A tiny oasis in Berlin’s Neukölln district

A tiny oasis in Berlin’s Neukölln districtTwo enormous, golden frogs puff their cheeks out in front of the entrance. They regard every passer by with a stern expression. Both hold a globe in their left hands, a torch in their raised right hands. But they let everyone past. Past to into the bright, blue and red building, with tigers springing from its façade through rings of fire while baring their teeth, a gorilla poking its head out to open its mouth and an elephant, stretching its long trunk in the air with delight. The word “Manege” is emblazoned in glowing letters on the wall.

The address of this magic house is Rütli Strasse 1-3, in the Reuter neighbourhood of “problem-area” Neukölln, Berlin. Steel, polyester, fibreglass and tones of papier mâché have been used to create its façade. The intercultural youth club “Manege” is located right across from the grey buildings of the Rütli secondary school, otherwise known as Germany’s “horror school”. A tiny oasis in Berlin’s Neukölln district

There is colour everywhere: mosaic and graffiti on the walls, tables and chairs, a small bar, with plants and flowers on it, behind this, the kitchen. But there is no-one here. Loud music sounds out through an open door where everyone is gathered: a large hall with papier mâché spiders, fish and chimpanzees dangling from its ceiling. “Germany versus Turkey,” says little Momo, otherwise known as Mohammed. He’s playing for Turkey, he says. He is in goal. Which team is German and which Turkish is unclear to the spectator; an equal number of German and Turkish children, girls and boys, are playing in each team. At any rate the goalie for the German team is a little girl wearing a headscarf.

“That’s something only the Germans do”
Wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, Osman El-Zein, runs around with the children. “Good, go on, go on…. Not like that Ahmed, don’t shove.” He is ref and coach all in one, and substitute for both teams. The twenty-year-old first came to Manege as a teenager, now he works there. “We help the children with their homework for instance, cook food and help them when they have problems.” Like him, most of the children and young people come from immigrant families or socially disadvantaged German families living in Neukölln. “It’s easy for me to put myself in their shoes and give them advice.”

Osman is in his final year at school and is specializing in social work. Soon he will have to decide if he wants to become an educational social worker, policeman, or speech therapist; ideally he would like to be all three. He is the only one among his friends to take the school-leaving exams. They call him a “swot” and say things like “that’s something only Germans do”. “Manege has been very important in my life,” he says. “It’s not just any old youth club. The bosses, Martha and Wolfgang, look out for every single kid and try to inspire everyone to do something with their lives.”


Martha Galvis de Janzer, photographer, and her husband, Wolfgang Janzer, literature scholar and journalist founded the youth club in 2002 as part of their programme “Fusion – Intercultural Projects Berlin”. The project supports children and young people from problem districts in Berlin.
A tiny oasis in Berlin’s Neukölln district

The era of the globalized cultural type
Wolfgang Janzer sits outside in the garden, surrounded, as always, by children. With his long, white hair, beard and paunch, which moves every time he laughs, he looks like a mixture of Father Christmas, Papa Smurf and an aging hippy. “These children are increasingly given the skills to operate in this hybrid cultural form.” It is like a jigsaw puzzle, he claims: “You take a piece from here, a piece from there, construct it like this today, like that tomorrow.” His hands mark out the imaginary jigsaw on the table. The era of mono-cultural humans will soon be over, he prophesies. “We will no longer say, that’s a Turk, that’s a German, that’s an Arab. We will have a new cultural type of human: the globalized cultural type.”

But in real life, people are seldom asked to show multicultural skills, even Janzer accepts this. The immigrant children in Neukölln do not simply have to begin from nothing, he says; they start with minus figures. Someone who goes to a school with over 90% immigrants, according to Janzer, is lucky if they are simply disadvantaged. “Children only go to these schools because the law requires it, or to meet friends,” he says. “If you ask the teenagers here what they think they might be when they grow up, they say ‘unemployed.’”

Dancing as a moment of freedom
“I know people who have passed their final exams, but still haven’t achieved anything,” says Prince Ofori Kyere. Which is why at some point he no longer wanted to go to school. He is twenty, he says, and comes from Ghana. Which is why he has “a bit of a different mentality to the other people, who are born here.” But he has lived in Germany since he was thirteen.

“My name is Saber Hussein, I’m Iraqi, but I was born in Neuburg and der Donau, that’s part of Ingolstadt, in Bavaria. I’m twenty-one.” Saber moved to Berlin with his parents at the age of six.
A tiny oasis in Berlin’s Neukölln district
Prince Ofori Kyere and Saber Hussein


They sit in the dance room at Manege. “Do you want us to talk properly or how we usually talk?” Saber asks, and laughs. Like usual? He greets his friend in Berlin dialect and slaps his shoulder. They came here three years ago looking for a place to dance. “But they gave us a lot more than that; it’s more like a family here,” Saber says.

“For the short moment I’m dancing, I feel free.” Prince’s eyes light up and his voice sounds euphoric. But in real life he never feels free, he says. “When I go to a club and show them my ID they just say, ‘no, you’re not coming in here.’” And if you apply for a job, coming from Neukölln, Prince says “as soon as they see your school certificates are from the Rütli School for example, even when they are all top grades, you are condemned straight away.”

Then he slaps Saber on the shoulder and laughs: “But perhaps Herr Hussein can say a bit more about that.” Saber says, “then the anger builds up in you, and you think: well if the legal way doesn’t work, then I’ll have to do illegal stuff.” He has had a lot of problems with the police and it wasn’t easy in school either. I spent three years in the year seven: I couldn’t make to year eight.” He had to listen to teachers saying “all foreigners were good for nothing”. But at some point he thought I’ll f***ing show them. I repeated all my school leaving exams and in a week I’ll have the certificate from my training as a retail businessman.”

Everyone at Manege knows the two dancers; they give lessons, organize events and generate a good atmosphere. Hip hop music plays and Prince gets to his feet immediately, does a few moves and sits down again: “We’ve had a lot of dance “battles” here; people travel from all over Germany for them.” But no journalist has ever come to report on them. “If we’d met each month to beat each other up, every TV station in the country would have come.”

Foreigners: violence, unemployment, non-integration
Hammering, sanding and sawing noises: “pass me the paint brush!” Pots of paint, buckets of paste and shreds of newspaper lie spread all around; this is the Manege art workshop. Figures from imagination and myth are brought to life here; Gollum from The Lord of the Rings has just arisen; enchanting and eyrie masks wink at the you from the walls; Tyrannosaurus Rex looks ravenous.

A small woman with a mane of brown curls, a boiler suit and Converse trainers walks around, gives instructions then continues tinkling with an enormous boa. She is the leader, Martha de Galvis de Janzer. “If you create an artwork and it is then put up on the street, in a school, a kindergarten, then you have put up a piece of your time, your imagination, your history, and this effect is unbeatable,” she says, describing her work with the children, “because via this you can identify yourself with the place you live in.”

Galvis de Janzer came to Europe thirty years ago from Columbia. On the subject of immigrants in Germany she says: “We immigrants served as the scapegoats of the day. You are born with a stigma.” She becomes emphatic. “The term ‘foreigner’ is linked to the terms ‘violence’, ‘unemployment’ and ‘non-integration’”. She pauses, and adds, in a gentler tone, “I find that humiliating”. Then she laughs again: “I love these children, and when they are bad – the bad, bad foreign children – they are simply confronting us with what we have earned. If you investment well, you get a good return; I’m one hundred percent convinced of that.” http://www.babelmed.net

Naima El Moussaoui
(18/07/2008)
© Qantara.de 2008
(Translated from the German by Steph Morris)

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