By Onno Falkena
Half of the attendants were adult pupils of Nestor Bildungsinstitut in Cottbus, where they attend language classes to learn or improve their German. They arrived in Cottbus in recent years as refugees or people who moved to Germany from Eastern Europe and were received very friendly by members of the Domowina, the umbrella of all Lower Sorbian organisations in Brandenburg. Both groups were quite curious about this probably first organised Cottbus dialogue between the old Niedersorbian minority and recent arrivals.
Encouraging dialogue between old and new minorities
The meeting was organised by Wir sind Europa from Berlin with the objective to encourage the dialogue between old and new minorities. Safeguarding the rights of old minorities like the Sorbs are currently under debate at the European level. Not unimportant, because an estimated ten percent of the population of the European Union belongs to an autochthonous minority like for example the Basques, the Sinti and Roma or the Sorbs.
Integration of newcomers is a challenge for many European cities and regions. What can the two groups learn from each other? What are the similarities and what are the differences? In Catalonia, Catalan organisations are very active in introducing newcomers to their language, culture and society. Could this work in Brandenburg as well?
Finding parallels and differences
All participants were invited to draw their own personal and subjective map of Cottbus, highlighting places of importance to them in their personal life. By approaching the subject in a very visual way, the adults were drawn out of their comfort zone. Furthermore, it reduced language barriers for the participants who just recently arrived in Germany.
Everyone present drew their personal map and shared their experiences and stories about Cottbus/Chósebuz from their own personal perspective. There were quite a few parallels between the participants from the various nationalities: Many participants drew parks, lakes, gardens and recreational green zones as very important places to spend their free time for cycling, having a picnic, walking the dog or enjoying an ice cream. Others emphasized the importance of the library, certain shopping centers and the train station.
Cottbus/Chósebuz is generally appreciated as a friendly and liveable city, with plenty of green and an inviting countryside to enjoy. A big new lake in the area at the location of a former open pit mining site on the outskirts of the city will make things even better.
But there were differences as well. While Cottbus and Lusatia are quite new surroundings for most of the newcomers, the Sorbs have been in the area for many centuries. For them, some of the villages in the area are the birthplaces of their grandparents and ancestors. Churches, traditions, local associations and elements in landscape and local architecture are very meaningful to them and worth preserving and protecting, just like the Lower Sorbian minority language. Much already was lost in in the era of the GDR, when dozens of Sorbian villages were destroyed for the mining industry.
For the newcomers, it was interesting to hear this perspective and get some background information about the city they live in. Originating from countries like Bulgaria, Iran and Turkey, to them it felt quite normal to have a minority in the area with its own history, language and traditions. For the Sorbian participants it was interesting to hear and see the newcomers’ perception of their city.
One of the element the newcomers appreciate a lot is religious freedom. A Christian lady from Iran drew a large church in her map and explained that she enjoys the freedom to go to church whenever she likes, without any fear for disapproval or discrimination. The Bulgarian couple understood this very well. Marrying was complicated for them, as she is Muslim, while her husband is Orthodox. It used to be a big problem in their country at the time, but to their surprise in Germany nobody objects, and that attitude was well appreciated.
Europe as an integral part of daily life
For Olek, a participant who crosses the German-Polish border almost every single day from his home in Poland to his work in Cottbus, the European perspective is an integral part of his daily life. Sometimes he hardly notices anymore in which country he is. A few of the Sorbs acknowledge that more should be done to strengthen the ties between Lusatia and their neighbours in Poland. The ties used to be close in the past and there is certainly room for more contact and exchange now. A better crossborder connection by public transport might be a first step.
In the end, newcomers and Sorbs alike could not help themselves and make a little fun of those sometimes ‘too serious’ Germans. “Sometimes they appear to forget to celebrate life, like the Slavic nations do”, Olek said, and the newcomers immediately understood what he meant. “We are Slavs and different from Germans”, Niedersorbian Helmut Mattick acknowledges. “If you visit a Sorb, the door is open and they offer you a drink and talk about many things. Sometimes it is only when I leave that people ask me about the purpose of my visit. With a German that rarely happens.”
The rise of the AfD is not something that any of the participants notices much in daily life. Contrary to Saxony, the Sorbs in Brandenburg have not attracted any negative attention of the AfD yet. Also, the newcomers declared that they or their children hardly ever encounter signs of discrimination or racism. Still, one needs to add that some degree of discrimination was also a fact of life in the countries they left. Compared to Bulgaria, Iran or Turkey, Cottbus is not a bad place to live, also in terms of discrimination, that seems to be the unanimous opinion.
By drawing, having tea and discussing various aspects, time flew. Both groups concluded that the dialogue was interesting for them and worth repeating, because it offers a new perspective on the city they live in. Also, both groups shared the impression that they have quite a few things in common.
I therefore kindly recommend Nestor Bildungsinstitut to invite the Niedersorbs for a return visit to their premises. In the long run, it may be worthwhile to investigate if a short introduction to the Sorbian history and perspective could become a part of the integration programme of newcomers in Cottbus/Chósebuz.
It is an experiment worth repeating. Introducing the groups to each other and getting them to listen to each other’s stories was a worthwhile experience. The newcomers as well as the Sorbs got a view of the city from the other group’s perspective. This enhances mutual understanding and thus the successs of the integration process.
For Wir sind Europa the workshop was created and led by Kathrin Eschenbacher from Berlin and Onno Falkena from the Netherlands. Eschenbacher works with newcomers in Brandenburg, Falkena is a journalist at Frisian broadcaster Omrop Fryslân. For them the experience was just as exciting and interesting as for the participants in Cottbus/Chósebuz.