Student project supports refugees

3 June 2019

In 2014, students of the Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics, and Cultural Studies at JGU's Germersheim campus founded the Cross Borders project. The idea was to use language courses and a variety of recreational activities to help refugees find their way in Germany. Over the years to come there were a number of changes, but the core idea remained: Cross Borders sees itself as a student project that is not only for refugees but also aims to involve them.

It was in 2016 that Amrei Bahr was introduced to the student-run Cross Borders project when she joined the Faculty of Translation, Linguistics and Cultural Studies (FTSK) at the Germersheim campus of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) to take a Master's degree in Conference Interpreting. “I was able to do something directly for local refugees here. That immediately appealed to me.”

“I come from a small village in the Allgäu,” says Nadine Müller. “So I wanted to get out and see the world early on in life. During my school years I was abroad for a longer period and again during my undergraduate studies as well. I find it exciting to get to know different perspectives and talk to other people who also have a different outlook."

Café One World

In the winter semester of 2017, Müller came from Bonn to Germersheim to start a Master's degree program in Translation. She was interested in working with refugees and through Cross Borders she had plenty of opportunity to do just that. “I gave language courses right from the start,” she remembers. "That was definitely jumping in at deep end, but it was worth it.”

The two students are sitting in the Haus Interkultur, a building that was once part of the old Germersheim fortifications. This is where Cross Borders launched its Café One World idea in 2014, and in the years that followed, it became an important mainstay of the work with refugees in the region. “This is where we meet every Sunday afternoon,” points out Bahr. “The local Interkultur association that promotes contact between cultures sponsors us. As a result, we can open the café regularly even in the lecture-free periods.” Around 30 people come here to exchange ideas. They come from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan – and even from a small village in Bavaria.

In 2015, hundreds of thousands of people sought shelter in Germany. At the time there were few suitable offers of support for them; language courses were scarce, and those who had only just recently arrived as asylum seekers had, initially, no entitlement to such assistance whatsoever. That’s where Cross Borders jumped into the breach. “At times we held up to three courses a day from Mondays to Thursdays,” says Bahr. The students weren’t necessarily prepared for that, so they had to improvise: “We speak many different languages, and we have some idea of how you learn a language. Our courses were just one of only a few options of this kind available anywhere near here. They proved to be very popular.”

“We make sure that we teach in pairs,” says Müller. “That way, students who are new to teaching have an easier time finding their way in, and we can make the lessons more individual.” There are literacy and beginner courses as well as advanced courses. “We always try to respond to current needs. In the case of the advanced courses in particular, there are often requests that these should be designed to deal with certain topics or specific grammatical details. So we accommodate these wishes.”

From a language course to a buddy project

Over the years, contacts have grown with a variety of institutions, such as refugee aid groups in the city and the Caritas charity organization. The language courses continue to be held to this day. Eight events per week are organized by the students. “But we are noticing that demand is gradually declining,” explains Müller. “There are now more options like ours on offer, and fewer refugees are coming to Germany. In the meantime, however, Cross Borders has built up a kind of regular clientele. “But these people now also have different needs – they might be on a training course or looking for an apartment. At the moment we are considering modifying what we offer. We are thinking of maybe initiating a kind of buddy project where we accompany refugees to help them sort things out or starting an advisory service to deal with special problems.”

Café One World is still a success as a leisure facility and point of contact. “Here, too, we have many refugees who come regularly,” says Bahr. Cross Borders continues to also offer one-off events. “For example, we organize Christmas parties and excursions,” adds Bahr. “Our film days always get a positive response, but simple game evenings are also a big hit.” The refugees are also welcome guests at the FTSK faculty parties.

Refugees need space

Half a year after Bahr joined Cross Borders, she and her fellow student Mona Gerlach took over the organization and coordination of all these activities. By now, both of these have completed their degree programs and will be leaving Germersheim, so Müller is now set to take over these tasks.

“In general, the fluctuation of personnel has always been a major challenge for our project,” says Bahr. Although some students have constantly been involved over years, others find that it requires too much time, especially during difficult exam periods, so sometimes they have to cancel at short notice. “But we are always happy when there are people willing to support us,” concludes Müller. At present, 12 to 15 students are participating in the project. Considering the work Cross Borders does and all activities it puts on, that isn’t very many.

“Our work is very enriching,” emphasizes Bahr. “Nowhere else have I encountered so much gratitude. I also think it's important that you don't just live for yourself.” Müller says: “The refugees sort of bring a bit of the outside world to Germersheim. We learn together to deal with cultural differences and to accept different views.”

For five years Cross Borders has been helping people to arrive and get settled in Germany. “We have to give people space,” concludes Müller. “How else are they supposed to fit in?”