Last weekend, I finished my four week language course, said my goodbyes to my host family in Karow, and hopped on an overnight train to the small German city of Düren where I began my internship with Kreis Düren, one of thirty-one administrative districts in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Over the next seven weeks, I will be cycling through several different departments of the local administration, a vocational college, and a children’s home, doing my best to learn about and to help with their efforts to integrate recent immigrants and refugees into the various communities in the district of Düren.
Since I arrived, I have certainly been kept on my toes. I spent my first day proceeding through staff meetings, building walkthroughs, and conversations with three separate ascending levels of supervisors, a conference on the issue of absentee students in district school systems, and finally to a Turkish mosque and community center for a forum on Islam. By the end of my first day of work, I came away with a two key thoughts.
My first thought was that Germans have a curious respect and almost love for their administrative hierarchies and work procedures. I now have charts on charts to prove it. My second takeaway came from my visit to the Turkish mosque. Having grown up in a more rural area of Michigan and having never been religious, I had never visited a mosque before my first day of work here in Düren. We showed up to a small gathering of less than a dozen men and women in a common room where we were promptly greeted with warm handshakes, hot tea, and friendly smiles, which only grew once my boss and I told them I was American. Together we talked through the evening about the role of women within Islam and the role of Islam and the other Abrahamic religions in the world today. Although I was often a few seconds behind as my brain tried its best to work through all the German being spoken, it was a wonderful discussion, and after the forum concluded, one of the men took time out of his night to give me a tour of the rest of mosque. It made the man so happy and proud just to be able to share his community’s culture and place of worship with an with someone from the United States and it made me wish that Americans would seek out such experiences more than we do.
Over the last few days, I have been splitting my time at a local vocational business college and at the district administration. While at the college, I mostly sit in on and observe two classes of refugee students from Africa and the Middle East as they go through their day, but I have also sat down and had conversations with a few English language and business classes. While at the administration office, I join my supervisor and coworkers in their advising appointments with recently arrived refugees and immigrants, learning their stories and determining which of the German school options would work best for their needs.
So far I have been fortunate in that my first week was relatively free of any large mistakes or mess-ups with the exception of two incidents in my first few days. On my first day, I arrived in what seemed wholly appropriate for government office attire, wearing a dress pants, dress shirt, and tie. There was hardly a need to verbally introduce myself as the intern. In an office complex with over a thousand employees, I have yet to see anyone else wear a dress shirt and tie. Needless to say, I have been sticking to jeans and t-shirts ever since. On my second day at the college, I arrived at the school and went straight to meet my supervisor in the teachers’ lounge on the second floor. As I started up the main staircase, I made it a total of five steps before someone started yelling in German. I turned around to see what the commotion was, and quickly discovered a very stern looking German woman and a large number of students staring right me, alone on the stairs. The stern woman proceeded to let loose some quick fire German somewhere along the lines of
Where do you think that you’re going?! Where should you be? You can’t go up there. You know the rules! Did you miss the sign!?”
as she stepped out from her post in front of a great big red sign restricting students to the lower level until the start of classes to ensure security and safety while the teachers and staff were clustered in the lounge. Luckily, before I could think of and spit out the appropriate response in German, another teacher who recognized me and stepped in, telling her that I was no student but an intern and was good to head up. It also turns out that she was an English teacher and was likely one of the people to whom I could have best explained my self if I had had the time.
Before I left the United States and while I was staying in Berlin, I was worried that my ability to use German in a working environment would be my biggest challenge. However, over the last week, my greatest challenge has simply been remembering all the new faces and names of coworkers, neighbors, and students who have been so welcoming and generous to me at my work in Düren and at my temporary home in the nearby village of Hambach. Hopefully, I will get system figured out before too long.