The trials and tribulations of young refugees - as poetry

Five years ago, Susanne Koelbl began the Poetry Project to build a bridge between young refugees and Germans. The project takes the stage once again at this year's International Literature Festival.

A Poetry Project workshop
A Poetry Project workshop

Berlin-Five years ago, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and elsewhere arrived in Germany, including many underaged youths. Der Spiegel correspondent Susanne Koelbl was curious about their tales - and launched the Poetry Project that encouraged refugees to tell their stories in verse. 

What is the Poetry Project?

The Poetry Project began five years ago when a lot of people arrived in 2015, 2016. In autumn 2015, we started to contact people. We met minors who came alone, where we didn’t understand who they were and why they were coming alone. Why were the parents sending them here? That was the beginning.

How did you get in contact with refugees?

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There was a gallery in Friedrichshain, Freiraum in der Box, that had invited people, young Afghans and Syrians. We were wondering how to communicate and learn more about each other. Then I remembered that it was common in Syria and especially in Persian culture to retell personal histories in verse form. So, my idea was to invite them to write with us so that we can find out what their real stories were.

How did you go about that?

For half a year we did workshops with young people from three different refugee homes. The result was a half-hour presentation in the same gallery. It had such an impact. They were telling their stories authentically, in their own language. Which is very different from when you see something on TV or read something in the newspaper. Instead you have 13, 14, 15-year-olds talking about their journeys, about who sent them, how they were beaten by traffickers, how seven of them sat in a car’s trunk to get over the border, how they were squashed together on boats, how the boats sunk, how people died. They showed us the whole drama. It was so moving and so powerful, we thought that it could build a bridge, so that we could understand these people better.

And the project spread across Germany...

A total of 700 young people in 70 groups took part across Germany. The principle was encouraging young people from countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, to write their stories, subjects like their parents, the home, school, loss, the Germans, the AfD, everything you can think of. Over the years, a picture emerged: who they are, how they see us, what they experience here, how they are treated, what they want. We found out that people from very different social classes were coming. From well-off families but also from very poor families – which are, of course, those that have the greatest problems adapting here.

And now the project has ended?

Officially yes, but I’m continuing with my own group: seven young men and two young women. This group of nine is representative of the full range of people who have integrated or not. We have people graduating from high school in maths and chemistry. One of them did an apprenticeship and is working in one of the best hotels. But one of them just crashed. Then there are those in between who are still fighting and haven’t quite made it yet. We have people who are depressed because they haven’t been able to live up to their own expectations and have too little guidance.

What can we expect at the Literature Festival event?

They’ll be telling the story of their journeys and how it was to arrive here. They’ll talk about what their parents wish for them, about where they feel that they belong, what kind of identity they now have. They’ll talk about their plans, about their achievements and failures. Important questions remain: Which ones will end up staying here? There’s no doubt most of them will. They are all young adults. Most of them will probably apply for German citizenship. Who are the Germans of tomorrow?

Susanne Koelbl hosts a reading and discussion at the Literature Festival at 10pm on Friday, 11 September in Silent Green.

The Poetry Project's anthology I wanted to stay: I left is available here

Koelbl's own book Behind the Kingdom's Veil: Inside The New Saudi Arabia Under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman comes out in English on 15 September.