This past Summer (Summer of 2017), I had the fortune of participating in a Summer A Term study abroad program through the University of Washington. The program was called “Negotiating Identities and Mediating Community in Berlin, Germany”. Up to that point, I had taken a year of Arabic language (MSA – Modern Standard Arabic), the City of the Future class, and a class called “Immigration, Displacement, and Return”. These three classes were a huge factor in leading me towards this Berlin study abroad program (as opposed to so many others that piqued my interest.) I was especially keen to learn about nonprofit organizations from within, to understand more about the bureaucracy and hurdles that refugees faced in large cities such as Berlin, and of course, to learn more about the refugee and immigrant experience.
Once accepted into the program, I left my expectations at the door and packed my bag. I learned about some things one would expect to learn going into a program like this – the bureaucracy is exactly as awful as you think, the hurdles for refugees are many, the experience is often horrible, and they are not always welcome. I was beyond fortunate to have become friends with a young Iraqi refugee (who is so much more than a refugee, of course, but for the purposes of this explanation and project, I am referring to this aspect) who “lived” in the Buckow container camp. His generosity knew no bounds and I often felt like I had my own personal tour guide throughout the city of Berlin. Though the academic part of my brain was always observing, always noticing how our combined and separate experiences could be talked about in terms of freedom of mobility, theories of panopticism, Foucault’s Discipline and Punish… When we were together, I was hyper aware of how people deferred to me (with my blue eyes and white skin), even though Mohamad was quite proficient in German and I was barely an advanced beginner. He spent his days wandering the city, he knew all the buses, the side streets, the nooks & crannies of Kreuzberg and Neukölln and at one point I told him, “You’re a flâneur!” Having said this to him, I started thinking about the flâneur as he is traditionally known. We know “him” as a “he”, white, western, male, educated… First I thought, but what about the women, the flâneuse? What about the flâneur who ISN’T white, who ISN’T western – the refugees, the people with immigrant backgrounds, the asylum-seekers? Isn’t it interesting that the western, white male can easily pass through borders for the sole purpose of “wandering”, but the refugees are stopped, questions, put into “containers” and looked at through a suspicious lens because they’ve crossed the invisible border of “not west” to “west”. Is the act of flâner-ing political for the rest of us? (“The rest of us” being those who are not white, western, and male.)
I have so many questions and thoughts that I’ve barely scratched the surface of here, but hopefully what I HAVE put here will make others think about these issues and their experience of “wandering”, about the concept of having the freedom to do so. But I am forever indebted to the many people in Berlin who welcomed me, a white American woman from Seattle, into their lives and their city.