As a London-based, Berlin-born freelance filmmaker and director, my career has opened my eyes to the world in more ways than I could have ever imagined. Last year I had the opportunity to meet an incredible group of young Syrians who came to Gelsenkirchen, a city in the West of Germany, as unaccompanied minors at the height of the migrant crisis that loomed over Europe in the years between 2015-2019.
I first met the group of 11 teenagers and adolescents in 2016, when I was commissioned to take their photographs as part of a literature book project that would be published.. As I captured their photographs, I noticed that the adolescents struggled to come to grips with not only the traumatic experience they had been through, but also the new culture and language they suddenly found themselves immersed in. With their broken words, and difficulty communicating, most of them were too shy to express themselves.
Fast forward to 2019 and I was asked to shoot a short documentary about the achievements and the struggles some of those young Syrians had faced throughout their journey of making a new home.
I remember the first day I met Ahmed and Gihad again, two young men who I had met in the previous project. I couldn’t believe how they presented themselves to me – it was like a transformation had taken place. From two shy boys who wouldn’t speak, they had now blossomed into confident young men, fluent in German and in the midst of studying for their exams at school leading top of their class! It was incredible to see how they had come out of their shell and had become active members of their community.
I’d like to take the opportunity to remember the challenges and the achievements of so many dislocated people and their allies all over the world. We have come a long way since the 2015 international refugee crisis, which saw a large number of people seeking asylum in many European countries.
Admittedly, Germany was amongst those countries that not only welcomed migrants with open borders, but did so with open arms. A tremendous message of social awareness sent ripples through the population, dubbing the nation’s ‘welcoming culture’. However not long after, when the true work and challenges of integration and education began, the euphoria silently ebbed away – whilst thousands of refugees faced what was only the beginning of a new, long strenuous journey of building a new life.
Independent youth work, and collectively, independent refugee work, is a crucial part of social infrastructure. However, the goals that are being pursued thereof, are as diverse as the challenges and interests.
In autumn 2015, a great wave of asylum seekers also reached the city of Gelsenkirchen. Local social services reacted swiftly with project work seeking to enable the often traumatised individuals to live their new lives in an environment of inclusion and tolerance. Local social services took steps to consistently explore new options in their quest to reach the youngest amongst them, in order to engage and offer them with exciting opportunities.
The local social services also strived to connect the teenagers with young Germans to start a dialogue that went beyond grammar and language. The practical results of those efforts included an educational theatre project and a literature course that resulted in a book publishing deal, complete with short stories and poems, written by young Syrians.
The common thread that runs through the fabric of these projects is the attempt to extend the welcoming culture with the hope of igniting social connections and emphasising that no one should be excluded, discriminated against or criminalised.
In autumn 2019 then, the documentary film that aimed to capture some of the experience those young people had been through – from the struggles of arriving in Germany to how the city’s youth work helped shape their new lives.
This documentary is a small piece in a complex social construct that has many years, decades and even generations to fully manifest itself.
However difficult the struggle may be, with all its peaks and valleys, this little story tries to serve as a light in dark days by providing a message of hope and togetherness. It seeks to confirm that great things can be achieved when efforts, hearts and minds are in the right place – pulling in the same direction.
Of course, the work isn’t done yet. But we should also to celebrate how far we have come.
Julia Schönstädt is a London-based freelance filmmaker and director. Besides her commercial work she regularly works on projects exposing social injustice. Her ‘16 Bars Project’, a critical examination of the penal system in Germany, was recognised and awarded by The Guardian in 2014. Contact her here for questions or commissions. www.schonstadt.com
To see the whole film / part II follow this link: