Prejudices towards foreigners, more precisely refugees? Of course I don’t have any! That was the common opinion of the participants of my last Red Cross seminar when we talked about this topic. Needless to say, I thought so too. No matter in which country I am, I’m always treated like a foreigner, so how could I have prejudices towards other foreigners? We watched movies about refugees and their situation here in Germany and even though I’ve never talked to a refugee I felt a lot of empathy towards them in their disastrous situation and couldn’t understand how locals could be so rude to them.
Maybe I’m a bit paranoid, but I’ve got the feeling that the other seats in the compartments around me are occupied first before someone dares to sit beside me since I’ve coloured my hair, so it caught my attention when someone sat beside me during my train ride from Switzerland back to Germany. I was sitting alone in a section, reading peacefully a captivating book when said someone sat beside me and said Guten Tag in broken German. I tensed a bit, looked up – a young African guy looked at me, a little bit older than me, I estimated – and replied quickly Guten Tag, eager to continue my read. I read two more sentences when the voice beside me sounded again. Wie geht es dir? (How are you?) First I noticed he used the informal du to address me instead of the formal Sie – something that doesn’t happen often here and shows that he’s not very familiar with the German customs. My second thought was Should I ignore him or not? After all, since my earliest childhood the phrase “don’t talk to men you don’t know” was drummed into me and my first impression of him wasn’t trustworthy. “Good, and you?” I finally replied, facing the book, a short glance to my left.
Suddenly a thought hit me. Hey, maybe he’s exactly like the refugees from the documentary you watched. Someone who wants to make friends somehow, who wants to get to know other people in a country he feels lost. How can you condemn the repellent reactions of others if you’re not reacting differently?
So I decided to dedicate my attention to him. He’s from Somalia, 26, and came here two years ago. Our conversation proceeded in German and English and was very interesting – aside from the question an interested guy asks a woman (“are you married?” – WHAT?!). Well, actually that was interesting too because it told me something about his culture – early marriage. He told me amongst others that he wanted to practice German and talks to people in the train for this reason but that is mostly being ignored. Telling me this, he demonstrated their reactions very vividly – repellent body language, face averted, no eye contact – and with a bad conscience I recognized my first reaction.
Our conversation ended shortly before his alighting with me not wanting to give him my number, but it gave me a reality check nonetheless. So often we judge others for their misbehaviour and don’t realize that we act exactly as them. I’m ashamed to say that my first reaction emerged of the feeling of caution and I’m not sure if it was because he was a guy who randomly started a conversation or because he spoke broken German and looked foreign. After all, he turned out to be a decent guy who’s really making an effort to integrate himself in a society that doesn’t always give him the feeling of being welcome.
Feel free to share your opinion and stories!