An interview with Mohammed Jouni, a 24-year-old refugee from Lebanon who lives in Germany and is active in the Berlin branch of Youth without Borders (JoG, Jugendliche ohne Grenzen).
Liz Fekete: Could you tell us when and why JoG was formed?
Mohammed Jouni: It all really goes back to 2002, when an initiative for the right to stay was launched (Liederberinitiative) in Berlin. This initiative arose because of the suffering that so many young people were experiencing because they were living in Germany without basic rights, due to their ‘tolerated status’ (Duldung). The Duldung affects around 150,000 people and takes the form of a special permit (usually renewable every three months) which does not give full residence status but provides a temporary stay on deportation and compels refugees to live in camps (with reduced benefits), prohibits them from working or getting higher education or from leaving the district or city of registration. For many young refugees with ‘tolerated status’, the only point of contact they have with a sympathetic adult is with a social worker. So they would come to the BBZ (Beratungs-und Betreungszentrum), which is a consultation and supervision centre for young refugees and migrants, and ask their social worker for help, particularly to deal with the despair they feel when they finish school and find that they can neither study or work. And the social worker would tell them that as there were many other young people in Berlin facing the same problems, they should come together to work as a group. And this is how the initiative for the right to stay was formed.
From this small group, the initiative grew. First, a meeting was sought with the Interior Minister (Berlin) where the young refugees presented their problems. In Germany a conference of all the sixteen state’s interior ministers (Innenministerkonferenz der Länder IMK) takes place twice a year and the first of these bi-annual meetings was held in 2005 in Stuttgart and it was decided that an unofficial parallel event organised by refugees should be held. And it was in Stuttgart, that the group ‘Here to Stay’ (HierGeblieben) was initiated by the BBZ, the FIB (a refugee initiative in Brandenburg), refugee councils including Pro Asyl, as well as Banda Agita (a young theatre group attached to Germany’s oldest theatre company, Grips). And then, at the next IMK meeting at Karlsruhe, we held our first parallel youth refugee conference. Young refugees from each of Germany’s sixteen States (Länder) came. And it was here that we launched Youth without Borders. And now in almost every German state, there is a campaign organising around the slogan ‘Here to Stay’.
These parallel unofficial events around the Conference of Ministers sound really interesting. Do they take place every year, and what kind of meetings and activities do you organise?
Mohammed Jouni: Since 2005, we have had many such parallel youth conferences – in 2007 it was just outside Berlin, and this year both conferences will be held in May and November in Hamburg. (We do invite refugees from other European countries, but due to lack of papers it is difficult for them to come.) One of the actions of the youth conference is to elect, each year, a ‘Minister for Deportation’. We make our choice on the basis of evidence such as: how many deportations are carried out in each state; what is the situation in the camps; and whether young refugees are provided possibilities for study, training, work or further education (the law differs from state to state). Most recently, we elected Uwe Schünemann, the Christian Democrat (CDU) interior minister for Lower Saxony where there has been an increase in violent deportation raids, the use of force against women and children and where a Kurdish refugee was deported to Syria and tortured. When we announced the award, Schünemann responded by saying he was proud to receive such an award because it proved that he defends the law. But two days later, he issued a press release, clarifying his comments. For us, this proved that our nomination had had an effect – he was beginning to worry about the things being said about him.
How did you personally get involved with Youth without Borders? Have you had the same struggle to access education?
Mohammed Jouni: I had finished school and was searching for a possibility to study, here in Berlin. The Foreigners’ Department said this would not be possible, and told me that if I wanted to study I should go back to Lebanon as it was now safe to return. But I had no documents, and the Lebanese embassy would not give me a passport. So, like the other young refugees I went to the BBZ and from there went on to join JoG. Eventually I got a ‘probationary right of residence’, and I am now studying to be a nurse.
Tell us about the internet projects you are working on in JoG, and why they are needed? We have heard about this exciting new project ‘birds of immigrants’, are you involved in that?
Mohammed Jouni: It’s obvious that young people living in the camps have few opportunities and something needed to be done. We started by creating an information document for those in the camps. Then we felt that we needed to go further, to find a better way of reaching young refugees in the camps – through the creation of an information portal. We knew how isolated the youth were living in these camps, and that there were few possibilities to talk to other young people about their lives. Because of this, we felt that ‘blogging’ had to be a major feature of the internet portal. The blogs meant that everyone could write in their own way about what they were thinking and what they were experiencing. At first, we thought, no, we can’t do this, we don’t have the experience of working on internet projects, but quickly we came to see how important it was for young refugees to connect with each other via the internet. The internet not only allows them to write about things immediately as they feel them, via the blog, but it’s sometimes the only way they can stay in touch with their families and friends – it’s their only way to communicate. Now, Salina Stroux and Sara Pfau who used to work in the refugee camps in Germany are working with young refugees in Greece and they have expanded the project to other European countries through the ‘birds of immigrants’.
Let’s return to the question of the legal situation of young refugees who have lived in Germany for a number of years. Are things getting any better for them? We had heard that the federal government had initiated a major residence reform in 2007, aimed at alleviating the suffering on those with tolerated status by offering them a route to permanent residence.
Mohammed Jouni: When we heard about the residence reform (Bleiberechtsregelung), we thought, that’s great. When the reform was first announced we were told that those who had lived in Germany for eight years (or six years if they were families) would be eligible for a residence permit. But in the months that followed, the authorities began to find more and more loopholes. One reason given for exclusion is if you have committed a crime. And this is something that affects a great many young people, often because of past convictions under the Law of Obligatory Residence (Residenzpflight). This law affects many young refugees as it prohibits ‘tolerated refugees’ from leaving the district or city of registration. And as it is a criminal offence to leave your state, punishable by a fine, or ninety days in prison if you can’t pay this fine, many young refugees now find themselves excluded from the residence reform. In our group a lot of us young people found that we would be excluded from the residence permit because we had a criminal offence arising out of the Law of Obligatory Residence. Now we find that we can’t make an application for the right to stay.
What is life like for young refugees if they have no right to stay in Germany?
Mohammed Jouni: The most important thing to realise is that these young people have no prospects. If you are German, you go to school and you know that when you finish school you will go from school to higher education or university, or work, or into training, and you can make a plan. But if all you have is a paper which states ‘temporary stay on deportation’ then your reality is somewhat different – you live knowing that you could be deported any day. So this means that many young refugees ask themselves, what is the point of going to school, if I have no future. They lose all motivation to carry on and this is a very horrible thing for a young person.
But if these young people find there life so hopeless, how can Youth without Borders reach them?
Mohammed Jouni: It is true that a lot of young people have given up on themselves; they have no motivation. But we have to try to get through to them. In this respect, the work of the BBZ is very important to us. Youth without Borders could not be effective if we didn’t have an agency such as this to protect us. As young people, we don’t need adults to tell us what to do, but we do need adults within organisations to protect us, and help us in difficult situations. The BBZ allow us to reach out to young people we do not already know. A lot of young people are referred to this agency by their school and through the BBZ they hear about us. And when they come to us, we try to interest them in our work, give them some responsibilities, and in that way challenge their lack of motivation.
It sounds easy when I put it like that but it’s very difficult. Some come, and then they go away, maybe for a year, and then they come back – and we welcome them. We have developed with social workers a project for young people who have committed a crime and the project also involves their parents. The parents blame their sons for damaging their future in Germany and don’t understand why they have committed a crime. Our project offers support to the parents, and to the children, and provides a forum where we help the children explain themselves to their parents. A lot of young people feel ashamed of the situation they find themselves in here in Germany, but they can’t talk about their feelings of shame. Helping them express themselves – going to court with them to show them that they have support and they are not alone – this is more important to me than the parallel conferences. Yes, the conferences provide publicity – but the most important is that we create the opportunities to support one another.