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Students travel to Germany to research refugee crisis

| Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Instead of relaxing on a beach or returning home to visit family, three Notre Dame students spent spring break in Germany researching the Syrian refugee crisis.

Sophomore Francesco Tassi, who traveled to Germany along with freshman Christopher Lembo and sophomore Bridget Rickard thanks to a grant from the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, said he wanted to visit Germany to research efforts to ameliorate the crisis.

“[News outlets] never touch upon what some countries are actively doing to help integrate these people into their populations, and quite successfully for some … I wanted to go there and see what was being done there in Germany, as far as integration,” he said.

While most people think the refugee crisis only applies to Syria, Germany has accepted a large number of refugees from countries all over the world, Tassi said.

“The one country in Europe that is taking in most of the refugees [is Germany],” Tassi said. “Right now it’s about 1.2 million, 1.4 million refugees in general, but not just Syrian refugees. [There are refugees] from Kosovo, Eastern Europe, Nigeria — a little bit from all over the world.”

Tassi said the education system was one of the most visible examples of the German government’s effort to integrate refugees into society.

“The education system is phenomenal,” he said. “The plan is five years of free education — two years of learning German and then three years of social integration classes, just for the refugees, and you don’t have to be just Syrian, as long as you’re an asylum-seeker.”

Refugees also have the option to attend vocational schools to learn a particular skill to contribute to the German work force, Tassi said.

“A lot of refugees go [to vocational schools] to learn to become blacksmiths because the jobs that Germany needs a lot are also in the lower-wage sector, which is perfect for people who come over that may not speak the language, may not have the highest work skills,” he said. “Germany needs these jobs, so you really have a case where Germany’s interests reconcile and work with the interests of asylum-seekers, because Germany will give them housing, it will give them a job, but at the same time, Germany expects something from them.”

Tassi said he was surprised by the initiatives of German citizens that go beyond the government’s efforts.

“These grassroots are able to take a government that is a little bit overwhelmed with all the bureaucracy that comes with anything governmental, and they can really custom fit to integrate refugees on a community level,” he said. “You also need that human connection, which is something we often don’t think about, but it’s really, really important. … That was something I never thought about before going there, but if there’s anything that I left with it was that these grassroots, there’s a lot of them and it’s something that people never talk about and it’s something that you never see in the paper, how much impact and how much power these grassroots have, really, to turn something as negative as a refugee crisis into a solution both for Germany and these people.”

Lembo said Germany is a “true revolutionary” in admitting refugees.

“After speaking with a German economist and several organizers of NGOs and non-profits in Munich, it is safe to say that Germany needs refugees,” he said in an email. “The refugees are a great chance for cultural integration and for a boost in the German economy, and it was to my surprise that so many refugees were so rapidly looking for a chance to contribute. It is one thing to see the problem through the lens of the media, but it is another thing to encounter it for yourself.”

In each of her interviews, Rickard said,“one salient theme emerged — the only viable starting point for any possible solution is an encounter with refugees through our shared human experience.”

“Refugees, like others among the forcibly displaced, live on the margins of society. My interviews enabled me to develop a more robust understanding of the current situation in both Germany and Europe,” she said in an email. “And it is my hope that I can employ such understanding in my future contributions to the exploration and framing of questions of forced displacement and migration. 

“My experience has led to the realization that I wish to devote my life to some of the most marginalized members of the human family — internally displaced persons, migrants and refugees.”

Tassi said he is hoping to continue his work with the research he did over spring break by creating a website that will allow grassroots organizations across Germany to grow, connect with and inspire each other.

“So essentially this website would be a directory, and at the same time, an information portal, but also with a crowdfunding option and a donation option for existing grassroots so these grassroots could get international support and the website could become a place where if you have an idea to make a grassroots in Germany, you just go on here, and not only could you crowdfund it, you can get inspiration from others, you can get support and really build a community of grassroots,” he said.

Tassi said the biggest thing he took away from this trip was the impact of seeing this situation firsthand as opposed to learning about it from a news outlet.

“Just going there and seeing for yourself, I think that’s the most important thing,” he said. “We often don’t do that just because of media, just because of how we feel like we’re totally connected and it’s super easy to get news, but going actually there is completely different, and I recommend it for anyone.”

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About Courtney Becker

Courtney is a senior from New York City majoring in film, television and theater with a minor in journalism, who recently wrapped up her year as Editor-in-Chief. She is a former resident of Pasquerilla West Hall and a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

Contact Courtney