"They're Not Riding to School on Camels"

The UNESCO and the world-wide network of Catholic schools are attempting to create an exchange programme between German and Arabic schools. Mahmoud Tawfik has talked with the initiators.

So far, preparation for the project is already underway. A Palestinian teacher recently paid a visit to Germany with 30 of his colleagues and answered the questions of many curious German students.

The Palestinian teacher Elias El Masian, a Christian, was very taken by the religious lesson that he recently took part in at a German school with UNESCO's assistance. The German students had many basic questions for El Masian, for example "how do you live?", "Who are you?", and above all, "What's life like where you live?"

"Is every Muslim a Terrorist?"

But they also asked him about the cohabitation between Muslims, Jews and Christians in Jerusalem, the manifold conflicts, and the attempts to overcome these problems.

As a consequence of several decades of immigration, plenty of German students have Muslim peers, primarily of Turkish descent. But all they know about how Muslims live in their countries of origin like Israel or in the Palestinian territories is what they see on television.

"It was a very interesting experience," said El Masian, but judging by what he added, he seemed to try to be polite. "I think the students have been well-informed about life in my country by the media. They asked me whether Islam is really as extreme as it is portrayed on television and whether every Muslim is a terrorist."

Collaboration between Germany and the Arab world

El Masian and about 30 other educators from the Arabic world were visiting Germany in order to organize a school-centred collaboration between Germany and the Arabic world. They've already got the ball rolling.

"The German students really showed interested," El Masian told us. "They asked a lot of questions. I barely noticed that the lesson took 45 minutes. It would be great if Arabic students also got the chance to learn more about life on the other side."

Extending student exchange

Nikolaus Kircher of the German Bishops Conference is responsible for all the Catholic schools in Germany and is already thinking about an extensive student exchange program with the Arabic world.

And Mr Ziegler, a Catholic, strongly believes that a regular exchange between young people from different backgrounds can be conducive to a prolific dialogue between cultures.

Real exchange instead of talk about it

"The goal is for students to go to school in a particular country for a certain period of time, maybe even a few weeks," Ziegler said.

"I believe that when people actively do something together, they are brought into contact better than when they merely talk about things."

There have been student exchange programs in the western world for some time now, but they are usually between different western countries like for example Germany and France or Germany and the U.S.

Yet, there is still much to be hoped for regarding an exchange with the Arabic world, according to Karl-Heinz Köhler, the Federal Coordinator of the Unesco Project Schools in Germany.

The World Heritage Workshop in Jordan

"Until now, there have already been cases where students from Arabic countries came here for summer camp, but those were individual occasions," Köhler explained. "We would now like to create an extensive cooperation, a comprehensive exchange program. For example there's going to be a World Heritage Workshop about shared culture this year in Petra, Jordan. Even students from UNESCO's German project schools will be taking part."

Both the international network of UNESCO project schools and the world-wide network of Catholic schools have students and teachers as members, who have committed themselves to a world view, in which tolerance and acceptance play a key role.

On the Arabic side, there are state-run schools with mostly Muslim students and Catholic schools that likewise have a few Muslim students. Some of the most important structures needed for the exchange program are already in place, said Nikolaus Kircher.

Catholic schools in the Arabic world

"We'd like to bring together two networks," Kircher said about his plans. "The Catholic schools make up the biggest network of schools worldwide. They have about 40 million students all over the world. Interestingly enough, there is also a considerable number of Catholic schools in the Arabic world, for example there are 300 in Egypt."

During his stay in Germany, teacher Elias El Masian learned that much is needed regarding the European-Arabic dialogue. There is a lot of interest, but there are also many unanswered questions – and a conflict potential that has to be dealt with.

Students need to learn to think for themselves

Father Nabil Ghubrial, Secretary General of the Catholic schools in Egypt, has realized this as well.

"The lesson plans in Egypt have been reformed on some points, but it's not enough," he says. "Students must learn how to discuss, be critical and think for themselves. Students here still learn everything by heart and just recite it. That isn't a modern education."

And Nikolaus Kircher adds: "The most important thing is that we bring together young people, physically together, and that they spend a typical day with one another in each respective country. Thus, we can stop German children from thinking that children in Arabic countries still ride to school on camels and Arabic children from thinking that children here in Germany just hang out in discos and binge drink at parties."

Mahmoud Tawfik

Adaptation: Priscilla Layne