Dispelling alienation and prejudice
How did you, an Israeli, get involved in ″Morus 14″?
Hagar Levin: I came to Berlin in 2012 for one year as part of the German-Israeli volunteer programme Kom-Mit-Nadev (Hebrew: Come volunteer) in order to get involved and learn some German. At ″Morus″ I got to know people from the entire Middle East. I had studied Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University, but never actually met people from Arab countries. My knowledge of Iraq, Syria and Egypt came from books, here the encounters were real.
Your mother′s family originates from Iraq. Do you actually speak Arabic?
Levin: Only a little. Since some kids speak Turkish and the others Arabic, the common language within the organisation is German.
Why did you stay on at ″Morus14″ after the end of your internship?
Levin: Because I had the feeling that many youths were open to dialogue. That′s why the charity founded the project ″Shalom Rollberg″, which enables the mostly Muslim children and teenagers to encounter Jews who offer them education activities for free. This way they can experience Jews and Israelis as human beings. We already have an English language group, an art group, a theatre group, a sports group and a fashion design course.
Fashion design with headscarves?
Levin: (laughs) This group is led by an Israeli fashion designer and is attended by young women whose families originate from Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco and Turkey. Some girls wear the hijab, others don′t. After all, fashion interests everyone, regardless of their background.
How difficult is it to lead a project titled ″Shalom Rollberg″ in the centre of a deprived area where 80 percent of the youth are children of immigrants? Do they accept the Hebrew greeting ″Shalom″ here?
Levin: Rollberg is home to 6,000 people from 30 nations. Locals are used to hearing different languages. But I′ve experienced difficult moments as well. In school, for instance, ″Jew″ is a term of abuse.
At ″Morus″ too?
Levin: At ″Morus″, that kind of thing is rare. When I started here, however, many families refused to even speak to me. They had never met a Jewish Israeli before, they′d just heard a lot about them. As a result, many children couldn′t believe I was Jewish. They thought all Jews look like Orthodox Jews and not like normal people. It wasn′t much different with the parents, either. We try to counteract anti-Semitic propaganda by offering regular guided tours with Rabbi Daniel Alter around the New Synagogue or, for example, by lighting candles to celebrate the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.
Did some parents forbid their children to attend your activities?
Levin: Not all parents send their kids to us. But 130 children are active in our groups and another 50 are registered on our waiting list. I lead the groups together with five Jewish volunteers and I also teach English. In addition, every child gets a mentor who meets him or her once a week to help with homework. For many parents education is the top priority and with us, it′s free.
Would it be true to say that your work is a prevention programme, keeping children off the streets and away from bad company?
Levin: Children and teenagers tell us that they are approached on the street by Islamists who show them their Facebook pages and who pose with them for photos. These radicals are part of everyday life in this area. In order to fight them time and money needs to be invested in projects like ours. Our voluntary student-helpers at least try to inform the kids that such websites are full of anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual prejudice. We are here present the children with alternatives.
Do you get any negative reactions?
Levin: No, but a lot of questions, such as what′s going on in Gaza? They hear a lot on the street and in the media so their knowledge is sometimes confused or just plain wrong.
How do you rate the future prospects of this project, which constantly seems on the verge of financial ruin?
Levin: Funding is never easy. At the moment we are being supported by the Hertie Foundation, the Foundation of the Berliner Sparkassen (″savings banks″), as well as many private donors. It is however a constant struggle, since we receive no money from the district of Neukolln, the city of Berlin or the German state.
Interview conducted by Igal Avidan
© Qantara.de 2016