BERLIN – When Asmaa Soleiman, a Berliner of Palestinian origin, first heard about the refugee and migrant mentoring project Neighborhood Mothers, she immediately knew she had to get involved.
“I really liked the idea of this project because I was a refugee myself,” says Soleiman, who arrived in Germany with her parents and siblings at the age of nine.
When the family arrived in Berlin, they constantly experienced problems with even the most basic of tasks, like registering for kindergarten or healthcare. Soleiman, who is now in her 30s and speaks fluent German, wanted to help new refugees avoid the same obstacles.
She is one of 76 women filling the role of Stadtteilmütter, or “Neighborhood Mother,“ in Neukolln, a district of Berlin where about 40 percent of the residents are first or second-generation migrants. The Neighborhood Mothers in Neukolln are mostly women from Turkish and Arab origin, with others from Asia and Africa.
Through the Neighborhood Mothers project, launched in Neukolln in 2004, women who have personally experienced integration provide mentorship to new refugees and migrants, helping them overcome bureaucratic tasks and cultural barriers. Similar initiatives have since been developed in other boroughs of Berlin and elsewhere in Germany, as well as in other European countries.
The front line of integration
A fluent Arabic speaker, Soleiman has mentored many Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the past three years, helping them communicate with their children’s teachers at school or kindergarten appointments, and sharing with them information on German values, social norms and laws, like punctuality, healthy eating and children’s rights. “There is something inspiring for me to do this work and help other people,” says Soleiman.
Soleiman and the other Neighborhood Mothers throughout Germany are on the front line of the country’s efforts to integrate about 1.5 million new asylum seekers and refugees that have arrived since 2014.
In Neukolln, which has a population of 320,000 and has become home to more than 3,000 refugees, the local municipality has created or supported dozens of integration programs. Many of these initiatives – like a confidence-building circus for immigrant schoolchildren, an intercultural garden-cooperative for families with physical disabilities, and a sewing workshop that trains unemployed newcomers and locals – are funded by city, state or federal authorities and operated by community or non-profit groups. Neukolln’s Neighborhood Mothers project has received approximately 11 million euros ($13m) from the local municipality since it was launched in 2004, enough to keep the project running until at least 2019.
These projects are part of a nationwide effort led by the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been preaching the importance of integration both to refugees and to local communities. In Germany’s 2017 budget, 21.3 billion euros ($24.7bn) were allocated to refugee assistance, including 3.2 billion euros for “integration measures.”
Schools and jobs
One of the more experienced Neighborhood Mothers in Neukolln is Hanadi Mourad, who came to Germany from Lebanon 27 years ago. Now in her mid-30s, she has been working in the project since 2008 and says refugees’ most urgent needs are usually language-school and kindergarten enrollment.
“The most important thing is to encourage [the refugees] to do language courses, which is the first step of integration, before getting a job,” says Mourad. Once refugees start to speak fluent German, their jobs prospects rise naturally, according to Mourad. “But it takes time,” she adds.
About half of Neukolln families with a migration background did not send their children to kindergarten or pre-school before the Neighborhood Mothers started raising awareness of the importance of early education, says Alix Rehlinger, who is in charge of the Department of Social & Integration in the Neukolln branch of Diakonie, the non-profit that manages the Neighborhood Mothers project in Neukölln.
“These families were not reached before. They simply were not reached by the German authorities [or] German organizations,” says Rehlinger. The children who missed pre-school would start the first grade of elementary school without knowing German and would have a very hard time keeping up with their classmates, according to Rehlinger.
“From the very beginning of their education career, they had big disadvantages,” she says.
Since the Neighborhood Mothers project was launched, more families have enrolled their children in school, Rehlinger says. She believes the Mothers are more valuable than “a German social worker who has never been in an Arab country” because they speak Arabic and are familiar with regional traditions.
Encouraging quick integration of refugee children into the German education system is critical for social cohesion, according to Thomas Liebig, a migration expert from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
“We know that in general long periods of inactivity for children can be very detrimental for their development,” says Liebig. “The sooner they get integrated into the school system, the better their outcomes at a later age are going to be. There is very clear evidence of this.”
Liebig adds that once children are in schools, then parents have time to learn German and search for a job. “When the children are taken care of, it will not only improve the children’s integration but can also have important benefit for the parents’ integration,” he says.
While Germany’s mass investment in integration of refugees was recently praised by the OECD, the government’s initial response to the influx of newcomers in 2015 was criticized as slow, and overall labor market integration has lagged.
A key challenge is training low-skilled refugees to succeed in the German labor market, according to Professor Bernd Ladwig of the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science at Freie Universität Berlin. As far as cultural integration of refugees, Ladwig explains this is a two-way adaptation process.
“On the one hand, refugees would have to learn a lot about the new society they live in – which is in strong contrast sometimes with cultural stereotypes they are familiar with from their own countries,” says Ladwig. “And on the other hand, German society would also have to give up certain attitudes and take as normal that people from other parts of the world are now entering our society.”