Saturday, September 30, 2017

September Highs and Low 2017

Here we are again at the end of another month, and it looks like I'll actually get the highs and lows done punctually this time. It might not have any photos, though, because we changed something on our computer network and without M's help, I can't access any of my pictures. (edit: M to the rescue; photos are ready to go.)

It's a beautiful day today, which is nice except that means I should get my tail outside to do some gardening and yard work. Way to suck the joy out of a lovely day, though once I get going I usually enjoy it at least a little.

Here we go with September's highs and low.

HIGHS

  • a visit from my "first friend" and her husband. They're from Wisconsin, and she was the first friend I made when my family and I moved to Sheboygan when I was three. Her husband had a conference in Freiburg, and they flew over early to spend the weekend with us. We shared a lot of memories, had plenty of laughs, and caught up on all kinds of things one doesn't write in Christmas letters. We took them to Burg Hohenzollern where there was a visiting Falknerei giving a demonstration about falcons, owls, and eagles, and although it was a bit chilly up there and rained a bit, we enjoyed it. We also had Sunday brunch at our favorite restaurant and a nice walk through our village afterwards. 


Photo credit: M
  • They had a gorgeous little Steinkauz as well, but his handler marched him past me so fast I couldn't get a good picture.

  • M's electric scooter arrived!! He got tired of me gallivanting in his car all the time and not being able to get down to town for a haircut or over to the store for a fresh pretzel, so he ordered a scooter a few months ago. He's been having fun with it.


  • I passed the five-year mark of being an expat/immigrant, and the more I read about what's going on in #45's America, the gladder I am I don't live there.

  • dinner on the last night of the month. We tried a new recipe tonight, which M saw on the noon show we watch: Hackfleischstrudel im Blätterteig (ground meat roll in puff pastry) from Vincent Klink, a chef we both appreciate. If it's good and photogenic, I'll come back and add it to my highs. (edit: Damn!! It was delicious!)




  • the return of George!!! I can't believe it - our little hedgehog friend is back! M went out to his man cave for a smoke, and he heard some rustling around. He shined a flashlight under the table, and sure enough, there was George! He is such a little darling, and I don't care that M says he probably has fleas. I brought him a soft towel to sleep on, and I wanted to bring him some salad, but M says he'd rather eat slugs and worms. I don't have any of those in the kitchen, so I'll let him take care of his own dinner.

    The man cave is rather dusty and cob-webby, which George discovered while looking for an escape route while being flashy-thingied.



the LOW that should have been a High

  • Mustafa, our Tuesday vegetable guy, had one cob of corn this week. My mouth started watering as I envisioned that sweet cob dripping in butter... You see, although corn-on-the-cob is a staple of a midwesterner's diet, it's just not a thing in Germany. Corn is cow food, and messy hand-held food makes Germans uncomfortable. I boiled it the next day, wiped the butter on and bite in with relish. Merp. Just not the same. It was not bursting with flavor, as the sweet corn in Wisconsin does.

Neither Here nor There, Neither High nor Low

  • the Bundestag (Parliament) election in Germany. The results were not unexpected - Merkel's party (CDU) won the most votes, but that was still only 33%. Their former partner party (SPD) took the next-most votes, but they said they no longer want to work together with the CDU in a coalition. The AfD (right-wing populist party) came in third, and about 13 hours later their party leader left the party. Decent people everywhere are disappointed that the AfD got so many votes, but this is our world today.

    For a much better recap of the election than I have time to write, see my friend La Mari's post here.

  • M knows a lot of trivial facts and things, and so I figured he'd know when the German language came into being. I've always imagined a group of 12 grumpy men sitting around a table trying to decide how best to drive future learners of the language absolutely bonkers.
    This was his response to "When was the German language developed?"

    "Around tea time."

  • I attended a sales pitch by the rep from the publishing company that put out the textbook series I have to use for my Integrationskurs. I mentioned in a recent post that it's the worst book I've ever had the misfortune to use. The session was three hours long, and I knew what to expect - I've been to such meetings before. I actually did learn a few very helpful things, which will reduce my - and my students' - stress level for the remainder of this course, so I'm glad I went.



I hope you had a good September!!



Saturday, September 23, 2017

Making Friends with Germans

I have read often from other expats living in Germany that it is really hard making friends with Germans. A common stereotype English speakers have of Germans is that they are cold and distant. There's a bit of truth in most stereotypes, and the whole du-Sie thing (the Sie part, anyway) surely creates a distance that at least Americans aren't used to.

[Sie and du both mean "you," but Sie is formal - like "You, Sir" or "You, Ma'am - and is used for all adult strangers, service personnel, neighbors, and even colleagues until the older or higher-ranked person suggests the switch to du and first names. Until then it's "Mr. or Mrs. Dingsbums."]

So when there is such a wall between you and your neighbors and colleagues and an expected distance between strangers, (strangers sitting next to each other on the train in Germany generally do not chat with each other even if they commute on the same train every day), how can you make friends with Germans? I'm not going to address the pub and night life scene because I'm way too old for that and have never in my life made a friend that way. I'm also not going to address networking with other expats, because the point is to make friends with Germans.

Sometimes it is quite literally a wall or hedge that separates you
from the Germans around you (this is our street). Some go a long way to avoid
accidental interaction at their homes.

The first thing you need to accept is that Germans tend to be more reserved than Americans, and friendship doesn't happen quickly. For Americans, meeting someone at an event and talking with them for 30 minutes turns them into a friend if they generally agreed on the topics they discussed. For Germans the term "friend" is reserved for long-term relationships, and one goes through several stages between Fremder (stranger) and Freund (friend). You'll be a Bekannte  (acquaintance) for years, most likely, before a German will begin to consider you a friend.

This is the Oberbürgermeister (Lord Mayor) of Esslingen.
We look like friends, don't we?
We're not. We are Bekannten at best, and even that is going a bit far.
I spent a few hours with him as a translator the day this was taken.
My Syrian friends who have integrated the most successfully could offer some helpful advice. They don't talk about making friends or not. They talk about the importance of Kontakte knüpfen - making contacts with Germans and interacting with them. Friendship may or may not develop, but if you're feeling lonely and want to get to know locals, look for ways to make contact rather than looking for friends.

Here are my tips:

Start Learning the Language

The German language is challenging, without a doubt. But it's learnable, as millions of people have proven. Take a class at a language school or the VHS in your area, and get ready to work hard. An intensive course meets for four hours every weekday, and if you want to be successful you will also spend a minimum of two additional hours outside of class learning vocabulary (at least 20 new words a day - and review them as well), doing homework, practicing pronunciation, reviewing what you learned in class, listening to German music, watching German TV, reading German (children's books at first are great!!), and looking for opportunities to speak German with Germans - at the store, the bank, the library, the Bahnhof...

This is our current book, and it is without question
the worst one I have ever had the misfortune to have to use.
I'm meeting with the rep next week. Should be fun.

Volunteer

Your German does not need to be perfect in order to help people. It doesn't even need to be good. I volunteered with Lebenshilfe for a while by accompanying a group of children with disabilities once a week after school for various activities. A friend of mine was in charge, and I was one of her assistants. One of the boys helped me with my Schwäbisch, and I taught him a little English! We went for walks, to parks and playgrounds, went therapy riding a few times... 

Most towns (at least in the Schwabenland) have a "clean-up day" once or twice a year, and they advertise the meeting time and place on a Saturday. Villagers tidy up the streets and public areas under the direction of a leader, and afterward the volunteers are treated to refreshments. What better way to meet people than to let them know you are willing to help out in your community?

Get involved with the local Freundskreis-Asyl. You will meet local Germans who are also volunteering, foreigners who are also working on their German skills, and your ability to speak English will be an asset to the group! Many foreigners arrive in Germany having some grasp of English, and it's the common language of communication until their German gets good enough.

What I did to get involved with my community here in Germany was to go to the Ausländeramt (Foreigner's Office) because they already knew me, and I asked them what I could do and where I could go to help. Give that a try.

Join a Verein

A Verein is a club, and every German town is full of them. Whatever your interests and talents, you'll be able to find a group to join. There's usually a membership fee and sometimes you're expected to provide services as well - like manning a concession booth at a fund raiser, etc.

In our small town (population 25,000 if you include all the little surrounding villages) there are more than 33 Vereine for activities such as: horseback riding, motorcycle enthusiasts, karate, dance, archery, all sports, small animal lovers, judo, music and singing, chess, hiking, Fasching, gardening, etc. If you can't find a Verein of interest, you're not looking hard enough.

Especially in the Sportvereine, the language barrier is not huge. My students who play soccer with a Verein say it has helped them very much with their language skills - as well as getting comfortable with the local dialect!

Join an English-Speaking Circle

Although the goal should be to improve your German and interact with locals in German, an English-speaking circle is a great way to get your foot in the door and meet people! And you can be of help to them, too, since often they have questions about English best answered by a native speaker. I did attend one meeting and enjoyed it, until they started singing at the end. Not my thing, though I can totally understand how it's enjoyable for such a group. 

Within such a group you might also be able to find a Sprachpartner - someone who wants to practice his or her English and also help you practice your German. You can meet as often as you want to, and speak half the time in English and half the time in German.

Take a class or two at the local VHS

The Volkshochschule in your area offers many interesting classes on a wide variety of topics. Some courses are just a few hours or one day long, and others are longer term, once or twice a week for several weeks. You and your classmates will all have at least one thing in common (the topic you're learning), and it shouldn't be too hard to suggest meeting for coffee after class some day.

Read the Local Newspaper and Amtsblatt

Right after I moved here M asked me if I would like to subscribe to the local paper for another way to work on improving my German. I decided to try it for a while, and now I'm nearly addicted. I would miss SO much if I didn't get the paper, and I read or at least skim it cover-to-cover almost every day.


We also get a weekly Blättle (like a newsletter), which lets us know what is going on in Horb and the surrounding area, as well as the insert for our little village. The church services and activities are listed here, local festivals, social evenings - this Tuesday there's a stamp collectors' exchange and info evening, as well as a PC-Stammtisch for women - and musical performances, many of which don't charge for admission.

Be Open-Minded about Age

Don't dismiss a possible connection just because the person is 10+ years older or younger than you. I have enjoyed many hours chatting with people who have become friends or nearly friends who are my parents' age, as well as making some younger friends in their 30s. In our Blättle I see a Senioren-Spielnachmittag at a community center. I'll bet they don't mind if younger people come and play games with the older folks.

Offer to Help

Do you have an elderly neighbor who could use a hand now and then? If you're an American you might not be able to keep up with your older Swabian neighbors in the realm of yardwork (Swabians work until they are physically unable to walk anymore), but if you have time, what about offering to mow her lawn or, in the winter, shovel their sidewalks? If you're going to the store anyway, perhaps you could pick up a crate of water or beer for him - those crates are heavy and no one helps you at the store. It's possible you'll get an invitation for Kaffee und Kuchen some day, and probably they have adult children who visit now and then whom you could meet.



The main thing is, you cannot be lazy passive if you want to make friends with Germans. They will likely not be the first to step forward, even though a neighbor of ours and my good friend and Sprachpartnerin did reach out to me first! Most likely you will need to go out in seek of contacts and opportunities to meet people, and there are plenty in Germany! And even if it's awkward at first and you don't feel like anyone went out of their way to welcome you like a prince or princess (they don't do that), try again. You'll find your niche, but you have to go out and look for it. 


What other ideas do you have for making friends with Germans?



Wednesday, September 20, 2017

August Highs and Lows 2017, the Forgotten Edition

Oops. I was a week into September when I remembered my traditional "Highs and Lows" post. And then I was too busy. And then too tired. And then too apathetic.

But today*, on my five-year "Expativersary" (I moved to Germany permanently five years ago today), I thought I'd finally run through my highs and lows from last month.

our pretty little town
I keep saying I've moved to Germany permanently because I can't imagine anything changing that. If M gets tired of me, I'll just move in with his mother, who is a dear friend of mine. That's unlikely to happen, though. He and I are so much in sync that we feel completely out of whack when we're not together. We balance each other, and we're better people when we're together.

*Disclaimer: My five-year anniversary was actually yesterday (19. September), but I fell asleep on the sofa last night while writing this blog post, and so I had to finish and publish it today.

On to last month's events...

HIGHS

  • Kaffee in Nagold with a new acquaintance, an English teacher at the high school with whom I have quite a bit in common. It was fun to have a fully Denglish conversation - I thoroughly enjoy talking with people when one language is as good as the other. If I can't find a word in English, I say the German word and vice versa. It was the same for him.

  • meeting one of my former students in Tübingen, though I'd misread the date we'd agreed upon, and I caught the poor guy at the Bahnhof on his way to buy some furniture for his Studentenwohnung. He turned around and came to meet me, not even mentioning my obvious mistake until afterwards.

  • meeting my friend and Sprachpartnerin, Hedda, and then driving together to Tübingen (yes, I really like this town!). We had lunch, I bought a pair of incredibly comfortable shoes at her recommendation, and we met my former student again for tea and a chat.

  • the books I read in August. They were poignant, compelling, disturbing, suspenseful, and enjoyable even though the subject matter was heavy.
  • I took over another class at the VHS, starting at level A1.2. My students this time hail from: Poland, Syria, Chile, Scotland, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Iraq, and Romania.

  • spending yet another afternoon in Tübingen, this time with four of my former students (one of whom I hadn't seen in more than a year!) and his girlfriend. We'd come up with the idea to do a Stadtführung (town tour), which I was happy to lead! I really enjoyed it, and they seemed to as well. I took them into the main church and told them everything I knew, and then we went up the steeple for a great view of the town. We walked around afterwards and I gave them some more information, and then we all got hungry. We had lunch at a Türkischer Imbiss and they recommended what I should try, and then we found an Arabic bakery with delicious treats for dessert! We all agreed that we should do it again, and there is much more of the town I can show them.
I drove because the train was sketchy that day,
and if you know me, you know I hate driving in Germany.
Hence the face.

  • meeting another new friend of mine, a retired English teacher, for Kaffee (it ended up being just water because it was too darn hot to enjoy coffee) at our house. She has subbed for me, and again we have much in common and lots to talk about.

  • not failing at several experiments in the kitchen: Zitronenkuchen, Spaghetti Carbonara, and Kohlrabi-Möhren-Gratin



LOW

  • I don't know if this is a low, but it felt like it at first. I learned in August that something I've believed my whole life from Sunday and Bible School stories, movies, etc. is simply not true. I've asked others this question - "Who, from what you've understood, built the pyramids in Egypt?" Slaves, right? The Hebrew slaves from the Moses/Exodus story, right?

    Yeah, no. Fake news. Perhaps the original fake news. In 1990 the builders' village was discovered, and the ornamentation of the graves shows that those buried there were honored and valued. They could not have been slaves.

    Besides that, the pyramids were built around 2600 BC, whereas the Exodus story happened around 1300 BC. The Bible never mentions the pyramids, so this is just a common misconception that came from who knows where. But many people I've asked have answered as I thought - the pyramids were built by the Hebrew slaves of the Exodus story.

    There is no mention of Hebrews or Israelites in Egypt until around 1300 BC.

    The fun part of all of this was when M first responded to my statement "Slaves built the pyramids" with "No they didn't," and after some frantic googling and much reading, I stomped through the living room where M was watching TV, and declared, "I'm calling your mother!" She's been interested in Egyptology for many years, has read more than I have time left in my lifetime to read, and has been to Egypt many times.

    She reminded me that the Frenchman who deciphered the hieroglyphs in the 19th century (Champollion) was ordered by the Catholic church to not publish his discovery, in part because they were pretty sure his findings would prove the pyramids existed long before Christians believed they did.

    Don't misunderstand - I'm not saying the Exodus story didn't happen. I'm saying I have learned that the slaves Moses freed did not built the pyramids. They were probably building temples and great statues.
My parents a few years ago,
with two of the pyramids not built by slaves behind them.
The laborers lived hard and short lives, but evidence discovered
by archeologists points strongly to them being highly valued and respected
for their skills.
  • with the exception of M and my Schwiegermutter, not a single other person I mentioned the above to seemed even mildy interested. I definitely get excited about learning. When I hear something I have a hard time believing, I want to look into it. I need to learn to share the things I'm interested in and new knowledge I acquire only with M and my Schwiegermutter. She and I emailed back and forth much of that weekend because she is as enthusiastic about learning and sharing what she knows as I am.

I'm sure there were other lows, but I've forgotten them by now which means they weren't very important ones.

Here's hoping you had a good August (and are having a pleasant September)!!




Sunday, September 3, 2017

No Fear, No Apologies

Over the last several years I have read and heard many comments from people railing against refugees, immigrants, and foreigners both in Germany and in the U.S.. Whenever something bad happens - there's shooting, a stabbing, a nutball drives a truck into a crowd of people, something got stolen out of someone's back yard, school kids report having seen a dark-skinned man with a gun near a school...online commenters throw accusations at refugees and foreigners as if crime is always committed by minorities.

If you're not a first-time reader you know that I teach integration courses to foreigners in Germany, and many of my students and former students are refugees. Former students have become friends, and I care about every one of them.

I also taught German and English in a private Catholic high school in Wisconsin for 14 and 16 years respectively. You can read about one of my former Wisconsin students here, though I don't recommend it. The title should suffice, and my former student is the perpetrator in that hideous and gruesome crime, which is described in agonizing detail in the article. He is now serving two life sentences plus 98 years in prison.


St. Mary's Springs High School (2009)
photo credit: M
Pilot: another former student of mine

I remember him. He was a really nice and funny kid. He had lots of friends and a great sense of humor. He came from a good Catholic family. He got good grades and spoke decent German. He was one of 17 students I brought to Germany the summer after my first year teaching at that school, and while I had trouble with some of those students, "Andreas" was well-behaved, cooperative, and had a positive attitude even when many of the others were complaining. I lost track of him after he graduated, but according to the article he studied at Marquette University and then went into the military and law school. He was a military lawyer.

Extreme (and even not so extreme) right-wingers seem to want us all to be afraid of refugees, foreigners, and immigrants. They blame refugees for anything bad, and when someone with dark skin commits a crime in Germany, they jump to the conclusion that he must be a refugee. Then they blame Merkel for ruining Germany (Germany is far from ruined, I assure you) and for her "Dumpfbackenaktion" (idiot decision) from 2015 in opening the borders to people fleeing from their war-torn homes. They say Islam is not a peaceful religion and they say all Muslims hate us (us = white Westerners, I guess). They get incensed when authorities declare too soon for their taste that a crime was not terrorist-related, but it is perfectly acceptable to declare immediately and before there's any reliable evidence that it was terrorism. They don't want facts; they want confirmation of their beliefs - that Arabs, Muslims, refugees, and immigrants are dangerous and just waiting for an opportunity to destroy our lives and our way of life. (I'm not sure why I write "our lives" - I'm an immigrant, too.)

When I can read a story like the one about my former student nearly every day - some heinous crime committed by a father, a mother, a husband, a wife, a son, a daughter, an American, a German, etc. - why should I specifically fear refugees, Muslims, or Arabs? I truly do not know the answer to this question. It's people we should probably fear. It's not a religion, it's not a skin color, and it's not a presence or lack of facial hair. How many Christians commit awful crimes every day? If all Muslims hate us and want us dead (yes, this is a common comment on online Fox News articles in the U.S.), then why am I still alive? I've spent a lot of time with Muslims chatting about the German language, the weather, and their plans for the future. 

I once had an acquaintance tell me my impression and opinion of Muslims and refugees was not worth much because it was only "based on a sample of twelve" (my first class of students, who thoroughly impressed me with their dedication to learning German). I am quite certain this person has never met or spoken with a single refugee, but his fear-filled conclusion was more valid than mine in his mind because I only personally knew twelve.

Some of my friends and former students...




It seems for many that a religion is to blame if it's a religion they disapprove of. When a Christian (like my former student) commits a crime it's got nothing to do with religion and the criminal does not represent all Christians. If a Muslim commits a crime, it's because Islam is a religion of hatred. I don't buy that. There are twisted people practicing every religion out there, and no religion at all. It's the people who are the problem, not their religion and not the country in which they were born.

The man who sexually abused me when I was nine or ten was a pasty white American working at the tennis club I was at that day. Why should I fear refugees more than pasty white men? My former student in the story above was a Midwestern Catholic. Why should I fear Muslims more than Catholics?

A few days ago in Immenstadt a 24-year-old guy on a motorcycle who was driving too fast decided to also try a wheelie - lost control and slammed into a mother and her two teenage children, killing them all. They were walking down the sidewalk on their way to heaven knows where. Why should I fear terrorists?

And then there's Charlottesville. Several hundred individuals banned together to march with (confederate and) Nazi flags, salutes, symbols, and chants to champion white supremacy. From what I read, there were even more counter-protesters, and of course the scene got ugly. As if throwing rocks and punches at each other weren't bad enough, a 20-year-old boy from Ohio drove his car into the crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and seriously injuring at least 17 others. 

And I should fear refugees?

I wish I could have this conversation with someone, but I do not know if I know any reasonable right-wingers who would be willing to explain their viewpoint without attacking me, dismissing my point-of-view, and/or calling me a "bleeding-heart liberal," a "Gutmensch," an "f-ing liberal" or a "libtard."  < Their use of that last word speaks volumes to me about what kind of people they are.

I choose not to be consumed with fear (except while driving on the Autobahn - then I am terrified). I choose not to feel disdain toward others because they are different from me in some way. I choose not to speak against and make assumptions about people who practice a religion I don't practice. 



And I am not going to apologize for that.





Friday, September 1, 2017

Summer Reading

Several of the bloggers I follow post now and then what they're reading or have read, and I always enjoy those. I've been binge reading for the past six weeks in one particular and new genre, which is one reason I haven't posted much lately.



It all started with Erzähl mir von Deutschland, Soumar, and I wish I could remember how I heard of that book. I really liked it, written as almost a conversation between the author and his friend, a Syrian refugee who'd fled to Germany. I contacted the author, Florian Schmitz, to ask if there were any plans to have it translated into English, but a publisher has to be interested first, apparently. He told me they are planning a reading of the book for sometime in the fall in Stuttgart, and I just found out today when it will take place (Oct. 26 at 20:00 in a bookstore in Vaihingen).

Ich komm auf Deutschland zu

Soumar and his story reminded me of many of my students and friends from Syria, and I found myself wanting to read more books like his. Amazon suggested I have a look at Ich komm auf Deutschland zu. The writer, Firas Alshater, is a comedian and a Youtube star - I have no idea how I missed that, but I've watched some of his videos and really like them! He usually gives advice to other foreigners about making their way in Germany, and his tips do not only apply to refugees. In his book Firas writes about his life in Syria before the war and during the revolution, his decision to leave Syria after being arrested, jailed, and tortured for filming what he saw happening around him, his journey to Germany, and his life since arriving here. That he can tell his story with a sense of humor speaks to his character and will probably appeal to many readers.

Both of these books go a long way to shattering - or at least challenging - assumptions and prejudices readers might have about Syrians, Muslims, and refugees.

Nujeen: Flucht in die Freiheit

The next book that crossed my radar while I was reading Firas' book was Nujeen: Flucht in die Freiheit. When I mentioned the book to my daughter, she said the late night talk show host John Oliver had talked about her. Nujeen has been unable to walk since birth and is confined to a wheelchair. She is from Kobani, Syria, and she and her sister fled to Turkey, across the sea in a flimsy boat to Greece, and over the Balkan route to Germany. At one point a BBC reporter saw her and interviewed her - which is what we see in the clip from John Oliver. She tells the reporter she would like to be an astronaut, and in the book we learn why. Despite the many obstacles made even more complicated by Nujeen's disability, their dream of living and learning in a country not torn apart by war spurred them on. Nujeen's sister pushed her most of the way, and at especially critical times others came to their aid and carried her.

So far all the books were in German, although I later found out that Nujeen's book was originally published in English, under the title Nujeen: One Girl's Incredible Journey.

I read reviews on Amazon of several of the books, and as usual I was more interested in the non-five-star reviews than the five-stars. I'm always curious what people with some criticism have to say. I was disappointed in some comments that said the writing was dull or cheesy, the story "lost interest toward the end," etc. These are real stories of real people who went through more suffering than anyone should. I love good literature, but writing style is not important here; the details and the journey are important. Of course, that's just how I feel.

A Hope More Powerful than the Sea

My fourth book was in English, but it is also available in German. The beautifully titled book, a Hope More Powerful than the Sea, was written by Melissa Fleming about the life of Doaa Al Zamel, a young woman who hadn't really intended on leaving her home to go to Europe. During the Arab Spring Doaa got involved in demonstrations in Daraa, their home town, which of course was risky. After it became clear that the opposition would not succeed and people identified as participating in the revolution were being arrested and killed, her family left Syria and settled as refugees in Egypt. While in Egypt Doaa met Basaam, who was at first unsuccessful at attracting her interest. Her family adored him, and eventually she warmed to him. Basaam wanted a better life for them than just living as refugees, and his dream was to go to Europe where they could make something of themselves. They were both hard workers and fighters, and he knew they could pursue the life they dreamed of. But first they had to make it across the sea - and Doaa was terrified of the water.

Good thing I was never a librarian. I'm no good at making displays.
Another thing that ties these books together is the information provided about Syria before the war, during the Arab Spring, and during the war. Still, the focus is on their personal stories more than history and politics. Enough background is provided to give readers an idea of why the questions some have voiced are not so easily answered. "Why didn't they just stay and fight for their country?"  "Why didn't they just flee to a Muslim country closer to their home?"  "How could so many men just leave their wives and families behind while they fled for Europe?"  (I hate the word "just," in case that wasn't obvious.) These writers don't preach, but they do explain pretty clearly what life has been like in Syria.

Unter einem Dach

After Doaa's heart-wrenching story I read one that had been in my Amazon shopping cart for months - Unter einem Dach ("Under One Roof"), by Henning Sußebach and Amir Baitar. Henning and his family hosted Amir, a Syrian Muslim, in their home near Hamburg for about a year. Each chapter or section of the book is written by one or the other of them, as they address all kinds of topics from food to religion to clothing to German culture and traditions. Amir, for example, is taken aback by couples openly and enthusiatically expressing their affection for each other in public. That just didn't happen in Syria. (Incidentally, I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and tell him I find that odd, too!) He doesn't understand why Henning doesn't change clothes when he comes home from work, but rather wears his work clothes (trousers and a shirt or sweater) until bedtime - as I sit here typing in the clothes I taught in this morning. I really enjoyed comparing his observations to my own - what do I find normal that he finds odd, and vice versa? Both Henning and Amir learned from each other and changed in little ways throughout the year because they had open minds and were willing to see the world through someone else's eyes. There were many things they didn't agree on, but they respected each other and gave each other space.

As with Erzähl mir von Deutschland, Soumar, I liked learning how the writers (the German and the Syrian) think and what goes on in their minds. I have spent a fair bit of time with my Syrian friends, but I still have so many questions and there is much I want to know. I know they'd be willing to answer my questions, but I haven't taken the step yet of asking them. One thing is certain - just like with Americans, Germans, Christians, and whomever else, each individual is his or her own person, and there is no way one can or should lump people together and make gross generalizations about them with any certainty. If you find someone saying to you, "Syrians are..." or "Muslims are..." you can stop them right there, because they are wrong. Of this I am sure.

Ich habe einen Traum

The last of the books I have read and currently know of in this genre (stories of refugees from Syria) is Ich habe einen Traum ("I have a Dream"), by Reem Sahwil. Reem is not actually from Syria, but rather Lebanon. If I understand correctly, ever since 1947, when her great-grandmother was forced to leave her home in Haifa (Israel), the family had been living in a refugee camp in Lebanon (Baalbek). That means for generations they have known nothing but a basically hand-made container village with dirty streets, but somehow with a life of its own including small family businesses like bakeries and repair shops. Reem was born prematurely, and the medical facilities are nothing to speak of there. She was therefore unable to walk and confined to a wheelchair for the most part. Her father worked hard and borrowed money to pay for two expensive operations in Europe, and upon her third trip to Europe her father made her, her young brother, and her mother promise to apply for asylum on the grounds of medical need. Reem's father would follow later on the arduous Balkan route. Reem became famous for a while because of this encounter with Angela Merkel, who was blasted as a result for being stiff and cold-hearted. Near the end of the book Reem writes about that meeting in her school in Rostock and the aftermath, as well as her feelings toward Chancellor Merkel (which were and are far more positive than those of some of the media and many internet commenters).

Of course I am interested in these stories because so many details are similar to those I've heard from my Syrian friends and former students. The places, situations, fears, and uncertainties are familiar to me by now, and with every story I hear or read I am more amazed by the resilience of these people and what they were willing to go through to get where they are today. And they keep pushing forward despite the many frustrations of dealing with German bureaucracy and administrators, the German language, and a stiff and sometimes cold country with inflexible rules about what is allowed and what is not.

I do recommend each of these books and wish they were all available in English. I don't feel like I did them justice with my summaries, but I would read every one of them again.