Intercultural Gardens

The Gardens of Others

The concept of "intercultural gardens" sounds auspicious: Fallow land is developed into community gardens where people from different cultural backgrounds can plant crops. However the example of the intercultural garden in Cologne, Germany, shows that integration work can also be counter-productive. Pouyeh Ansari reports

Members of the International Garden (photo: Foundation Interkultur)
The foundation "Stiftung Interkultur" was initiated to link up the various intercultural garden projects in Germany

​​ For the last three years a large piece of fallow land in Cologne-Niehl has been available to immigrants and Germans for ecological crop growing. Various herbs and vegetables are planted on small allotments.

The goal of the community gardens is not only the collective cultivation of fallow land, but much more a collective and social experience, which is supposed to facilitate Germans and immigrants coming closer together. Mutual garden parties and joint ventures not only improve the immigrants' German language skills but also allow Germans to become better acquainted with the various cultures and customs.

In the last ten years the number of these so-called community gardens has risen to about 100 Germany-wide. The first intercultural garden was founded in Göttingen in1996 by Bosnian refugee women together with other families of various backgrounds. Then in 2003 the Stiftung Interkultur was launched in Munich in order to support these intercultural garden projects, and to bolster communication between the gardens.

Ideal garden world

The intercultural garden in Cologne has existed since 2005. For three years everything worked extremely well in Cologne. "It was an ideal world," remembers Khosro Sarhang from Iran, who has been a member of the Intercultural Garden Cologne ever since the project started.

However the climate in recent months has changed so that now the integration project is hanging in the balance. Anton Auer, a member of the garden, even talks of a "counter-integration". What has happened?

In the last few months, out of the original idea of mutual acquaintanceship, support and exchange of knowledge, a downright conflict has formed on two fronts. On one side is the executive board of the society and the Cologne Agenda; on the other, some members of the intercultural garden – mainly immigrants.

What roll does the Cologne Agenda play in the intercultural garden? When the garden was founded in the year 2005 the Cologne Agenda was supposed to act in conjunction with the Stiftung Interkultur from Munich as a sponsor: the Cologne Agenda supports the garden with about €1,000 per year.

Questionable status

First of all, the Cologne Agenda backed out, says Roland Pareik a contact person from the Cologne Agenda. But later they were re-integrated through public relations work for the gardens. The Cologne Agenda has been a member of the society since 2005 but this was never officially documented, so whether the Cologne Agenda is an official member or not remains unclear.

But it is this very point that lies at the centre of the dispute: some members of the garden feel bullied by the Cologne Agenda, which, as a semi-municipal institution doesn't allow members the independence and autonomy they actually wish for.

Anton Auer was one of the first to openly address and criticise the grievances at the society meetings. "The Cologne Agenda only uses the garden to do PR for a showcase project with showcase migrants and to get sponsoring money for itself," says Auer, annoyed.

In the meantime the conflict has escalated so much that some members of the garden feel that they are being used by the Cologne Agenda.

The members say they want more direct responsibility. After all, it is meant to be about an integration project that not only involves getting to know the German language better but also familiarisation with German legal foundations and association rules.

Showcase projects with showcase immigrants is not what the project is about; promoting positions as these only creates greater rifts between Germans and immigrants. The idea behind the intercultural gardens is a splendid one – but it has to be implemented in the right way. A division of the two parties the way it exists at this time is indeed an example of "counter-integration".

Pouyeh Ansari

© 2008

Translated from the German by Mý Huê McGowran

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