Concordia St. Paul News

December 2, 2016

Students Find Common Ground with Syrian Refugees in Germany

Concordia St. Paul students Dylan Neils (‘18), Kayla Christensen (‘16), Jonathan Lundberg (‘16) and Michael Prochno (‘17) last semester had the opportunity to meet with Syrian refugees living in Germany while on a European study abroad semester this past spring. It was a rare opportunity for the communication studies students to practice real-world intercultural communication, and to also connect on a human level with refugees whose plights have captivated international attention.

“We brought ten Syrian refuges together with our Concordia students for an afternoon of coffee, cookies and conversation” said Concordia professor Dr. Renata Mayrhofer.

Mayrhofer said that the meetings between the students and refugees were a lot of work – both groups spoke enough German to be able to hold a conversation mixed with lots of non-verbals. Yet, the conversation between the groups came naturally and there was a lot of laughter as they showed pictures, played games and shared their experiences in Germany.

The afternoon went so well that the Syrian refugees later invited the students to their apartment for dinner. “It was an amazing experience to be treated to dinner by these men who have so little, yet went out of their way to make us feel like welcomed guests,” said student Jon Lundberg.

The refugees’ pictures of their cities from five years ago, prior to the Syrian civil war, showed tree-lined streets, sidewalk cafes, beautiful homes and gardens, and bustling cities. They contrasted with current pictures showing piles of rubble in bombed out cities. Each person shared their story of fleeing the country and the struggles they now face as refugees.

“We learned how important it is for them (refugees) to learn German and try to integrate into the country. All of them are eager to work in order to earn enough to bring their families out of the refugee camps in Turkey,” explained Mayrhofer.

Following the experience, the students shared that they were transformed by the opportunity to connect with these refugees. They better understand the challenges facing the refugees, and they were able to bond with them over the feeling of being a sojourner in a foreign country. Dr. Mayrhofer added that the refugees also seemed to really appreciate the conversation, especially in learning that the students were going through some of the same challenges with language, customs and other cultural adjustments in Germany. Junior Dylan Neils added, “I learned so much and it gave me a new perspective on the issue. Hearing their experience first-hand transformed the situation from just numbers to real faces and real experiences.”

In Dr. Mayrhofer’s opinion, the Concordia St. Paul students in the group (other Concordia University System students were part of the semester-long program) got even more out of the experience because of the previous interactions they had on campus with CSP students from Saudi Arabia.

“They understood some of the culture,” she explained, “and were able to approach the meeting open and willing to learn through another’s perspective.”

Lundberg added that “the exposure to a diverse culture at CSP, in addition to the communication lessons we received on the trip, prepared us for this intercultural experience and made it more valuable to us overall.”