Imagine you see all the different trash bins on the street and you don't know what all the different colours stand for. Mehdi Harichane knows this feeling, and has taken it upon himself to explain the colour system to anyone who is as unsure as he once was. “Integration begins with waste separation”.
Mehdi is 39 years old and works primarily with the German Red Cross (DRK) in Saarland. He fled from the Algerian Civil War to Germany when he was 21 years old. He hoped for a life free of fear, for an education, a future. But this was difficult, above all, because he didn't have anyone who could help him fill out paperwork.
Today he supports others: he is part of the so-called BASiS Project – a project providing initial support to asylum seekers in Saarland – which is funded by both the European Integration Fund and the Saarland Ministry of Interior and Sports. Two days of the week he works at the state’s reception centre for refugees (LaST) in Lebach. The rest of the time he travels throughout parts of Saarbrücken and its surrounding communities.
The concept behind the project is to provide refugees with opportunities to integrate into Germany. Mehdi helps refugees move from LaST into individual communes. His Arabic and German language skills help him immensely. Aside from this he also helps answer refugees’ questions when they go to their appointments at government agencies, and helps them make contact with the people in their new neighbourhoods.
Mehdi holds weekly informational sessions at LaST, where he teaches people about German society, culture, customs, and even about German waste separation, which he cares a lot about. Mehdi tells of how he once received a phone call because a refugee had accidentally put his trash in his neighbour’s trash bin. The neighbour called the police, the police arrived, Mehdi translated, and the misunderstanding cleared itself up. Luckily they were all able to laugh about it in the end.
Especially important for Megdi is that refugees understand the distribution of power in Germany. Many of them lived in dictatorships, and have to come to understand the democratic system from the ground up, with all its facets and relationships. “When I explain it, they always respond, ‘whoa . . . how?’ That’s why I always try to explain it as simply as possible to prepare them in case they have friends or family in other states”, says Mehdi, adding that the federal structure and the differences between state governments often confuse refugees.
Between 60 and 100 people come to his info sessions, sometimes even more. The refugees have many questions and the little time they have in the sessions often aren't enough to clarify all the most important points. That’s why Mehdi would like to start a new project that gives refugees the opportunity to meet up with each other within the community and clarify together any questions they might have.
Talking about himself, Mehdi says he feels like a bridge builder between cultures: “I wasn't born here, but I've been in Germany for 18 years; I know the German society, the German culture, and I know how different the cultures and societies are in refugees’ homelands”. Through his involvement, he’d like to help social workers avoid misunderstandings. In his view, many problems arise from a lack of knowledge, a lack of communication, and from prejudices – on both sides. That’s why he pleads everyone: “people need time to integrate. We have to remain patient, we now have to invest our time”.