Integration is about more than just learning German

The theatre performance project UNART gave pupils from a Berlin "welcome class" the chance to perform on the stage of the city's Maxim Gorki Theatre. Would the endless hours of rehearsal pay off and take them into the final? Andrea Kasiske watched them rehearsing

By Andrea Kasiske

Up there on the stage, dressed in shorts and white T-shirt, her hips swaying, her arms stretched in the air, like a fan at a pop concert, 15-year-old Masha looks very self-confident. "I would not have believed it possible a few months ago," reveals Kirstin Richter, Masha's teacher at Berlin's Rheingau Gymnasium (high school). Presumably, the credit for this sudden blossoming of the Iranian schoolgirl must go to the UNART theatre project.

Youngsters from four cities have developed their own 15-minute theatrical performances for the bi-annual theatre project competition. Training is provided for the groups by theatre professionals. In the case of the Berlin school, these professionals come from the city's Maxim Gorki Theatre.

Having already cleared the first hurdle of pre-selection, the pupils were back on stage in early February to be put through their paces in the penultimate round before the final in April.

No easy process

Rehearsals have been taking place at the school since October. This is not as straightforward a process as it might seem, because this is no ordinary group of schoolchildren. Five of the pupils attend regular classes at the school, while twelve others come from a so-called "welcome class". The welcome classes (or "study groups for new arrivals without prior knowledge of the German language", as it is more properly referred to by the authorities), are special classes provided for youngsters whose parents have come to Germany as refugees or for other reasons.

Pupils from the Rheingau Gymansium in Berlin (photo: DW/A. Kasiske)
Building confidence and bringing people together: young people from a wide range of backgrounds came together and performed together on stage in Berlin's Maxim Gorki theatre

The youngsters in the welcome class are aged between 12 and 16 years old, come from 9 different countries and speak as many languages. The objective is to teach them sufficient German to allow them, at the latest after one year, to attend regular classes at other schools. Helene Renger, teacher of performing arts at the Rheingau Gymnasium, sees the theatre project as a chance for the young people and as something that can give a little more prominence to the welcome class than it has had thus far.

The shyest ones are the most expressive

"I think it's great; we work together, we're a team," says 14 year-old Ahmad, who has made great progress in speaking German over the past few months. His 13-year-old sister Naya is also very enthusiastic about performing, even the waiting around and discipline involved don't bother her. "Sometimes we go on rehearsing behind the curtain," she says. The siblings from Syria have been in the welcome class for five months. Naya is rather shy. She still has trouble with German but doesn't say a lot in her native Arabic either. Up on stage, however, surrounded by the other class members, she sings a song in Arabic, all by herself.

"At first I thought, it wasn't going to work; they were just too shy and didn't have any ideas of their own," explains Jousef Sweid, one of the coaches from the Maxim Gorki Theatre. "They were just waiting for us to tell them what to do." He was brought into the project to work with the Arabic-speaking youngsters. He recalls a low point that occurred just before Christmas. "It just wasn't working, and no one was happy. So we decided to take a step back and let the young people take more responsibility." Suddenly things changed. They started coming up with their own ideas and turning it into their own project.

"We are" is the title of the piece they are performing. It begins in English, one of the working languages along with German and Arabic, before continuing in a variety of other languages. The youngsters appear on stage in their favourite fantasy roles. The fact that this choice inevitably leads to references to some of TV's more clichéd formats, such as "Popstars" or the German TV hit "Dream Wedding", may be a little irritating, but it does reflect the impact such programmes have on their lives. In a loose sequence of scenes the piece dramatises the competition between the boys' football group, the girls' dance group and the group that "seriously" wants to perform in the theatre.

Pupils from the Rheingau Gymansium in Berlin rehearsing their dance sequence (photo: DW/A. Kasiske)
Four renowned German theatres – the Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin, Staatsschauspiel Dresden, Schauspiel Frankfurt and the Thalia Theater Hamburg – have come together to allow young people interested in the theatre to come together an put their ideas into practice

Escaping isolation

"We have found new friends" is the unanimous verdict in the welcome class. It may not sound a spectacular achievement, but for the teenagers it has made a huge difference. Many have led rather isolated lives with their families; some are still living in the so-called "refugee reception centre" in south Berlin. The theatre project has made it possible for them to meet other people of their own age explains teacher Kirstin Richter. "It gives them some time out from their everyday family lives, which are often difficult." Thirteen-year-old Mirije is from Albania. Normally she goes to the mosque on Saturdays, she says, but the final rehearsal was just more important.

Integration seems to be working in the Berlin school's drama group. The only question is, what happens after the welcome class year finishes? Berlin simply lacks sufficient school places to cope with youngsters from such groups. The number of refugee children has grown, and the number of welcome classes more than tripled, from around 60 to more than 180 between 2011 and 2013.

Because of this, some pupils have to wait for months for a place in a regular class and are not able to leave after a year, says Kirstin Richter; they are forced to stay on in the welcome class. The Rheingau pupils are optimistic nevertheless. They have aspirations for the future – doctor, lawyer, footballer or bodyguard – even if some of them only have residence rights for two years.

As it turned out, the welcome class did not make it through the preliminaries at the Maxim Gorki Theatre to qualify for the finals in Hamburg. "Nevertheless, their experience of performing on stage and the encouragement and credit that has come from appearing in a 'proper' theatre  made it all worthwhile," says Kirstin Richter. The glow on the faces of the young people on stage says it all.

Andrea Kasiske

© Deutsche Welle/ 2014

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/