By Nicole Tan
The second I stepped through the door, I felt like I was at home. It is impossible to step into my household without being asked whether you want something to eat or drink. This was no different at the African Women & Youth Organization (AWYO). Having woken up at 7AM to begin our hour-long train journey, many groggy faces perked up at the welcome site of pastries, coffee and tea on a table inside. As we sat chatting, this array slowly accumulated to include cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and even freshly scrambled eggs. When Elizabeth Olayinka Adekunle (Elizabeth), AWYO Director, walked into the room, she laughed and explained, “We like to eat and talk.”
As you can probably infer from the name, AWYO works specifically with African women and youth who have migrated to Berlin. In a YouTube video, Elizabeth discusses the presence of a minute African presence in the migrant community who, because of the small demographic, struggle with needs that are neither recognised nor met. This is a statement that has been reinforced and affirmed by her personal experiences as a migrant here. As I sat there, I could not help but feel this was the same story over and over again. Elizabeth’s struggles, whilst different in some ways, felt almost identical to Jamile da Silva’s whom we also spoke to this week.
When she first moved to Berlin, Elizabeth found herself struggling to gain recognition for her academic credentials. Germany is a country that takes great pride in its education system and, as a result, recognises very few other universities on an international scale. This struggle is one of many factors that inspired Elizabeth to establish the AWYO, an organization dedicated to helping African migrants integrate into German society.
Elizabeth’s work takes a holistic approach, encompassing both vocational courses and psychological counseling. Like any migrant moving to a new country, the first objective of many African women is to find a job. Given the obstacles of both language and non-recognition of academic credentials, AWYO focuses on generating awareness about opportunities available for African women within their communities. An example of this is a workshop Elizabeth recently organised, teaching women how to write proposals to seek government grants that can help fund businesses. In addition, AWYO also focuses on the mental health of these women as they struggle to overcome the obstacles of integrating into a new country and culture. Along these lines, Elizabeth said, “Someone who is not psychologically sound cannot raise a leader.”
Just as important within AWYO’s goals is the need to work with African youth. When Elizabeth first arrived in Berlin, she discovered a wealth of opportunities for the youth here in the form of scholarships and grants that is absent in Africa. Again, the aim here is to generate awareness about available opportunities. Unlike their parents, many of these youth have grown up here in Germany. They speak the language, and they have been immersed in the culture. Although they still go through a degree of marginalisation, this is typically less of a struggle relative to the experiences of their parents. From Elizabeth’s ever-optimistic perspective, this is a great starting point. It is a new base line upon which this generation can build upon.
A component of this program is the establishment of a Graduate Integration Program between Nigeria and Berlin, providing African students with the opportunity to study here. As a result of this, today, I had the incredible pleasure to meet Kester, Adestpo and Funke. This morning, these students had arrived from universities around Berlin to discuss their experiences in Berlin. When I asked Kester what he planned to do with his degree in Environmental and Resources Management, he said, “If you meet any Africans, tell them to go home. They need to bring their knowledge and skill sets to help their own people.”
Being an international student myself in the United States, I found myself inspired by what he had to say. It is always a struggle choosing between a place that can offer you better opportunities in your life and going back home, a place that needs you. It is a conflict I am certain I will continue to struggle with, but Kester’s words certainly reminded me of the value of an education and the need to utilise it as a means of initiating social change in whatever way, shape or form.
We also discussed the value of an education in general and what it should provide us as students. In the past, education has been seen as functional and practical, equipping you with the necessary knowledge of your given discipline. But in today’s dynamic, changing society, we all agreed that it was our ability to think, adapt, and create that would be the most important.When choosing a major, Kester told us to ask ourselves the following questions:
- What is your passion, and how can you utilise your major to achieve this?
- How can you show compassion to change social circumstances and situations?
- What would you do in the absence of your fears?
- What would you do if all jobs paid the same?
Evidently, whatever Elizabeth is doing is working. The students that we met were incredibly inspiring and in everything they said, I could see elements of Elizabeth’s own personal philosophy and principles in life.
The take-home lesson for me was the importance of your attitude and mindset. As a young child, Elizabeth’s son did not know the difference between Black and white. But when the other children started calling him names t school, he came home to her and asked, “Why are we different?” In response, she assured him that he was in no way different from the other children. For Elizabeth, it is difficult to change the societal mindset of individuals around you. Whilst much work still needs to be done to change a mindset that results in the marginalisation of migrants in Berlin, she tells us to ignore this differential treatment and achieve despite this. Rather, what she focuses on is the way that you respond to this mindset. This is why for Elizabeth, “the most important thing is the renewal of the mind.”