By Ragna Vogel and Anne-Kathrin Topp
"Discrimination: Watch out!" That was the call sent out by the Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future (EVZ) that prompted our project; we dealt with marginalization yesterday and today. The fact that we would learn a lot about ourselves and our own ways of seeing and acting became evident to us all – project leaders and participants – even in the preparatory phase.
20 youths aged 13 to 17 from Volgograd/Russia and Berlin came together in the exchange project "4 languages + 2 countries = 1 program" with the goal of getting to know one another and dealing, as a group, with questions such as: What is discrimination? How do we experience discrimination in our everyday lives? How can everyone participle in society? What did marginalization mean during the Nazi period? And what does that have to do with the situation today? The project was organized by Sinneswandel – Förderung gehörloser und hörgeschädigter Menschen in Berlin GmbH (an organization supporting deaf and hearing-impaired people in Berlin) in cooperation with three partner associations in Volgograd: School of General Education No. 92, Boarding School for Deaf and Hearing-impaired Children No. 7 and the nonprofit charity "Club UNESCO-Dignity of the child."
Volgograd and Berlin
During two encounters, youths explored the two cities, took thematic field trips, discussed various aspects of discrimination and practiced using cameras so they could immediately start their practical work. The result was to be a TV program produced together, in which the youth’s engagement with the topic of discrimination would manifest itself creatively in the form of interviews, reports, feature films and a talk show.
In this sense, it was a well-known youth exchange format that could easily be put into practice, based on our experience. Yet the special feature and thus also the special challenge of the project was that some participants and project leaders were deaf or seriously hearing-impaired, while others were hearing. This meant a new experience, not only in that participants were meeting people from different countries, but also because the youths and project staff came from four very different worlds – worlds to be discovered and especially to be linked. In Germany as in Russia, deaf and hearing people often live separate, parallel lives; thus, this constellation presented an unusual situation that opened up new perspectives for everyone involved.
Four languages at a time
The greatest challenge for everyday work was communication. For example, during group conversations, the often spontaneous and important contributions by participants as well as their expressions of thoughts had to be translated at lightning speed into four languages, as in a ping pong game: German, Russian, plus German and Russian sign language. This required a lot of patience and concentration on everyone’s part and when carrying out the project, we did so with as few words as possible, working with a strong visual focus instead. But the inclusion of signs as well as gestures and mimicry helped people communicate with each other. The hearing youths discovered very rapidly that this kind of communication offers a rapid means to connect people across language barriers; within a few days, they had already mastered numerous signs.
The program in Berlin
Sightseeing tours through Berlin-Mitte offered the first points for connecting to the topic of the project: Who offers tours in sign language? Are the contents of a video guide for the deaf just as extensive as those of an audio guide? Dealing with biographies of people who were persecuted during the Nazi period for the most varied reasons was the most suitable way to convey the impact and danger of discriminatory behavior. In addition to the workshop experience, visits to the exhibition "Diversity Destroyed – Berlin 1933–1938" and to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe triggered a lively exchange about history. Another step in this learning process was a workshop in the exhibition "7x young – Your training ground for solidarity and respect" in Berlin. There, we made cartoons dealing with concrete forms of discrimination in participants’ everyday lives, such as when deciding on an occupation, going dancing, taking a bus or going shopping. We found that each and every one of us has experienced and can experience discrimination. Conversely, it was just as important for us to discover that we, too, are capable of acting in a discriminatory manner.
The program in Volgograd
It was equally important for the project to avoid focusing on the marginalization of the deaf or other physically challenged people, in order to prevent the social fabric within the group from weakening. In this context, it quickly became apparent that the deaf youths from Berlin considered themselves less members of a discriminated minority than of a subculture and wanted to be perceived as such. The visit to Volgograd provided numerous supportive points. For example, a talk show was organized with deaf Russian people as guests, allowing eye-opening insights into their societal life. We met Andrei, the hearing-impaired professional soccer player and teacher, who encouraged the youths to pursue their dreams; Grisha, the deaf pantomime artist who chose a form of performance equally accessible to hearing and to deaf people and Andrei Bykow, longstanding chair of the Association of the Deaf in Volgograd, who has been advocating for the rights and inclusion of hearing-impaired and deaf people for more than 30 years. He reported that there are now plans in Russia to establish more inclusive schools for deaf students.
The different self-understanding on the part of deaf people in Russia and in Germany held potential for both conflict and intercultural learning: The former consider themselves to be no different from the majority except for being unable to speak as clearly. In Russia, schools for deaf or severely hearing-impaired youths focus on teaching spoken language. This is intended to enable them to integrate in the majority society with few complications, but of course this can never be fully successful. In contrast, the German youth, with their self-understanding as a subculture, cultivate a self-confident approach to sign language and everything else that differentiates them from the dominant society. This difference surfaced in our project, for example, during a disco dancing evening organized by the participants themselves. Full of enthusiasm, the Russian youths turned off the lights; this made the atmosphere all the more exciting and people could concentrate more on the bass vibrations. The German group did not appreciate this approach, feeling robbed of the opportunity to communicate, since they rely on sign language.
A positive conclusion
Was all the work, the effort and the staff worth it? When participants were asked to assess the project, the answer heard far and wide was "I’d do it again!" And the team leaders took home numerous positive insights as well.