No Place for Xenophobia

Discrimination of any kind is an attack on human dignity, say the initiators of "AktionCourage". That's the name of a one-of-a-kind organization that is fighting against racism and for dialogue with Islam throughout Germany – above all, in schools. By Petra Tabeling

​​At the beginning of the 90s, a wave of right-wing violence rolled through Germany, infamously connected to places like Mölln, Solingen, Hoyerswerda and Rostock. Germans chose not to sit back and wait for politicians to eliminate the problems.

Thus, in 1992, various citizen's groups, human rights organizations, clubs and individuals from every branch of society and politics founded the registered society known as "AktionCourage." Since then, the project has developed into a broad network with a variety of priorities, supported by funding from the federal government and the EU.

Focus on schools and youth

In 1995, the "School without Racism" project came about, specially designed to reach youth in schools in order to combat xenophobic tendencies.

How it works: When a school wants to join the fight against right-wing extremism, two-thirds of all pupils and faculty are required to apply to "Aktion Courage" by declaring their support, via signature, for the basic principles of "School without Racism – School with Courage."

Each school is required to carry out at least one campaign per year. From then on, the school is permitted to officially call itself a "School without Racism" – with illustrious support: pupils are asked to select a celebrity sponsor for their school.

Celebrity sponsors include athletes like Michael Schumacher, politicians such as Cem Özdemir and pop stars like the "Fantastischen Vier" and Herbert Grönemeyer.

Creating voluntary, professional networks

"It's a grassroots project," says the society's secretary Eberhard Seidel, because it is completely voluntary. That's the basic idea behind "School without Racism," which originated with students and youth workers in Belgium in 1988. Above all, the personal motivation of the pupils and teachers is important. In return, "AktionCourage" can offer them a network and guidance.

The students' planned activities are not only supported by the federal and regional coordinators of "AktionCourage," but by various cooperative partners in the field of youth work. This cooperative network offers counselling and information for students, teachers and disseminators alike. In addition, meetings and seminars are organized.

Additional competencies one usually first encounter upon starting a career, such as intercultural competence and independent realization of project ideas, are communicated in the process.

The one-of-a-kind "School without Racism – School with Courage" project, which offers students and teachers a platform for actively taking part in the fight against discrimination, has already won several awards, including the "Buber-Rosenzweig Medal" from the "Gesellschaft für christlich-jüdische Zusammenarbeit" / "Society for Christian-Jewish Cooperation" as well as from the federal government's Alliance for Democracy and Tolerance.

Increased commitment in Eastern German states

Today, 230 schools throughout the Federal Republic have earned the "School without Racism – School with Courage" title, which stands for tolerance and against racism, and more schools are always applying. To date, the most applications have come from the federal states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony, in which the campaign against xenophobia first began in 1995.

Fewer applications for the "School without Racism" title have been submitted to the federal coordinating offices in Berlin from the federal states in eastern Germany.

But Eberhard Seidel says that doesn't automatically mean that students and teachers in Schwerin, Dresden or Magdeburg are less tolerant. Since "Aktion Courage" has only been advertising in those parts for a few years, there are hopes for an increased response in the future.

Talking about Islam with youth on a day-to-day basis

The "AktionCourage" society also addresses the topic of Islam using unconventional methods: Initiators like Sanem Kleff and Eberhard Seidel have dubbed their project devoted to dialogue between the cultures "Open Space": Muslim and Non-Muslim youth come together and decide for themselves what to talk about. The goal: to discuss issues together and minimize conflicts.

Organizers have observed that, rather than discuss highly publicized issues such as the wearing of headscarves or immigration policy, youth often choose to talk about sexuality, friendship or family. Working in several German cities, Kleff and Seidel have thus made it possible for over 700 students from junior and senior high schools and vocational schools to take part in discussions.

In addition to their long-term "School without Racism" project, "AktionCourage" has other projects: Under the heading "Companies for Integration – against Discrimination," the society has developed company agreements against discrimination and, since 1997, created more traineeships in companies run by foreigners.

In 2002, "AktionCourage" created the Information and Contact Center for Migration (IKoM), which is supported by the Federal Ministry for Family. Its goal is to solve the increasingly critical problem of old-age care for immigrants. However, further financing, which runs out in mid-2005, hangs in the balance.

Petra Tabeling

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Mark Rossman

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