Qais – from attending a circus show to German lessons

Gudrun Wiegand teaching German lessons to refugees

My name is Gudrun Wiegand. Since the beginning of 2015, when the first refugees arrived at a refugee home that once used to be a restaurant in Brünning, my colleagues and I, a retired primary school teacher, offered German lessons for about an hour and a half twice a week. Especially in autumn 2015 the number of newly arrived refugees increased substantially. Many of them struggled to get used to the new environment initially. However, time and again offers for different social activities did exist in order to ease them into their new situation. In October the same year for instance we were offered free tickets for a circus show in Traunstein. Spontaneously I took three Afghans with me in my car and that way I met Qais for the first time.

He sat next to me, studied the surrounding closely and started to talk to me in English. He told me how relieved he felt finally feeling safe and protected again after having experienced many ordeals. When I asked him if he attended school back home he said no. “No, I only attended schools for a few days. My father and I used to own a small shop in Kabul. There we sold cosmetics, detergents and so on. Among our customers there were many Americans, Pakistanis and others, they spoke many different languages. Over time I learnt English, Farsi, Dari…Very often, already as a child, I was alone in the shop. I had no choice but to speak frequently. Most likely I will learn German the same way, in any case I will master the German language. I am confident about and I also want to work, find a flat…”. He was full of energy and optimism. “If we are allowed to live in peace here, we have to give something back and say thank you by being engaged and by participating. I want to become a part of the local society!”

I was impressed as I hadn’t experienced any of my other students as so articulate and dedicated. Most of them were unbelievably grateful for having reached a peaceful environment and help after years of having experienced war, cruelty, the escape and being so far away from their families. They were willing to integrate themselves, to learn German and to work. However, the majority of them needed time to adjust, to deal with their traumatic experiences and time to find the energy for a new start.

Qais however was ready to start immediately, but it was not all that easy. First he had to learn the German language. But he learnt quickly. In no time he adjusted to the sound and rhythm of the language, managed to understand and pick up the language quickly and was brave enough to start speaking. Reading and writing did not come as easy – which was no surprise considering that he had never attended school in his life. Though luck was on his side and soon enough he was able to get to know family Kern better through his participation at a Christmas market sale in Traunstein. They started to take care of him. Having made the decision to volunteer to help out with the Christmas market is so typical for Qais. He is always ready to help and engage. In the end his efforts were reciprocated and the family started to take care of him like a foster child, taught him German intensively, opened the door to joining the Technical Relief Organisation and assisted with his job search.

For those reasons he had attended my German lessons for a comparably short time. But I see him regularly and continuously experience him as a very interested and responsible young man. In Germany almost every municipality has a group of volunteers assisting refugees with their needs in daily life. In our group of volunteers we are lucky to have Qais, who is now helping us: Regulalry he is helping out as a translator, be it in front of a bigger audience like at the ‘Café International’ for example or for individual cases. Whenever another refugee needs help, struggles to express himself or does not understand – Qais is there to assist. He translates, advises and provides guidance. Him being multilingual helps a lot. By now he even understands Kurdish and Arabic, not fluently, but enough to communicate with refugees from the respective countries. Most of all though he is always passing own to others his own conviction and belief:  We should be grateful to be in a country that is safe and where we can make our own contributions.

We, the Germans, should also be grateful to have such great people among us. They enrich us from a human as well as an economic perspective. And in case one they hopefully are able to return to their country once there is true peace and security, they will be able to assist with the reconstruction of their own tormented countries and thereby benefit from what they learnt in Germany.

I truly wish for Qais to receive the recognition (including from the authorities!) and to find the friends he so desperately is hoping for. From the bottom of my heart I also hope that one day the sadness that time and again is visible in his eyes resembling his traumatic experiences in life, will fade away and that we will see home smile and shine for most of his life.


8 reasons why we have to support the proactive initiatives of refugees themselves, such as Qais’s blog

Since Qais, like every other Saturday, is busy volunteering with the Technical Relief Organisation, I am using the opportunity to answer the question why I have decided to support his project to th best of my ability:

  1. More dialogue & more understanding translates into better integration: In development work, and assisting refugees constitutes no exception thereto, more often than is marked by an inherent lack of communication and dialogue between the beneficiaries and the ones that deliver the aid; too many times we develop well meant concepts, projects and ideas that we ‘impose’ on beneficiaries without properly consulting them prior to that – and yet we wonder why they don’t always achieve the desired effect/impact; Qais’s blog is the first effort of its kind offering the opportunity to learn through the perspective of a refugee himself what is most useful in regards to integration and how we can best assist their efforts
  1. fb_img_1480132001994To change the perception of viewing refugees as a challenge and make them a part of the solution instead: The beneficiaries, in this case refugees, ideally should be considered as a part of the development of a solution from the start and included in developing concepts; thereby we kill two birds with one stone: 1. We use the abundant potential refugees bring with them and also foster their self-worth (being able to solve a problem or at least help to do so makes every human being naturally feel better than just being the recipient of aid) 2. Who among us isn’t rolling our eyes occassionally from time to time when yet another refugee complains about what we tend to consider small things such as being having to live in a village instead of a city – to confront this with the question “Well what would you do if you were the government and had to house such a massive amount of newly arrived people that jus came to Germany?” is a much more useful and goal oriented approach than explaining for the tenth time why such policies actually make sense; if people like Qais through his blog are able to share their idea, knowledge and own concepts we are able to take this on board when developing solutions for challenges, instead of doing all the work ourselves.
  1. refugeesFoster intercultural communication: Many misunderstandings as well as absence of understanding are based on a lack of knowledge about each other’s culture, religion or what someone actually went through; websites and blogs like Qais’s provide us with the rare chance to get to know their perspective/view of the world, understanding of their culture/religion and reasons for escape and facilitate empathy and a better understanding of challenges they face as human beings; it also teaches us how they perceive our society; thereby we can identify which issues require more explanations and communication to make the integration process work smoother and more effectively
  1. To look at people that fled their countries not only as ‘the refugee’, but to acknowledge them as human beings again: Multiculturalism in Germany/Europe, in my eyes, didn’t fail in the past; what failed however is appropriate dialogue and communication; every refugee in the first place is just another human being, albeit one that most likely has been traumatized prior to their arrival and have lost almost everything they had in life; however, it is crucial that they are not only looked upon as refugees, but as a human being facing a tremendous challenge they seek to master and for which they occasionally and temporarily need our assistance; Facebook Groups such as “Flüchtlinge sind Menschen wie du und ich – we are all humans”, carry exactly this message: Qais, by sharing his story and way, is mostly hoping that it helps refugees to be looked upon as a new family member, a new cool friend or simply a good neighbor rather than merely the refugee
  1. refugeesTo confront the negative trend: The initially extreme ‘Welcome Culture’ unfortunately quickly turned into a ‘Culture of Paranoia’; thereby among those criticizing chancellor Merkel’s refugee policy we find genuine racists, that are mostly a lost cause, as well as those that are genuinely fearful due to negative media reports, acts of violence/attacks committed by a minority of refugees or other fears; most of those ones primarily are driven by a ‘fear of the unknown’, that is human beings with a different cultural and religious background than our own; as human beings we are naturally afraid of what is unknown to us, due to which there is nothing wrong with that; however, it is key that we engage with their fears and to seek dialogue with people that are so fearful of refugees that they tend to turn against them, instead of disregarding their concerns; we have to remember in this regard that violent refugees remain the exception and aren’t the rule, that the number of radical right wing attacks against refugees outnumbers crimes committed by refugees by far (indeed it doubled between 2014 and 2015) and lastly that every culture has ‘black sheep’ – ours not any less than theirs; Qais with his blog offers and seeks the opportunity for dialogue to reduce prejudices
  1. fb_img_1480132213973A sign of fight against racism, xenophobia and lack of humanity: Racists’ voices often enough dominate the public’s ears more than constructive and positive voices; by supporting people like Qais in their courage to share their stories/ideas with others we inevitably display the positive sides of migration and automatically take the wind out of the sails of racists as well as depriving them of a growing number of supporters





  1. Refugees Influence politics/policies: We are a democracy, thereby supposed to have a say and influence in politics right? That should not stop at the votes we cast every few years! If you compare refugee policies of the 80s/90s with those today we can indeed observe a few improvements, however, we can all the same observe the repetition of the same old mistakes made again; there is still the tendency of refugees being clustered together in certain parts of a city (you might recall Hamburg wanted to develop housing complexes for refugees only for instance) rather than living amongst us; furthermore, once more tightened asylum laws; every know and than one gets to hear that the EU decided to pay Turkey large amounts of money to halt the flow of refugees rather than providing for them in our countries, out of fear of the big political parties that otherwise radical right wing parties would score even higher during the next elections; while this initially seems comprehensible it is still wrong: For one we run the risk of denying protection to those that are in need of it and second we leave the impression of at least indirectly agreeing with the argumentation of right wing parties; good political leadership should put more effort into improving communication and honest dialogue with its citizens, to reduce fear and prejudice; last but not least more openness and honesty about the reality that our own economic and foreign policies without a doubt has contributed to the misery, wars and conflicts in third countries, would not be the worst idea; I have no doubt that intelligent people like Qais and many other refugees, in the end will be an important gain for our country – human beings that we can also learn from
  1. Train the trainer: Who would be better suited to assist with the integration of further/newly arrived refugees and ensure that integration can work the best way possible, than human beings like Qais that have already successfully mastered this challenge? They are the most important interface between our culture and that of the newly arrived refugees; because successfully integrated refugees share the cultural background of those that just arrived while having understood and internalized for the most part our culture and moral values, they are best suited to transfer this knowledge to others in the most credible way possible; for this reason it is of utmost importance that we support examples like that of Qais, to give their voices more weight and to empower them

Having said this I am not just wishing Qais the best of success  with his project, but furthermore that you all use the opportunity to engage with him, comment, share and contribute with your own ideas to make it work.




A Christmas market and how it all began

Two refugees decide to help us at the yearly Christmas market

Rosi Kern

My name is Rosi and I have known Qais quite well for a little over a year now. Every year around December we participate in a Christmas market to use the proceeds of our sale there to support micro-finance and education projects of an NGO called Unlimited Partnership, which we founded six years ago, in Sierra Leone and Uganda. Due to the influx of many refugees to Germany throughout 2015 and all the public talk about the need for integration, we decided that year to offer refugees to join us for the Christmas market.

As a result my dad and I drove to the refugee home in my parents municipality a few days before the market to introduce your NGO and work to them. Among the roughly 50 refugees that used to live there at the time, two decided to join us for the three days sale – Hvras from the North of Iraq and Qais from Afghanistan. It is fair to say that Qais’s decision that day to join us and subsequently become a member of our NGO probably changed his life as much as it did ours. I remember well the first day I saw him when we went to pick him up for the market. He was already standing outside the home waiting for us. There he stood punctual as always as we later on learnt, tall, proud, almost a big grac

eful and yet marked by what he had gone through in life so far. At the beginning he used to be a bit shy not talking too much, but very observant of his surrounding and people around him.


Learning a bit of German


Refugees, Christmas market
At our Christmas booth from left to right: Qais, myself, Christl, Hvras and my dad

As it turned out Hvras was already enrolled in an official German language course for a few months. While he could write and read fairly well, he was struggling to speak. Meanwhile Qais, being from Afghanistan, had not  received permission to attend an official language learning course. Till that day he had received lessons twice a week for two hours each time from a retired primary school teacher that did now teach refugees on a voluntary basis. It was primarily a literacy class considering that upon his arrival in Germany he could neither read nor write in our handwriting. The same day we also learnt that apart from two months in Pakistan where his family used to live for a few years as refugees, he had never attended school throughout his life. Some time into the day I realized that you could well read and write in his own language. “Where did you learn this if you never attended school,” I asked him buffled. “Every evening after work or during night I sat with my siblings and copied what they were doing for homework and study with them a little bit. They all went to school,” he explained. The fact that he did speak English fairly well though made it easy to communicate with him. “Where did you learn to speak English,” we asked him. “I used to run a small cosmetic shop in Kabul and for some time I used to have a lot of international customers, mostly Americans,” he told us. We were impressed.

Not to long afterwards we learnt that he was able to speak several languages including Dari, Farsi, Urdu, Paschtu, Hindi and English. Hindi because he loves Bollywood movies, Urdu due to a childhood spent in Pakistan and Paschtu from Paschtun friends. Throughout the Christmas market and especially during breaks we taught both Qais and Hvras basic communication with customers in German and various words. We for the most part would just point at products at the

Christmas market refugees
Our booth at the yearly Christmas market

Christmas market or things at the Christmas market, tell them the German word, write it down on a piece of paper and ask them to repeat it. Over the course we would repeat the vocabularly with them and also ask them to entertain very basic conversations with customers. At times we would also ask some of the customers to try to have a simple chat, mostly centered around questions such as ‘What is your name/ Where are you from/ How is Germany’ and the like, with them to get them used to talking. Even though he was very shy throughout those few days, Qais absorbed new words and basic sentences like a sponge.


He seemed natural in learning languages in an interactive setting. Soon we noticed that even though he could not speak a lot, he understood a lot of sentences and words out of the context and situations: At some point Christl’s (our project manager for Uganda) husband paid us a visit. “Max would you mind taking a few pictures of us for the NGO’s newsletter”, she asked him. “Hand me the camera please,” he replied without pointing it. Before anyone of us could turn Qais had already picked it up and handed it to him. I thanked him and asked him something in English. “No, don’t do this. Qais needs to learn German. Why do you speak in English to the guy? This way he will never learn. You all have to speak German with them,” Max said in a firm manner. Easier said than done if someone does speak hardly a few words yet I thought to myself. Thinking about it now Max obviously was right about it. Qais would also down the line help out Hvras communicating with us. Kurdish must be somewhat similar to Dari and Farsi, so whenever Hvras would not understand us or we didn’t understand him, Qais would try to translate. During one of those days when we dropped them back home Qais laughingly said: “I will end up learn Kurdish through Hvras if the Christmas market continues for longer.” During those early days Qais was convinced that learning German would take him at least three years: “It needs a long time and it is not easy and I lack the opportunities to learn it. But hopefully in three years I can talk a bit well,” he used to say several times. “You are living in Germany now so you will learn much faster than you think cause many people don’t speak English,” my dad tried to reassure him. I could see the doubts written in Qais’s face back then.

Since at our NGO all members and helpers are doing the work on a voluntary basis and since per the law we were not allowed to pay Qais and Hvras for their work anyway, during those days we tried to compensate by inviting them for lunches and dinners. “They are shockingly and embarrassingly modest and more often than not reject my offers,” dad said the other day. “Maybe we can invite we can do a daytrip with them together some day after the Christmas market and that way also show them some place in the region they live at now,” I suggested. At the same time during one of the car rides back home from the market we explained to them why we are not in a position to pay them money for their help. “Don’t think about this,” Qais said. “In my country if someone asks you for help and you take money in return for helping him that is a big shame,” he explained to us. “We enjoy being with all of you at the Christmas market. It is so much better than staying at the home in Brünning,” Hvras added.

On the second day of the Christmas market Heidi, a close friend since primary school, came by with her husband, her mom and her daughters. She was highly pregnant at the time. I introduced Qais and Hvras to her. “Why are you not like her”, Qais asked me once they had left. “What do you mean?”, I replied. “Why are you not married yet having children like your friend“, he responded. I was suprised at his very straightforward and direct question. “Well it just did not happen yet and I am unsure where my current relationship is headed”, I explained. “In my country people think life is not complete unless you have children and are married”, he informed us. “In Europe it is different. Many people get married and than a lot of marriages end up in divorce. Unlike in your country divorce is really easy here. Many people here also dont get married at an early age but often in their late 20s and early 30s,” I explained to him.

Integration made simple?!

Meanwhile, after a few hours into the first day of the Christmas market my dad called me: “I received a call from a lady from the ‘Helferkreis’ (group of volunteers in the municipality taking care of refugees’ needs). She told me that you need to notify the authorities that Hvras and Qais are working with us at the Christmas market. “Why, they are doing it as volunteers like us and aren’t paid,” I replied. “Well seems like if we don’t notify them they can get in troubles and it can have negative effects for their asylum cases,” he said and passed on the number of the woman in charge. Little did I know that it would be the beginning of the typical madness with the authorities concerning refugee affairs. At the Helferkreis I was told there was only a form that needs to be filled out and then faxed to the authorities, but as it turned out the only person at the Helferkreis that had the document was on holiday in the US at the time. “You can call the authority for social affairs, they can send you the document”, someone else told me. The next morning I gave them a call and explained: “No that is not our responsibility. We are just taking care of shelter and other social affairs. You probably wan to talk to the job center”, I was told during the call. “Is this person already registered at the job center”, was the first question a man at the job center asked me. “No I said, one of them is attending the integration course and the other one did not even have his first interview in Munich yet,” I said. “Oh no then you are wrong here, we just handle matters related to them finding proper work. I don’t think you have to notify anyone if we are talking about unpaid or volunteer work. But just check with the authorities for social affairs.”Those are the people that told me to talk to you”, I replied amused kind of sensing where this would be going. I tried the authority for social affairs again, obviously with the same result. “But there is this organization assisting with refugee affairs, they might know,” he said before we hang up the phone. But they didn’t know either and referred me again to someone else. In the end I spoke with a man who told me the following: “Well you know I once heard from someone else about a similar case and a lawyer back then advised to handle it like a case of neighborly help. Just hope that nothing happens and in case something does happens you say he was doing you a favor like a good friend or neighbor would do.” An hour and a half after the phone call I knew as much about the matter as I had known before. Could efforts for integration really be made that difficult? If this is how it works with something as simple as volunteer work, what is it like for more complicated affairs?

I will show Germany what I am capable of

The following article is an article that has been published in and translated from a local newspaper named ‘Traunsteiner Tagblatt’:

Qais Yaqubi
Qais Yaqubi enjoys his new job (Picture: BSH Traunreut)

Qais Yaqubi is from Kabul in Afghanistan and lives for a bit more than one year in a refugee home in Brünning. Since the beginning of September he works as a mechanic at BSH in Traunreut. During his free time he is an active member of the THW as well as an NGO called Verein »Unlimited Partnership«. He emphasizes: »I want to show Germany what I am able to do. I have received so much assistance in Germany I want to do my part and give something back to the society.«

In early 2015 he has left his country, an arduous escape that lasted five months. The reason for his escape chiefly has been a case of blood feud and revenge killings between his family and another one, that already demanded the life of his cousin earlier this year.  Via Iran, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia partly on foot as well as by bus and boat he made his way to Germany.

The 20-year old drove the boat via the Mediterranean Sea himself

When crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Izmir to the Greek island of Samos, the 20-year old drove a 9 meter long boat with 73 people on it himself. Doing that got him a significant discount for the boat ride. In August 2015 he had reached Germany and is living in Brünning since September last year. Until now he lives in a refugee home, but is currently looking for a room or small flat in Traunreut.

The fact that Qais managed to land a job with the BSH Group certainly is due to his strong willingness to expand his skill set and learning. Back in Afghanistan he never went to school and yet taught himself several languages including English. Thereby he also taught himself reading and writing in his own language. After he completed the 6 months long »IdA Bayern Turbo Programm«, a program preparing asylum seekers with a high chance for staying for the job market, as well as several internships with companies in the region, he had achieved a skill level that made him ready for a position as a mechanic with  BSH. For the young man this meant a dream come true. »At BSH you can build a future. The company is known all over the world and I want to contribute to the company’s success «,  Qais Yaqubi says happily. He enjoys working in a team, learns a lot from his colleagues, considers his position a great chance for the future and holds the view that also the company will benefit from employees with different cultural backgrounds.

BSH’s human resource manager Otto Rockel thinks in this regard: »It is our goal as a company to assist with the integration process in our region by cooperating closely with the local authorities and NGOs. Thereby we are testing with examples like that of Qais Yaqubi how we can provide employment opportunities for refugees in our company. Integration is an obviousness for us. Regardless of age, nationality, gender, disability, sexual orientation or religion, everyone is welcome to apply for a job at our company. What matters to us is motivation, skills, a sufficient level of German as well as acceptance of our culture of togetherness.«

In his free time Neben  Qais Yaqubi works a lot as a volunteer for different organisations. When Franz Kern from an NGO called  »Unlimited Partnership« went to the refugee home in November last year in order to look for refugees interested to participate in the sales of a local Christmas market, which’s proceeds support poor people in Uganda and Sierra Leone, Qais immediately said yes: »How can I say no if a German asks for my help?«

Since January he is also an active member of the local branch of the THW in Traunreut. His motivation is clear: »I hope to find new friends, would like to learn new things and expand my skill set and participate in deployments .« For Wolfgang Marold, the chief of Traunreut’s THW, it is important that refugees are occupied appropriately: »We want to make our own contribution towards the integration of refugees.« Considering that asylum seekers are not familiar with honorary work at all, Qais integrated surprisingly quickly and with great enthusiasm into the THW group, he explains.

»Trouble makers should be sent back home«

Qais generally is very helpfu, thus also time and again volunteers as a translator for other people from his country. He is extremely grateful to be allowed to feel safe in Germany and for the help he has received. Because of this being able to reciprocate is of core importance to him. »For the first time in a really long time I am feeling safe again«, he explains. About asylum seekers that do not show appreciation and are causing troubles he has a very strong opinion: »Trouble makers need to be deported. They harm the rest of us, who are committed to using our chance, significantly. « mix

Source : Traunsteiner Tagblatt from 27.10.2016