Open Mind, Open Society – Why Curiosity Has Never Been More Important

PLAN-Deutschland Foto-Workshop mit jugendlichen Geflüchteten in Hamburg
PLAN-Deutschland Foto-Workshop mit jugendlichen Geflüchteten in Hamburg am 21. Mai 2016. Photo: Morris Mac Matzen für PLAN-Deutschland

Capacity problems, political conflict and a lack of European solidarity: German authorities have been overwhelmed with the arrival of nearly a million refugees last year. But youth and civil society organizations, such as Plan International Germany, have stepped in. A successful integration is the key to stop growing xenophobia and to lay the fundament for a more colorful and resilient society.

“I always thought Germany is the best organized country in the world”, said a young Afghan who fled from the Hindukush to Germany last year. In the last months, that belief has faded. For more than seven months he has been living in one of Hamburg’s “Erstaufnahmeeinrichtungen”, temporary facilities where refugees have to stay until their asylum request has been processed. This spring, the German government extended the duration from three to six months to take away pressure from local authorities, but many cases are still delayed.

Life in these places – often old warehouses or gymnasiums – is rough. Often hundreds of people live in these camps, with little space, limited privacy and a depressing uncertainty about their future. Whereas in 2015 more than 80 percent of Afghans received asylum in Germany, in the first months of 2016 only 70 percent did – and numbers seem to continue declining. In comparison, 99 percent of Syrians are allowed to stay. Afghanistan, unlike Syria, is not considered by the German government as a war zone anymore. As a consequence, only people able to prove that their lives are at risk in their home country are allowed to stay.

The arrival of more than a million refugees in Germany last year confronted German authorities with so far still unsolved capacity problems. Civil society organizations and citizens have stepped in to help improve the humanitarian situation and contribute to what German chancellor Angela Merkel calls Germany’s biggest challenge since the reunification process 27 years ago: the successful integration of the refugees into the German society.

Back to the roots

At the beginning of 2016, the child rights organization Plan International Germany launched their first programs in German refugee camps. Plan International was founded after the Spanish civil war in 1937 to help parentless and displaced children and shortly after the Second World War also stepped in to help orphaned children in the post-war Germany. In 1989, the German branch of the organization was founded in Hamburg. Today Plan operates development projects in more than 51 countries worldwide – all outside of Europe or North America. Now, one could say the organization is turning back to its roots.

Even international refugee experts that used to work in refugee camps in the Middle East or in Latin America are re-allocated to Germany – something they probably would have never imagined to happen. But not only international experts, also thousands of young people in Germany get engaged.

I Spy With My Little Eye

During a workshop in February this year the Youth Advisory Board (YAB) of Plan International Germany decided to contribute to Plan’s work in a refugee camp in Hamburg. In collaboration with a group of young refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria they decided to launch a media project. Throughout the last weeks a group of young refugees walked around Hamburg. Equipped with cameras they took pictures of things that struck their mind or had a special meaning to them. They wrote a short text to describe what the photo meant to them.

The pictures – without the written explanations – were then sent to German members of the YAB who interpreted and commented on them. In Μay, the YAB and the young refugees came together in Hamburg for a workshop and to discuss the photos. The interpretations of the pictures showed impressively how different experiences and expectations influence a person’s perception of the environment.

Surprise, Surprise

A young Afghan was fascinated by chalk cases and chalk boards he found in a lecture hall in the University of Hamburg. He was totally stunned by the fact that in Germany, the home country of modern technology, as he said, universities were still relying on what he called backward technology whereas a poor country such as Afghanistan was using white boards and overhead projectors in its universities. The only logical explanation he could think of was that Germans somehow might have a nostalgic relationship with the past.

His German counterpart didn’t even mention the “ancientness” of the learning materials but instead wrote a more general abstract about the importance of education and the power it provides in a globalized world – not at all thinking about the incredulous astonishment the photographer felt when taking the picture.

Keep Your Curiosity Fresh

During the exchange, all participants learned a lot about their counterparts’ backgrounds. The project exemplified important conditions for any intercultural get-together: curiosity, empathy and the ability to openly reflect one’s personal perception of the familiar. They are the foundation of a relationship based on respect and mutual acceptance and key for a successful integration.

By organizing a public exhibition in Hamburg, the YAB aims to share this message, to stimulate the willingness and the curiosity of passersby so that they open their minds to new influences. Mutual learning and the ability to widen one’s horizon will not only facilitate integration, it will also make the German society more colorful, creative and resilient on the long-run. This is the message we should share in times, when right wing populists gain momentum throughout Europe.


Jonas Freist-Held (24) studied Political Science in Berlin and Berkeley, is the chair of the YAB of Plan International Germany and represents Europe in the YAB of UN Habitat.




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