwa Abidou, a founder of the workshop and a project manager at the centre, Werkstatt Der Kulturen.
A Palestinian-Syrian woman, 50, began to read from her diary.
"Asylum means that you don't have your own home. Anyone could ask you to leave," said the woman, as tears welled up in her eyes and those of the others.
"I didn't arrive in Germany as a refugee. My German-based relatives sent an official invitation to me. But as a Palestinian, I used to be one in Syria where I born and lived until I left the country due to the war," she said.
Fadfadah is among several such groups in Berlin that since 2016 have given women refugees a safe space to express themselves in their mother tongue.
The women vent their pent-up feelings in workshops on storytelling, writing, theatre and art. The initiatives also enable their voices to reach their German host communities.
"In the wake of a flood of refugees to Germany in 2015, I taught German to Arabic-speaking refugees. The women felt comfortable to speak with me in Arabic, revealing their concerns about the living conditions in the camps," said Abidou, an Egyptian theatre scholar who moved to Germany in 2005.
"Some of them felt humiliated for waiting in long food queues," Abidou told dpa.
Language barriers prevented the refugees from expressing themselves or being fully understood in Germany. "No one listens to us. This is our main problem here," Abidou cited a camp resident as telling her.
Abidou, who has a daughter, could relate to their stories and decided to put her theatre experience into action.
As the first Fadfadah workshop, which started in March 2016, ended, Abidou felt the women "should be heard outside our closed circle, in the hosting community of Germany."
In July 2016, they put together a theatre performance entitled "We Are Not Numbers In The News" in the German capital.
"Women coming from rural Syria managed to form a common message from many stories shared during the sessions and to perform in the theatre in front of a German audience," Abidou said.
While the first workshop grew out of the Syrian refugee crisis, the subsequent one included all Arabic-speaking newcomers including Palestinian and Egyptian women.
Language isn't a barrier within such groups - the differences are age, social class and home country.
"At the beginning, it wasn't that easy and homogeneous due to the age gap and different nationalities," said Mariana Karkoutli, a social worker who has facilitated support groups in refugee camps in Berlin since 2016.
Karkoutli, a Syrian woman who did her master's in social work and human rights in Germany, runs separate groups for women and men.
She noticed that older women are more flexible in accepting the changes in gender roles within German society where they are responsible for themselves, "while younger women are still dependent on the men."
One obstacle was the concept of a support group. It was so new to the women that they didn't initially get the purpose of attending such sessions.
"In our Arab societies, there is no need for support groups since you already have a mother, sisters and friends. But the more individualistic society in Germany means they need to be in one to cope with the feelings of loneliness and isolation," Karkoutli told dpa.
For a year, Rawaa Samman, a 46-year-old Syrian mother, has participated in a weekly meeting called Circle of Peace that has gradually become her "alternative home."
It is a trauma therapy group run by a German therapist and an Arabic-speaking assistant which turned into a meeting point for Syrian women from different social backgrounds.
"We have become best friends," said Samman, who moved to Berlin two years ago, adding that the "weekly meeting is sacred time on my schedule."
The groups tackle various topics in their sessions - gender equality, cultural differences and identity. One of the most sensitive is post-war trauma.
"Our approach didn't aim to remind them about what had happened, but how it was reflected. We didn't call them traumatic experiences, rather dreams," Karkoutli said.
She added: "Even when we tackled death - most of them lost relatives back home - I urged them to think positively, how strong they became after such a harsh experience."

Monday, July 31st 2017
Basma Elmahdy

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