Germany trip helps students examine new era in world history

By University Communications
October 24, 2017
UW-Stout students meet with Ahmad Dallal, a refugee from Syria, during a study abroad trip to Germany. From left are Alex Pasquale, Jacqueline Barba, Macy Helgeson, Shannon Sawatzki and Kylie Bowman.

Photo: UW-Stout students meet with Ahmad Dallal, a refugee from Syria,
during a study abroad trip to Germany. From left are Alex Pasquale,
Jacqueline Barba, Macy Helgeson, Shannon Sawatzki and Kylie Bowman.


University of Wisconsin-Stout student Jacqueline Barba saw hope in the eyes of Ahmad, a bright, optimistic young refugee from war-torn Syria, who escaped the civil war there and now lives in Germany.

“Two years ago, Ahmad was a 23-year-old computer engineering graduate from the University of Aleppo when he fled Syria and made the journey to Germany to start anew. At a pivotal time in young adulthood, when most his age are focused on getting a good job, moving into their own place, dating or getting married … Ahmad’s sole focus was ensuring that he first had a future.

“The instabilities and dangers of the Syrian civil war pushed Ahmad to leave his country, leaving behind his (family) and life as he knew it. Now 25, Ahmad is living in Darmstadt, Germany, and recounts his past and the journey that has shaped the person he is today.”

Mitch OgdenBarba, of Prior Lake, Minn., wrote about Ahmad in a blog that she and four other UW-Stout students wrote, titled Digital Refuge/e: Perspectives on Refugee Resettlement in Germany.

Along with Associate Professor Mitch Ogden, they spent a month in Germany last summer seeing and experiencing firsthand what resettlement has been like for the approximately 1.2 million people Germany has taken in, mostly from Syria, since 2015.

Germany has accepted far more refugees than any other country during that time, including the United States.

Students learned that the refugee of today isn’t the same as the refugee from 60 or even 30 years ago.

“We’re refreshing the image of the refugee in the 21st century,” Ogden said. “They are largely young, educated men and women. Often they are adult children sent to Germany by their families. It’s very different from all previous refugee movements. They all have cell phones. They used Google maps and GPS on the migratory journey. They’re extremely savvy people.”

With their phones, many of the young adult Syrian refugees in Germany have daily contact with their parents in Aleppo, student Shannon Sawatzki said.

“By using GPS while crossing the Mediterranean Sea, using a free messaging app to talk to their family or even sending a selfie to prove their safely and location, this form of technology has paved the way for a modern-day refugee and their safety to finding asylum,” said Sawatzki, of Menomonie.

Syrian refugee Ahmad Dallal, left, talks in Germany with UW-Stout students Jacqueline Barba, second from left, and Macy Helgeson. The man at right is unidentified.

The story of Ahmad

Ahmad is more typical than not of the modern refugee. The civil war in Syria only hastened his resettlement to Germany. He had wanted to go there to earn his master’s degree and already knew how to speak German when the time came to get out.

In Aleppo, he was imprisoned for 15 days and feared for his life. He saw things that changed him.

“I lost a friend. He died from a rocket that came from the sky, and I don’t know where it came from, because nobody ever knows. He was just walking down the street and he died. I heard ‘Mohammad is dead,’ and then I saw the photos on Facebook,” Ahmad was quoted as saying in Barba’s blog.

After four months in a refugee camp in Germany, Ahmad has a new life. “I don’t need help anymore. I have my apartment, I have my job and I study at the university. I’m just like any other person here. It’s all part of my history.”

Connections ‘remarkable to see’

Ogden’s main research interest is refugee movements, especially the Hmong. He lectured his class on the history of refugee movements from pre-World War II to today, but he wanted the trip to be largely experiential. “Their exploration of Germany was really theirs,” he said.

The five students are majoring in professional communication and emerging media, four of them with an applied journalism concentration and one in digital humanities.

The trip was coordinated through UW-Stout’s Office of International Education and Hochschule Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences in Darmstadt, south of Frankfurt in the central region of the country.

In 2015 the German Academic Exchange Service — DAAD — chose UW-Stout, UW-Platteville, Purdue University, Penn State-Harrisburg and University of Massachusetts-Lowell to take part in a $1 million grant to provide research opportunities.

Some of the Mideast refugees in Germany are enrolled at Hochschule Darmstadt University. Others are housed in barracks-style facilities near Darmstadt. UW-Stout students also met refugees in another city, Viernheim, south of Darmstadt.

“Our students didn’t want a tourist-style experience. They really connected with the Syrian students, becoming genuine friends in large part due to the generosity of these refugee students. They reached out to our students to make time together. It was remarkable to see,” Ogden said.

The UW-Stout students said the trip changed their world views. “One of my biggest concerns, returning from this trip, is the lack of awareness we have toward what’s happening in Syria and with those refugees who are trying to resettle in countries around the world,” said Kylie Bowman, of Manitowoc.

Student Macy Helgeson, of Wisconsin Dells, blogged: I will never forget the stories I’ve heard, the people I’ve met, and the connections I’ve made. I am ready to apply everything I’ve learned on this trip to my daily life back home. I will stay curious and continue to educate myself about the world and the people around me; I still have a lot to learn.”

To read the blog and learn more about the trip, go to the blog site.

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Photos

Middle Photo: Mitch Ogden

Bottom Photo: Syrian refugee Ahmad Dallal, left, talks in Germany with UW-Stout students Jacqueline Barba, second from left, and Macy Helgeson. At right is Thorsten Fischer, an artist and social worker who created a sculpture project with refugees.