Interview #1: Alice Salomon Hochschule
Prof. Dr. Bettina Völter
[Interviewer] First of all, thank you very much for your time today. I know that you're a very busy woman so we are very honored that you took time to join us today.
[Professor] Yes, you've come a long way.
[Interviewer] Yes, we have, but for me it's like being home. Our project is involved with addressing the issues of refugees and we know that the Alice Salomon Hochschule is also involved with refugees. Would you be willing to share what you are doing here at the Alice Salomon Hochschule?
[Professor] Yes, very much I would like to share. We are located in a very important location, we are in the northeast corner of Berlin, we're near Brandenburg's border. The Alice Salomon Hochschule relocated here 20 years ago from West Berlin, from the center of Berlin, and now we have come to the eastern corner, and we did this for a political reason. The politicians have decided that Alice Salomon Hochschule should grow; we should offer more than social work. We should also add a management team to move into other areas such as nursing care, child development, physical therapy, occupational therapy as basic programs. We have master programs and other programs and we've become much larger, so we needed a new location and we needed new rooms, a new place.
The college politicians and the senate decided to move us here so that we could also provide social services and educational programs to this area of Berlin and that we could live in this community and exchange ideas. So, this is a part of our mission. We are politically active, and it comes from our history. Alice Salomon was an internationally recognized and networked woman. She is the pioneer of social work in Germany. She was the founder of professional social work in Germany. She transformed women's work into actual professions, and you know all of this.
[Interviewer] Yes, and she was engaged with women from the United States who developed the social work profession. She had a lot of contact with the Hull House movement.
[Professor] Yes. She was with a settlement movement, very active. For her time, she was a very
engaged and active woman. She was the first woman in Germany to receive a doctorate degree, so we have an image that guides us, that affects our political activity; and we take positions with social action. We address regional concerns, women's rights, human rights. That being said, a refugee center was established in our area in 2013. It was in the summer, it was the first refugee center that attracted a lot of attention throughout Germany because, relatively quickly, right-winged organizations demonstrated in front of their doors, saying “no to refugee centers”.
This center was located about seven minutes west of the Alice Salomon Hochschule. It's in the Moxy Vandestrasa. It’s a street that was named after a wonderful woman who made movies, wrote important women's books. This center, on this street, was established there; and it was put into a refurbished school. And against this center there were a lot of right radical demonstrations, and this caused a lot of worry. The demonstrators worried neighbors and refugees. The refugees who were living in the center were afraid, and because of this our previous president of the college said that we needed to become active. We needed to get active, and she organized instructors and students to provide a watch at the shelter 24-7.
We met with the senate and organized a room at the center so that we could provide courses, and this is how it began. As a university, we were very present there. We got involved with the center. For example, we organized a walking bus to accompany refugees to and from the center so that they wouldn't be as afraid. We helped them have contact to the educational system, contact with students and young people, and we began to provide different services such as counseling to find housing. We provided childcare at times. We had conversations. We held festivals together, and refugees could take part in courses on our campus, and we helped people so that children could simply go out and play. I've been here since 2014, and about a year later the head of our college took this over. I am now the director of research. At the housing we began to work further, and we worked in a systematic way because of the standards that this housing had were very poor. This was a private organization so what was difficult was to find a pathway and a vision to see if we had some clarity about how to work with them. We wanted to improve the quality of the housing, so we became active in the community to make sure that we would move step by step to develop a program for them.
In 2015, many refugees came to Germany and many, many people. There was a need for emergency housing, and we were happy if we could even find any type of room and board for people. It was the beginning of winter, and it was clear that there would probably be people living on the streets. We wanted to use every centimeter of room that was available, so we organized with the private owner of the rooms and housing. Because of being overwhelmed, suddenly the director of the housing just disappeared. He left so we spoke with our senate; and there was a very, very slow response from the senate; and it was very difficult to get help.
We spoke with the mayors, and we also spoke with the person responsible for social needs. We placed a lot of pressure on all the politicians, and it took about a year before we found an ear to listen to us.
The students were constantly documenting and monitoring the situation with refugees: what is going on, do the people have a place to stay, are there any child care programs for the children. We went almost a year without any type of childcare for the refugee children. So, Alice Salomon Hochschule actually took charge of this. We volunteered all of this work. They weren't professionals that did this. We as the college took over this work; however, we knew that this could only happen for a temporary time and that we needed something long- term. Our colleagues and students became active immediately, and our entire college was involved.
At the same time, we were having meetings with our main academics at the school, we invited the mayor to our table at the school. He was pretty dramatic when he was saying how the housing was to be divided up in this area. We were in quite a crisis. However, we as a college, couldn't just stand by and watch. We said, what can we do? I know and have long relationships with people in our region, but our regional government said, “we don't really need you, we'll take care of this”. We told them they should ask us at the college to let us know how we can be helpful. We wanted to send the message to them that the college is going to be active in this emergency situation. The regional government did that, and they sent an official invitation to us. And they asked us directly for what they needed, and they were very direct about what they needed. So, we met, and we took a look at how to address needs in the social area so we could actively become a part of this. We designed a website, and we sent it to the entire college to say that we were in a crisis situation; and that because of the reputation that we have, we wanted to send an emergency alert that we are going to spend the entire semester working on this issue of refugee resettlement and to plan to participate in this. For this, it was clear that we were going to be actually involved, and it would not just disappear. So, we had a college day and we got other people that participated from the senate. And we spent an entire day for the entire college so that we could design an entire week of January that would have a focus with the theme of migration and refugees, and how to integrate them into our society and how to deal with racism. We used a day in November to plan the January week, and we founded work groups with faculty members who worked wonderfully with us. The idea was to spend the week to create initiatives with other organizations in our region.
We opened a hotel as a project with artists and musicians. We took an old, I don't know what it was called, that we got from the state; and we got help from the religious communities; and we created another hotel where normal public could go to it. And they could pay what they could, or would like to; and we opened up a café. It also integrated refugee families. Everybody cooked together in this hotel. There was the regular public that were there living with refugees at this hotel. We developed about 70 different possibilities during that week; and during that special week that we organized, classes were canceled so that they could participate in this as a college. We showed films, we had music, and we worked very hard on the different themes.
At this time, there was a round table discussion about how to protect people from violence in housing. The mayor and our people met together with those who specialized in it to take a look at anti-violence programs. We got together and organized projects. We met for a long time, and we developed ways to protect refugees. We developed systems that if people had complaints where could they go, what type of system could they utilize to file a complaint or to meet their needs. We created a newspaper that we could distribute on social work with refugees, and we began to explore what type of professional standards are given to work with refugees—because there were none. This was an emergency situation, and there were many social workers that didn't have any type of training, so we tried to help those who wanted to work with refugees. There was very poor pay for this, and there was no supervision.
So, what is the professional standard for a social worker to work in a housing project for refugees? We developed a lot of these things because of being in a crisis. And we always worked together with other initiatives that were taking place in the city. We’ve been now working for over a year on these themes. We had some people in our college that had a history of being a refugee; and I recall a day on a Friday, it was at the end of the week, and three or four men showed up in the cafeteria from Iran, Afghanistan with different men from different housing facilities. “Oh, we heard about you, here we are, what can we do?” And one person was there who was an author of children's books. He came from Iraq. He had a lot of interest; and he says, oh we could study here. So, there were many spontaneous things that developed out of this crisis, and at the same time we were working very systemically. We also had the idea during that time to start a program for refugees so that they could have a chance to meet the requirements to apply to study for university. We had a lot of creativity in this time, and for us it was a great benefit because we could cross and work in an interdisciplinary way with other departments. At the college during that week we could cross over, and we worked together with different departments. We had discussion circles: what do you do in your department, this is what we do. Many new connections were established at that time, and this was very, very nice. It was a lot.
[Interviewer] This a wonderful story, and I was thinking about Alice Salomon as you were talking. It’s a wonderful story.
[Professor] Yeah, we think a lot about Alice Salomon. She is a person that we have in high regard; and this was at a totally different time; and she was very engaged and very courageous. She was a pioneer.
[Interviewer] And it sounds like through this crisis, you developed a new team with faculty
members and students, community members; and you created something. What is the resonance from the community with what you've done?
[Professor] There was a lot of openness and positive resonance to what we were doing and with our work. With our cooperation and collaboration, there was a lot more trust. There are new connections that came to be because we got to know each other, and there are very good programs that were developed that function in a very professional way.
The reputation of this area of the community in Berlin always had a bad reputation, and people really suffered with that, and that has changed because of this. There were people that would say this is where only the poor people live. Here are only the right-winged people; here are those that have no work. And I believe that we have improved the image of this region, and the people who live here have a better self-esteem. As the college moved here many people asked why do we have to be here, why do we spend our time in this area of the community. Many, many people said these things. The professors didn't want to come here. It was very difficult to convince people to come here. But since I've been here, we've always supported being in this community, and we've always spent time networking with people here. And in this crisis situation, it was clear that we had wonderful concepts; but here you are in a housing situation, and now you have to actually apply it. And to learn from each other is so important.
What did we learn from other professionals? What did we learn right on site? What type of seminars could we offer? What types of books could we read? How does this person do something? So, we need to put to ourselves those question. We have to question ourselves. And at the same time, we expected that we wanted standards, and we didn't want that social work would be involved in deporting refugees. We wanted to stay away from that issue. We wanted to stay away from that also in the political world, and at the same time we had to make compromises. Sometimes we're imprisoned by a compromise, and we don't always get everything we want. It was a very moving time, and it's always a moving time here.
The mayor of the left party is on one side and AFD, the political right populace, are on the other side. We have this tension between those, the left and the right; and we're in between. We have to have our own positions, and we also have to say that we are going to distance ourselves from the right side, the right-wing people. The right-wing radicals are racist and that doesn't fit to the concepts and beliefs of Alice Salomon Hochschule. We are social programs and our students demand that we take a position. And we have to realize, even as administration of a college, that we have to make some compromises. But the students are always in front of us there, and they're always poking at us; but what's really nice about this is that we have very informed students, and they are very adult, and they know how to offer support and be supportive. They did amazing work; they counseled us; they did tutoring work; they tried to have contact with refugees; they helped design storefronts; they did a lot of amazing work. The refugee office and the pre-study program would not have been able to run without the students; the students were very important in this process. They also coordinated the people to organize the administration of all these programs. Our chancellor was always with us. We were always supported; it is pretty wonderful to work together. It was wonderful to work with the community.
There's always tension. There are people from the right side that want to make you look like fools, then there are those on the left side that are never satisfied. They would go against the politics of our community so we would have to represent ourselves, and there were times we were critical of the community. Then there were those people who were simply mean and would want to hurt us, and then they thought we were snobs. We wanted to work with them, but it was impossible; and it took a long time before we could develop trust in the community. Then there were people who didn't understand us, saying that we were speaking in a high-level language. They were angry because of what we were saying. Then there were people who were violent, and they would go after the students. They don't like people who look different than themselves—they typically had a picture of a white man, a white male, or a white woman. Some of the politicians would throw those things at us, and they wanted to have things more harmonious. There's always a challenge to be understood. We always have to learn; we always have to stay in movement. I don't have a problem with difficulties, and I think that's just a part of it. I think it just belongs to my work, and I think it belongs to Alice Salomon Hochschule. I stand up for what I do. This is purposeful. We're a training institute, where else should we be? We address important issues. We meet important people. We are always challenged to address discrimination and misunderstandings.
[Interviewer] So you are also creative and courageous.
[Professor] Yeah, it's a new part of me that I'm developing. What's really exciting, we have an
amazing administrative staff; people who are very competent, who are very open. We have amazing students, and we have great professors. We have a lot of researchers who do amazing work; they do things that are exciting, that can teach well. They are wonderful educators. They're very interested in questioning. They look at new ways of teaching. They look at new systems. It’s a very nice climate here.
[Interviewer] That's true. When you look forward, when you look ahead, what would you wish for?
[Professor] For whom?
[Interviewer] For refugees, for Alice Salomon Hochschule, and for you.
[Professor] For the refuges in Germany or in this community, I would like them to be included so that they really have a sense of belonging, that they can participate in our communities, that in all their difference they can maintain their integrity, that they can participate with us and at the same time bring what they have brought with them. For the Alice Salomon Hochschule, I would wish that we have a mixture of a lot of different people from all different ways of living—with students, professors, administration that our colleagues can learn directly from each other, that we stay open, that we look and see what structural racism is, and how that affects people. I think we need to learn a lot in this area—although sometimes I think we're quite far along, but at the same time there's a latent or unconscious way of excluding other people. I would like to include these aspects into our programs so that we can learn and do things. And for me personally, I wish strength and positive energy, simply happiness and luck, good luck to address these possibilities, also to take a break at times just to feel, and then in a new way to transform things. And as you've noticed, I speak without a comma or a period.
[Interviewer] This is a very beautiful story.
[Professor] Oh yeah, I get a lot of energy with this, and then it's important to come to a place of quiet.
[Interviewer] And do you have a place of quiet?
[Professor] I take care of myself with that. It's not always simple, but I try to take care of myself. I have children that make me take some quiet time, yes.
[Interviewer] Would you like to say anything else, for example, what would you like the students in the United States to hear, what would you like to say to them?
[Professor] I believe that the relationship between Europe and the United States is strong. We have a lot of pictures of what a lot of other people appear to look like, and that is sad. It is very, very important for us to have a relationship with the United States. What I find to be a pity is that the exchange with the United States universities is so difficult. The American student has difficulty coming here. Hospitality is hard to do because we don't have the resources. We don't have enough money to be able to offer what the United States expects us to do. We have less of a chance to go to the United States because it's so expensive to go to the United States. If we could take down these barriers, that would be very helpful. There's not a language barrier. There are many stories that we share with each other especially in Berlin. I'm very touched, we have so many things of and from the Americans. They helped Berlin in a very difficult time. There's many influences from the United States that we have, and we have some criticism. But, naturally, it is so important that we have this partnership and not to move into isolation where the United States only thinks about itself and Europe thinks only about itself because in the long term it's not going to work.
We need to have a peaceful world. We need to have a world that we live in together, where we're tolerant of each other, where we open the barriers where we can, and where we can be, at the end of this, happier—so that we don't just focus on our land and on our money. Young people who can exchange ideas and learn from each other, to become surprised at what makes us curious, that's what I value; that's how I grow. Look how exciting this is, and there I feel happiness. This will not function through isolation. Then we become lonely and frustrated, and we get angry and enraged and mistrustful; and that's not what we're here for. We need to be active. Life is much better when we're active in the world, when we're open, when we have open ideas and shared values; and sometimes we can't find a solution. But we need to try to find solutions together, speak with each other, and consider different ideas. That would be very nice when we could take a step further with that. We have so many images of Americans who have done so many things in Germany—for example your study group here; and to see a large group together that's great.
[Interviewer] Thank you so much for your hospitality. Thank you for coming so that we could be here together.
[Professor] We are always happy when people from the United States visit us because it's so difficult to have exchanges with each other.
[Interviewer] We were here last year and had a wonderful experience and we're here again and I'd like to invite you to the United States. We would be very happy to welcome you to our community and to invite your students, so let's take a look at that. Is there anything else you would like to say?
[Professor] What else should I say? What should I say? There's only one thing I'd like to say
which is peace. Peace would be nice. And another word I'd like to say is mindfulness. I wish this for you also. Thank you very much. Thank you for your time.
[Interviewer] Thank you. It was very nice. Thank you for the honor.
[Professor] For me it was an honor. Thank you.