Mosque Visits And Refugee Role Play - When Border Guards Get Sensitivity Training

In Poland, after criticism of the treatment of asylum seekers, the government has responded with some very practical training for those who come face-to-face with immigrants every day.

It can be a cold job at the border between Poland an Belarus
It can be a cold job at the border between Poland an Belarus
Joanna Klimowicz

KRUSZYNIANY - They don’t have their uniforms or badges but don’t be misled: there are only big guns in the bus.

Spirits are high as the group of chiefs of detention and deportation centers, from the Polish Border Guard Headquarters, is heading for the exotic Podlasie region, in the northeast of Poland. They are participating in an anti-discrimination workshop held in Kruszyniany, a village with Tatar roots, where the Muslim minority is still well present in the cultural landscape.

They are greeted by an unexpected sight: a sign with the name of a fictitious country – Schengenistan – a foreign flag fluttering in the wind and a border control. The local guards throw around commands in a mix of Russian and Georgian: “stop,” “wait,” “next.”

Fingerprints are taken, passports are stamped – it is like a real border control. For the next few days the workshop participants will find themselves on the other side of the fence. From guards they will become refugees.

The Schengen Area is a group of 26 European countries that have abolished internal border controls, including 22 of the EU member-states and four European Free Trade Association (EFTA) states. While internal borders have been abolished, external borders have had their security tightened.

On the next day, things do not get easier for our Polish guards – they have to learn the Georgian alphabet. Everyone must be able to write their own name in Georgian. The program of the day also includes a simulation of an interview for refugee status in Schengenistan. The questions were supposed to be in Russian but in reality it sounds like Hungarian.

The aim of this exercise is to show what immigrants entering the Schengen Area through its eastern borders are confronted with. Polish border guards often think they speak Russian... but what the refugees are hearing is gibberish.

On the third day, there is a visit to the local mosque. For some participants it is their first time in a Muslim mosque. They take off their shoes; women cover their hair with shawls. Everybody sits on the carpeted floor, and listens to the guide, Dzemil Gembicki, who explains the history and tradition of Polish Tatars, who have been living in the region since the 17th century.

The Tatars are an ethnic group present in Eastern Europe and Northern Asia. They are a nomadic group, and mostly practice Sunni Islam, although some are Russian Orthodox.

After a tour of the Old Mizar – a Tatar cemetery from the 17th century – the participants head to the local Orthodox church and walk the Ecumenical Trail – a picturesque pathway dotted with sculptures and information boards with facts about the three religions cohabiting in the region: Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity and Islam.

It’s dinnertime and that means cooking lessons. To eat, you have to cook first. No one gets out of it. The participants learn how to prepare chinkali, traditional Georgian dumplings. The atmosphere is relaxed and cheerful, with Tatar music and Georgian dancers.

The Shengenistan guests try their hand the traditional Georgian dance. They’re enjoying it while it lasts – they already know that in the morning their visas will be refused, and they will have just two hours to leave this unique place.

Objective: empathy

What was all this show for? Do these role-reversal workshops make a difference?

“These workshops complete the previous trainings that were carried out mostly in form of lectures. We believe these practical exercises are important. They serve to awaken the participants’ empathy,” explains Dorota Przymies, the founder of the Salvation Foundation, the organization that organizes the Shengenistan workshops. The Salvation Foundation (Fundacja Ocalenie), is an NGO that supports refugees and repatriates in Poland and promotes intercultural dialogue.

She says working with the Polish border guards has yielded nothing but positive experiences. The aim of the workshop is to change attitudes and build a dialogue between cultures and religions, she adds.

There is no doubt that a change of attitudes is needed in Poland, in particular in regard to detention centers for unauthorized immigrants. Last fall, a scandal over detention center conditions made headlines; and asylum seekers across the country went on a mass hunger strike with a series of demands: the right to information in a language they understand, the right to contact the outside world, the right to proper healthcare and psychological care, education for minors, respect for children’s rights, improvement in cultural conditions within detention centers, an end to abuse and excessive violence and an end to criminalizing detainees.

The government has heard the protesters, and things are slowly beginning to change.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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