Building a Community of Voices from Silence

By Lila Schmitz

SUSI Blog 1On the first day of summer, the streets of Berlin transform into stages, housing artists of a multitude of disciplines and genres for the Fête de la Musique. Around 5 pm yesterday, I found myself plopped down on the sidewalk outside RosaCaleta, a restaurant some of my classmates have been raving about since day two of our trip. Somehow, I aimlessly ended up outside the restaurant, watching the performances on the cobblestone sidewalk. With a stroke of luck I had yet to encounter in my nights out in Berlin so far, the attendees were mostly young and, seemingly, mostly queer.

The artists that I saw perform were primarily women of color, and the feeling in the air was that of hesitancy to pass judgment and liberty to dance like nobody’s watching. One of the performances was a voguing troupe and after their choreographed performance, they opened the “runway” for anyone who wanted to take the stage, giving the spotlight to those who might not have that opportunity often. Originating as an art form to illuminate those who wish to come out of the shadows, voguing, a series of poses that could be found in Vogue magazine linked together with music, was created in the New York Black drag ballroom scene, as I learned after watching Paris is Burning. Yet, when I try to find a hyperlink for a proper definition, each website silences its exact origins, claiming rather that voguing originated in the “New York gay scene” or “African-American ballrooms.” Along these lines, another performer, a German slam-poet, recited: “White supremacy gives daily racial injustice its supremacy.” As I wandered away to ingest two scoops of ice cream before dinner, the sun began to dip behind the buildings, and the party was just getting started with a reggae beat padding the way.

SUSI 4The following morning, we visited the incredibly inspiring Biplab Basu at ReachOut. After, we made our way to RosaCaleta to introduce Heidi and Dana to the delicious Jamaican food and beautiful setting. We ate outside, where yesterday the faux stage housed so many passionate performers. I munched on a juicy portabella sandwich, and after forgetting ourselves in the delicious tastes and relaxed conversation for a moment, we scurried to our next stop, SUSI: Interkulturelles Frauenzentrum (Intercultural Women’s Center). We ran up the endless flights of stairs and made it (a bit sweaty and slightly tardy) to meet Jamile da Silva e Silva.

Silva ushered us into the center, where she provided an array of drinks and snacks in a magnificently warm welcome. She began by apologizing for her English, which I’ve noticed seems to be a trend among the folks we’ve been meeting. How have we gotten to a place where our hosts apologize to us for not speaking perfect English when we all know so little German? I love that I am able to communicate with so many people, but like many things recently, I’m realizing how much of this language connection I’ve been taking for granted. Next, Silva told us that she was born in Brazil, so she speaks Portuguese and German fluently, while also being able to deliver our entire presentation in English. Yet, she is apologizing to us?

SUSI Blog 2Next, Silva shared that S.U.S.I. is a gathering place, a counseling center, a cultural network, and a voice in the community. Women gather in the beautiful rooms to cook meals that smell like home and deliberate on their activism. In those same rooms, they can find counseling in seventeen different languages, because as we’ve learned, immigration can be particularly traumatizing for women. Hence, having psychological and social counseling in their first language can significantly change their quality of life and mental well-being for these women. S.U.S.I. also provides a continual cultural and political educational program, using panels, classes, lectures, and art to bring awareness to racism, sexism, and other relevant issues.

Silva explains that in the 1990s racism in Berlin became “much clearer.” Due to the fall of the wall in 1989, Germans felt themselves united from east to west and therefore rejected all those who did not fit this new “unified” community, primarily excluding migrants and people appearing to have a “migration background.” Contract workers were deserted, and papers were voided. One of many groups affected was that of the tens of thousands of Vietnamese migrants, who were deported, being torn away from jobs that had promised consistency. Throughout the country, “antiforeigner violence” flourished, and, according to Wolfgang Kil and Hilary Silver in “From Kreuzberg to Marzahn: New Migrant Communities in Berlin,” in 1992 and 1993, fifty to 100 racist attacks a day were reported in Germany (107). Silva refered to “much clearer” racism, and yet even with numbers like this, these stories are continually silenced by the mainstream German narrative about history, culture, and politics. As for people who are German and yet still suffer from “antiforeigner violence,” Sharon Dodua Otoo and Clementine Burnley explain in the Introduction to Winter Shorts that in Germany:

“‘Person with a migration background’ is a euphemism. It is rarely used to describe certain white non-Germans – I think white US Americans for example do not feel addressed by it. On the other hand, people who were born and raised in Germany, and who do not look white, are often labeled as having a ‘migration background.’ Well I did migrate to Germany – I come from the UK. But dominant German society does not have this in mind when my migration background becomes of relevance” (15-16).

IMG_0615Along these lines, many Black German women have specifically told us that they are still spoken to in English even after their lips produce perfect German. Last night at RosaCaleta, a spoken-word poet did her entire set before speaking in German, and when she did, those that understood German laughed with surprise. She then explained to them that although she is Black, she is German, an astounding revelation even for some gathered in such a diverse setting. Similarly, in Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, May (Opitz) Ayim argues, “Because [‘hyphenated Germans’] appear to be foreigners they are most often treated as such—as people who do not really belong in this country” (136-7). As for the people who actually do immigrate, they are definitely not treated as though they belong in Germany. In an investigation of homophobic hate crimes in “Queer Injuries: The Racial Politics of ‘Homophobic Hate Crime’ in Germany,” Jin Haritaworn finds that migrants are specifically targeted and “destined for incarceration” (71). Haritaworn determines that migrants are disproportionately imprisoned for homophobic hate crimes because of the detachment from homophobia that this allows for Germans. By throwing the homophobic accusations onto a different “other,” Germany is able to contrive a homonationalist narrative, while demonizing migrants and masking the xenophobia and racism.

When the narrative constantly attacks, migrants need spaces to find emotional and psychological support. S.U.S.I. is unique in its specified attention given to migrant women, and while there are women’s centers sprinkled throughout Berlin, Silva shares that she is part of the only international one. Yet even with its precarious position as the only center serving multitudes of migrant women, S.U.S.I. is not granted any full-time employees. Silva and her four colleagues are salaried for no more than 30 hours per week, and three of these five core members have to reapply to the state for their positions every two years. Additionally, Silva shares that the counselors cannot thrive on what ends up being basically volunteer work due to the minimal compensation the state provides. Yet, there are twenty-five counselors who speak up to five languages each currently practicing and giving their time to S.U.S.I.

SUSI Blog 3“How do you stay resilient in this work?” Heidi asks, referring to the constant bureaucratic battles. “Well for the others it is probably different, but I would do this work regardless [of the pay],” Jamile begins. Before working with migrant women, she was particularly active in the Black rights movement here, and she also cites her days at university, where she acquired a Master’s degree in Gender Studies, not a subject area with which the members of this class are unfamiliar. She also adds, “I believe it’s going to change.” In the foreword to Showing Our Colors, Audre Lorde writes, “The essence of a truly global feminism is the recognition of connection.” Later, she notes, “The first steps in examining these connections are to identify ourselves, to recognize each other, and to listen carefully to each other’s stories” (xiii, xiv). As humans, we need each other; we need connection for solidarity and support. Racism and sexism serve to isolate and disempower the “other.” Jamile and her colleagues at S.U.S.I. are fighting against the desertion and disregard of migrants by striving to create community. They are fighting for change, and no matter how small the steps, they continue, one at a time, forward. After all, they’re in quite good company, surrounded by artists and in the footsteps of Audre Lorde.


Lila IILila Schmitz is majoring in Film and Media Studies and minoring in Feminist and Gender Studies at Colorado College. She’s going to be starting her second year at CC and third year of college in the fall. She’s enjoyed getting involved with CC theater and a capella (Ellement!), as well as tripping and sweating her way through intramural sports. This summer she’s lucky enough to get to do some gallivanting on the European continent, where you can often find her in a park (photographed in Tiergarten) with that very notebook. Important note: She does not usually look so serious, but rather was trying to figure out how to draw a chin and ended up with this photographic chin display.

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