‘The Poetry Project’: How young refugees in Germany are bridging the cultural gap with their voices

Author thumbnail
Anna Fleck - [email protected]
‘The Poetry Project’: How young refugees in Germany are bridging the cultural gap with their voices
Four of the project participants and poets (Yasser, Mahdi, Shahzamir and Sami) at a reading of their work. Photo: Rottkay for The Poetry Project

It’s been five years since German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced ‘Wir schaffen das’ — we can do it —and yet the EU is still struggling to find consensus over reforming its asylum policy. Now, local communities are taking the question of migrant integration into their own hands. One Berlin initiative is offering newcomers a pathway into German society, while providing a platform from which to tell their stories.


This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

Sitting at a family meal one night in 2015, 15-year-old Shahzamir Hataki had no idea that the next day a car would come to take him away. The fare had already been paid, and soon he would set halfway around the world, leaving his home in Mazar e Sharif in northern Afghanistan to head towards Germany. He didn’t want to leave his friends and family, but he didn’t have a choice. 

As Shahzamir journeyed towards Greece on a boat filled with women and children, it capsized, with small children and babies drowning all around him. Of the 65, only 20 survived.

My mother said, »Why didn’t you call?
I haven’t eaten in three days out of worry!«
I told her that I arrived safely,
But simply hadn’t had the money to call.

How could I tell her
that for 10 days, I could only drink hot chocolate,
because my body was so full of salt water?

Extract from ‘The Only Son’, Shahzamir Hataki

"As you know, already back in 2014-2015 many refugees came from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, because of war. And since you couldn't go to school anymore, my parents decided that I would go to Europe", Shahzamir says. 

Shahzamir. Photo: Rottkay for The Poetry Project

A crisis of migration policy

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced on August 31st, 2015 that the country would take in refugees from along the Austrian-Hungarian border, her message was broadcast around the world. Not only Syrians, but also people escaping ongoing or recent armed conflicts in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq heeded Germany’s open doors policy. In only a matter of days, a worldwide network of human traffickers developed into a business. 

Over the coming months, more than one million people arrived in Europe, many of whom braved the deadly Mediterranean route, where, according to the UNHCR, some 4,000 people are feared to have drowned that year alone.


Children and teens were sent to Germany on their own to start a new life, or in many cases, to settle as an anchor and lifeline to send money home. According to Germany's statistics office Destatis, about 91 percent of those in 2015 were male, with only 3,600 girls entering the country without guardians. 

Once they had arrived, additional barriers stood in their way depending on their country of origin. While Syrian asylum seekers could receive refugee status with comparative ease, those from Afghanistan had less certainty of securing their stay. Germany took the stance that while Taliban-ruled areas were dangerous, other areas were safer, and so each asylum seeker had to make a claim on their personal danger.

Susanne Koelbl, the Middle East correspondent for Der Spiegel, watched on as the phenomenon unfolded. Having visited families across Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, she was aware of the push factors for sending their sons and daughters to Europe; namely war, poverty or a lack of opportunities. She was also aware of how dangerous the journey can be, and how vulnerable young unaccompanied migrants are to exploitation.

She had so many questions for the new arrivals, and knew that speaking to the ones making these journeys would be the first step towards finding answers and also solutions.

An idea dawned on her. Across all the countries that the boys were coming from, there is one language everybody understands: poetry.

Shahzamir with Aarash and Susanne. Photo: Rottkay for The Poetry Project

Together with Aarash Spanta, a lawyer and translator born in Afghanistan and raised in Germany who would later train unaccompanied minors in how to speak to the courts, and Andreas Jödecke, formerly of the UN who would one day head the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees for the Northern Region, Susanne visited refugee hostels and asked if anyone wanted to join a writing project.

Shahzamir and six others agreed, although they didn’t know whether to trust the project leaders at first. 

Each Saturday, the boys workshopped poems on topics the team was wondering about: the last words their father said, their plans, why they came here, the strangest thing about Germany. They also made comparisons between their culture and German society, about how women are treated, and about love. 

If only you were here,
I would kiss your feet.
I would bow before you
And kiss your face.

And everywhere you went and lingered,
I want to go and cry.

‘Mother’, Kahel Kaschmiri (15)

Initially the boys spoke in Farsi, translated into German by Aarash. But over time their language skills grew, and they could communicate in German too. 

After six months passed, the boys gave their first live performance in the Freiraum in der Box, in Berlin’s Friedrichshain district. Susanne recounts how incredibly powerful it was: "If they read these poems, and you see these boys and you listen to them, all of a sudden, you understand they have just been thrown out of their universe and have just landed on our planet. They look miserable. They feel miserable, and they're just poor boys. They're just boys."


Shahzamir remembers looking at the audience, tears running down their faces: "I saw people crying when I recited my poems. Or a friend of mine from the project, when he recited his poem, which was very sad, people who heard it for the first time also cried. I found that very emotional."

The audience at one of the performances. Photo: Rottkay for The Poetry Project

Following the performance, two professors in the audience reached out to the group. They later became Shahzamir’s guardians. 

After the success of the first performance, the boys were invited to give two readings at the International Literature Festival in Berlin, the first of which was in front of students their own age. 

And again, it was silent as they read. Then dozens and dozens of Berliner pupils, lined up to buy the book, asking for an autograph and even for telephone numbers. 

At this point, Susanne applied for funding from the state, turning the initiative into ‘The Poetry Project’, and releasing the anthology: ‘The Poetry Project–Allein nach Europa (The Poetry Project–Alone to Europe)’.

The group next planned to take a series of workshops into schools, where ‘Willkommensklassen’ (Welcome Classes) were held for refugees. German pupils would write poems, drawing comparisons between the different lifestyles and expectations, before putting on a joint performance. But unfortunately, this dream didn't materialise because one of the stipulations of the funding programme was that the project couldn’t be integrated into school classes, and so it had to be taught out of hours.

"No-one will stay a single hour longer than necessary at school. It’s very unfortunate because I think this would have changed everything. Once you’ve seen somebody performing like that and you see them in a coffee break or standing alone, you might approach him or her. You could bridge the gap, but not if you don't know anything about them", Susanne says.

Instead, the group worked with theatres, performed at literature festivals and led classes out of school time. While this didn’t reach the numbers they’d hoped for with the Wilkommenklassen, they still managed to work on texts and to compare experiences with around 700 young people across Germany. In one such poem, Kahel Kaschmiri writes on the subject of ‘My Last Summer In Afghanistan’, recalling riding on his motorcycle through the heat before he realises he is being followed.

"I called my cousin: I shouted: "Open the gate, there are people following me. They want to kidnap me."
It was the ones who are after pretty boys.
At incredible speed, I flew in his direction, towards his house. He opened the gate and I burst in. I took a deep breath and thanked God."

Extract from My Last Summer In Afghanistan, Kahel Kaschmiri (15)

Three young poets work on their pieces. Photo: Rottkay for The Poetry Project


A German pupil wrote his own poem ‘My Last Summer In Berlin’ in response: 

Who already works during summer break?
Not working means at most,
Not being able to buy a new iPhone this year.
I splashed my face with water,
Picked up an ice cream and chilled with my friends,
To see them before I left for vacation. 

Extract from ‘My Last Summer In Berlin’, Michael Krasnov (18)

The group writes on a range of themes, from flight and home to violence and foreignness.

Alongside their work, Susanne also holds discussions with them on their ideas of women, society and values: "They need to think about things. Nobody's challenging them on this. I mean, enlightenment is something which is pretty much unknown in these countries, it's just not common practice."

The concept of belonging raised some particularly important questions: "Who am I? Who do I belong to? You sent me here when I was 15 years old or 14 years old, and now I'm 20. Am I becoming a German? And will I always be a Syrian? What are my values? Nobody's asking this. This is completely beyond what our institutions can provide these people with", Susanne says.

It took a month: the trip
That wasn’t a trip at all,
But rather a horror
Towards the land of hope.

Now I am waiting for a paper
That may contain bitterness and grief.
And I feel like an arrow.
Which should return
To its bow.

‘Like An Arrow’, Mahdi Hashemi

The group Susanne is most worried about though, are the ones who aren’t having these kinds of critical discussions: "If we don't get to know these guys, if we don't introduce our ideas, our culture to them and, not only invite them in, but also bring them into this culture so that they participate in actively, if there is a parallel society, that can be very dangerous."

At one of the performances. Photo: Rottkay for The Poetry Project

Five years have passed since the boys first arrived in Germany.

It has not been easy, and there have been major setbacks. For instance, one of the boys was caught repeatedly plagiarising—using texts of famous Iranian literary figures, and even Charlie Chaplin.

Another was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after years of battling a drug addiction and moved to another part of Germany. Another was subjected to racial prejudice in the classroom, forcing him to drop out of his computer science course. While another still would go through periods of withdrawing, simply not turning up before one of the performances. When Susanne went to look for him, he was in his room with the blinds shut, with his head under the covers, listening to music. It was overwhelming.

Elise Bittenbinder, an art therapist and the head of the Psychosocial Centres for Refugees and Victims of Torture (BAfF), explains that artistic projects such as The Poetry Project can be a helpful source of support: "I think art is extremely important because, if refugees have experienced human rights violation or extreme torture, it is something that basically tries to destroy their life, their identity. And the act of creating something is the opposite."

Elise recommends that prospective group leaders consider approaching working professionals if they need guidance.

She also advises incorporating a planning stage so that expectations are mutually aligned, asking questions such as what you really want to get out of the project, whether it is reasonable, how much time you have to invest, and where it ends. "As long as you don't push and you accept what people bring as a gift, they might want to talk about their experiences or not, but that's up to them", Elise says.

Be calm, you say to me.
Reminding me that you are still there.
What will be tomorrow? I don’t know.
Forgive me, for I cannot speak of tomorrow.
But today I am still here.

‘Tomorrow’, Ali Ahmade (15)

The Poetry Project has achieved far more than it set out to do: the group has won prizes such as the 2018 Else Lasker-Schüler-Lyrikpreis; they have expanded with two girls joining the mix, Rojin Namer and Robina Karimi; performed at the International Literature Festival on 9/11 this year; and made a name for themselves in Germany and around the world—the University of Wisconsin includes them on their syllabus. 

Rojin at a reading. Photo: Rottkay for The Poetry Project

Out of the project group, Shahzamir is one of the boys to have thrived the most. He has learned to speak German fluently, been adopted by guardians, joined football clubs and completed school in Berlin. Now, he is training to become a nurse at Berlin’s Charité hospital. 

"We didn't come here to live off the social welfare system. No. Through this project, we want to help other refugees who have come to Germany, who are lonely, who have no friends," Shahzamir says. 

"What do I want to share through my poems? I want to share my dreams, my past and my future with others."

Yet despite all of his achievements, he has not been granted his second application for asylum, as his home region of Mazar e Sharif is considered relatively stable. Now, he will try to achieve a migrant visa in order to stay. 

Anna Fleck is a Berlin-based journalist and researcher from the UK with a background in international news and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter or read more of her work here.

To learn more about The Poetry Project, or to buy one of the anthologies go to: English translations of the poetry by Maxmarie Wilmoth, John Sykes, and Dr Hanna Baumann. 

Berlin means freedom.
Freedom to go out alone without fear.
I can do what I want.

The Brandenburg Gate. Alexanderplatz. Olympic Stadium. Berlin Cathedral. Reichstag. Wannsee. Tempelhof Airfield.

Tickets please.
ID please.
The feeling of fear.
Sirens in my head.

But Berlin means safety.
Different worlds collide.

Sometimes I feel lonely.
Empty days for me.
So many people.
So many people just look at me.

‘Berlin’, Mansour Hamidi (19)



Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also