Greetings from Birklehof School in Hinterzarten, Germany! The train ride south from Hamburg went well. We had a six-passenger cabin for our group, which was fun and cozy. We were all still adjusting to the time change and so we mostly slept. We stepped off the train in Freiburg and I wondered if I had bought tickets for the right city. There is also a Freiberg in Germany. I felt relief as I saw a familiar face—Carolin who came on exchange to Athenian last spring! She is a student at Birklehof and they sent her and a teacher to meet us. That’s Carolin second from the left in the picture—and the teacher even had a lapel pin with the US and German flags.
Birklehof is on a gorgeous spot looking out over the hills of the Black Forest. I didn’t realize the school was founded by Kurt Hahn. We do regular exchanges with all of the schools on the pre-conference, so as the students met each other they discovered many existing connections through mutual friends.
The first full day of the pre-conference was action-packed. We were up at 5:45 AM to depart in the darkness for Strasbourg. The town has bounced between France and Germany five times in the last two hundred years. There wasn’t even a sign to note when we had crossed the border into France. The European Parliament is in a stunning building. The administrative offices are in Brussels, but Strasbourg is where the Parliament actually meets, which happens for four days each month. We got a 90-minute orientation by a Czech civil servant, who was quite a character. For all its flaws, the EU has delivered on its core goal of ending war between its member states, which is something given the history of Europe!
We were able to sit in on an hour of the EU Parliament in session. There are currently eight parties and they are seated from left to right based on their politics. The Communists and Sinn Fein are on the far left. On the far right are nationalist groups that don’t believe in the EU, including members with views such as that only men should have the right to vote. Tellingly, the British members of parliament on the far right all had little Union Jacks on their desks. Most of the members of parliament hadn’t arrived yet, but we got to listen to speeches on two human rights issues: the ongoing crisis in the Sudan and the conviction in Thailand of a workers’ rights activist, Andy Hall. Interestingly. the parliament members speaking against these human rights violations were equally distributed around the hall.
The translation services of the EU Parliament are amazing. There are 26 member countries and the EU Parliament proceedings are translated into 24 languages. (The United Nations only translates into 6 languages.) It worked perfectly.
We had a traditional Alsatian lunch of flammekuech. Flammekuech is similar to St. Louis-style pizza, but different in that one of the most popular toppings is sauer kraut! It was all you can eat, so the waitresses brought round after round. We spent the afternoon exploring Strasbourg. Unlike Hamburg, it did not suffer major damage in World War II and so it is full of gorgeous centuries-old buildings. We got a tour by boat and then walked around town in small groups. I could happily have spent days there. The exterior of Strasbourg’s cathedral is stunning in the late afternoon light. Like most people, I slept on the two-hour bus ride back to school, before dinner and a campfire with s’mores.
Today was another excellent day. The focus was the refugee crisis in Europe. In the morning, a Birklehof teacher gave us an overview of the topic from a German perspective. Our students said they really enjoyed hearing from him. Before and after his talk, the students met in small groups to talk about what they thought about the refugee crisis and what refugee issues are like in their country. At noon we walked into the village, caught the train into Freiburg, and visited the town’s Refugee Accommodation Center. The building was formerly the Town Hall and then the library. A new library was opened last year and the inside was gutted and converted into accommodations for refugees; 400 refugees, mostly families, now live in the center.
The best part of our visit was getting to ask questions of four young refugees. Most of the talking was done by a 16-year-old girl from Iraq named Zarah. Zarah was so impressive: calm, articulate and personable. She spoke to us in German, a language she started learning just in February of this year when she was able to begin school in Germany. Her parents were killed and she was brought out of Iraq by her aunt and uncle, with whom she lives at the center. She traveled to Germany through Turkey and then in a boat to a Greek island. They are still waiting for a decision on their application for asylum in Germany. She said that she has friends at her school in Germany, but that it’s difficult to connect with her fellow students outside of school. What would improve her life? “An apartment for my uncle and aunt, jobs for my uncle and aunt, and being able to stay.” All of the Round Square delegates, including the ones from Germany, talked about how hearing from her brought home in a human way what the refugee crisis is about and the challenges the refugees face. In Zarah, I think we were seeing the face of Germany’s future—and it looks good.
In the late afternoon, we headed to the center of Freiberg to have a look around the town. Dinner was the traditional local dish of maultaschen, which is akin to fried German dumplings. They were delicious—and good food makes this group of Athenian students very happy. The Athenian delegation had our daily debrief session on the train ride back to Hinterzarten. Two students from other schools joined our group as honorary members. Tomorrow we have a day-long hike through the Black Forest.
The Athenian students are doing great—healthy, happy and making many new friends.