Who doesn't feel a bit awkward when asked to describe themselves? You think, "Shouldn't someone else do this?" At least, that's how we felt when asked to say something "About Us". Luckily, we remembered a really great letter written by a dear former student when we asked her to translate our slogan, "Come as a student - and go as a friend". So we are going to let someone who has been where you are speak for us. Many thanks again to this special person!
I was recently asked to translate a German phrase, "komm als Student, geh als Freund," into my native language. This is actually a task any online translator could manage. But, as the saying goes, meaning can get lost in translation. When I saw this motto for the first time on the board, I wasn't thinking about what it said in English. I was thinking, what does it mean? To come as a student and leave as a friend...?
Well, we aren't just students. We are immigrants. Even those of us who come under the best circumstances - those with permanent residency priviledges or those who don't have to fight against expensive bureaucratic predjudices because they have African or Middle Eastern birth certificates - still must go through the standard pitfalls of immigration.
I discovered an unexpected advantage once I began reaching out to other immigrants. As an American, I arrived with the unofficial lingua franca, English, and a heritage that invokes curiosity. I was seldom turned down once I started inviting classmates and others I would meet in endless lines at the immigration agencies for a coffee or an ice cream. I became fascinated by these people and their stories. In the first year, immigrants go through such emotional growth. I have never met an immigrant who didn't cry or go through periods where they wish they had never left their home country. Each one of us felt isolated, frustrated, at times paranoid (are they talking about me???), depressed, lost, homesick, anxious, etc.
Immigrants are created long before they ever step foot onto German soil. Immigrants are born out of need. Two kinds of need: the need for more and the need for better. There are those who are born into lives that were never large enough to contain them. These kinds of people need the space of the world to tell their story. Being confined to their own village, a life at a cash register, or settled down because of lack of options - that would be tragic. They can't grow into what they need to become in the limits their own boarders.
The other kind of immigrants, the majority, come to Germany because they want a better life for themselves and their family. They want what every German considers a natural right. The right to healthcare, the right to an education. The right to personal belief. I met an Islamic man whose immigration journey from his Muslim country began the moment it was discovered that he was homosexual. I met several Syrian families whose journeys began the moment they lost their home and family members in a war they had nothing to do with. I met a brilliant Iranian woman who wanted to be respected as equal in her field, free herself and her future daughters from the political injustices to women under religious government. I met one woman who came to get out of arranged marriage. She wanted the German life because it meant a chance at something other than a lifetime of culturally condoned rape.
So many unique, courageous origin stories of people fighting to get here only to discover once they are here the next fight begins - the fight to be allowed to stay.
The first 1-3 years are truly a time to make-it-or-break-it. The difference between successful integration and the chance at success in life as an immigrant is the ability to learn the language. There is this point, like in a marathon, that if you can make it that far, you will be okay. But you gotta get there. You have to push through these ugly emotional cycles, and go through the limbo of not belonging in your homeland any more but not belonging here yet either. Immigration destroys half of your relationships. if immigration had a motto, it could be: come with friends, lose at least half.
If you can find the right integration pipeline, it makes all the difference in the world. I know I, and every student I came to know during my time with Hagen and Achim, feel incredibly lucky. It isn't easy, especially as an adult, to find a teacher who can still teach you.
What does it really mean to "come as a student, leave as a friend"? Without the language, the world feels unkind. When a drunk football fan makes an ignorant, racist comment, you don't even have the words to defend yourself. In the first place, it means you have an oasis in a dark and unfriendly world that is bright and warm. I walk in and I get a "Heyyyy Rachael," from Hagen. There were times when this was the only nice thing I would hear for days. I knew others who were on such a strict budget, German class with Hagen and Achim was the only time they spent around other people. It's where some of us made our first friends.
Secondly, Hagen and Achim don't overlook the importance of the classroom dynamic. In every course, after only a short time, we felt comfortable with each other. Unlike other classes which tended to self segregate and group according to native language.
Next, Hagen and Achim themselves. While maintaining academic professionalism, Achim and Hagen show students respect in their respective, unique and authentic ways. That "Heyyyy Rachael." I get when I arrive, it's just a part of how these guys, together, make us feel not like immigrants, not like infiltrators. Not even like students. This makes me feel like... me. Like finally someone sees me, Rachael. Instead of a the normal, "so why did you come here?" that I get from every other German, I get a "schön, dass du da bist," from Achim.
Each brings a fully necessary component to the learning experience, complementing the other until they make a flawless whole. Hagen is the one who is always there with a kind word of encouragement. Hagen was vital for me in overcoming the crushing fear that we all have when we start trying to speak - what's basically going on is we are trying to learn to trust that the noises we are making will make sense to the people we need to impress. It is a long hard process that is full of failure at the beginning. No matter how overwhelming and discouraging, Hagen can always find the good in things. He never loses his patience or positivity and that alone is a lifeline. Speaking in your target language is one of the most important parts of existing in that language. With Hagen, my fear of making a mistake while speaking melted and I would find myself 10 minutes into a conversation about the 1980's or gangster music or chickens... More conversation than I had had in German all week.
Achim is different. He is a grammar-Rain Man. I have only met one other person so good at grammar and they had dedicated their life to studying the language. Achim can identify and correct language weaknesses with a surgical precision and efficiency. He will help you identify and fix individual problems until they are fixed for good. He demands a higher level of commitment, but no more than he is willing to give to students himself. In the end, you learn more, because you are forced to push your own limits of capability. This can seem hard, because it is hard. Achim's kindness shows up in other ways, like a bonbon or a silly joke. And while Achim is teaching us his language, he will surprise everyone by throwing out some words in our own language. "Hello," in Hindi. "Sweetheart" in Arabic. "Patience," in Persian. this little detail is kind of symbolic for what it is like learning with Achim. Hearing something in our mother language so unexpectedly is a reminder that culture sharing is a two-way street. Our journey as immigrants is hard, definitely no Ponyhof, but we aren't on the journey alone.
And lastly, it means we are given the keys we need to unlock the doors that lead us into a deeper, more meaningful and stable integration so we can find our place in Germany. So that others don't only see immigrant, foreigner, American... So that others can see me. Since learning with them, I had more courage to meet people my age. Finally, I could contribute socially. I could say, "hey, I'm like you, I like beer and geocache and hiking and board games." And now I call some very dear and wonderful Germans friends and I am invited to share all the normal experiences a woman of my age should have.
I paid these guys so I could get my TestDaf and DSH certificates, but what I really got from these classes was my voice. And that is invaluable.
It doesnt matter what words or language you use, this is what "come as a student, leave as a friend" means.