This article is the last in a three-part series by an Arab journalist about her tour of German research centers. The first was “Eastern Germany Through Egyptian Eyes.” The second was “A City of Light Illuminates Contemporary Research.”
Doha— Dresden is a charming city on the river Abbe with notable historical sites, museums, art galleries and beautiful churches.
But I went to Dresden with some fears. As an Arab-Muslim who wears a headscarf, I didn’t expect to be at ease in Dresden. After all, the city is known as a strong foothold of neo-Nazis and right-wing political parties who have been outspoken against refugees and Muslims.
So I was surprised to discover that a session about “Refugee Aid at Technical University Dresden” was part of the program for the group of journalists with whom I was touring Germany.
At the Technical University, we heard that the refugee-aid program started in August 2015 with three refugee camps directly on the university campus. Today the program hosts 300 residents, mostly from Iraq and Syria. The camps are managed by the German Red Cross, with the help of 600 registered volunteers who run activities including German language courses, winter-clothes collections, and Christmas gifts for children. We learned that many other German universities have similar programs in place.
The university’s vice rector for academic and international affairs, Hans Georg Krauthäuser, said no formal policy exists yet for refugees to apply as students at the university, but it does allow some refugees to informally attend courses. There are currently 34 guest students, 20 of them from Syria.
In the future, the university plans to expand its refugee aid to include mentoring and “buddy” programs, as well as an office that will advise refugees on programs of study and degrees.
Still skeptical about the issue, my fellow journalists asked how the refugee-aid program is received outside the university walls.
Krauthauser acknowledged that the views of some members of the German public are making life hard for the university and other local research institutions.
“It’s a difficult situation, as Dresden is a place where we have a minority, but a very loud one, against refugees and Muslims. That’s part of the reality,” he said.
“That’s not good for a city of science like Dresden, because science is international,” he added, with passion.
The university’s efforts to make foreigners feel more at ease in the city is not limited to refugee aid. There is a program in place to support partners of foreign scientists. The program organizes intercultural activities, career-development consultations and community-building events.
So far, the activities have helped the participants form friendships among themselves and with the families of visiting international scientists and students, but not yet with Dresden citizens.
The coordinator of the “dual career services for international scientists” program, Gabriele Feyler, hopes to bring nationals and internationals together through different activities in the future. “But language and mutual misunderstandings are still an issue,” she said.
We spent the rest of the day touring Dresden with our local guide, Gunter Kieb. As we walked through the city’s stunning renovated downtown, all my fears of discrimination eased. We were warmly welcomed in almost every place we visited. We even ran into a group of local volunteers teaching German to refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the open space of a historic building.
The trip ended on a high note with a lovely farewell dinner. As a group of journalists from 15 different countries, in addition to our German hosts, we spent the night discussing cultural differences and laughing at some of the clichés associated with our own countries.
I learned a lot on this rewarding and sometimes surprising trip about the German research landscape. I also met some very nice people and had many heartfelt laughs – and broke a stereotype or two along the way.