By Lisa Trebs
Racism, xenophobia and nationalism are the result of a conflicting and divided society that is re-emerging in the face of global populist politics in recent years in Europe.(1) Migration, as a centuries-long phenomenon, has become an emerging constructed threat in Europe since the start of the wave of migration in 2015. Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are often conceived as the ‘other’, ‘stranger and danger’.(2) The implication of the construction of a ‘refugee crisis’ in Germany has led to a divide between a culture of welcome, hostile environments as well as other complex reactions.(3) The migration flux in 2015 has overwhelmed many existing institutions(4) and triggered complex power relationships on local and national levels. Racist everyday encounters, discourses and their institutionalisation are societal struggles that refugees, asylum seekers and migrants must cope with.
Many initiatives try to fight this trend, but unfortunately often fail. The Silent University, initiated in London in 2012, provides an alternative exchange platform to confront this condition. It imagines a new community, a living based on collaboration rather than competition and pedagogical ambitions we should strive for to become a more just society(5).
The other and us – constructing the difference
In Germany, many discourses on migration and “the nature of refugees” emerged or strengthened. They include debates on a ‘Lügenpresse’ – a lying press spreading false pro-immigration information(1), on a Germany for Germans(3), on who does and who does not deserve to migrate (4), on multiculturalism and Islam understood as a threat(4), on refugees as criminals and terrorists(4), and on refugees cheating the system (4). These discourses have shaped power relations between those categorised as ‘German’ and those as ‘non-German’. Despite continuous experiences of migration in Germany and a prescribed “welcome culture”, these hostile discourses are manifested in policies which exclude, differentiate and compare Germans and non-Germans. Many bureaucracies hinder the active participation of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in the civil and political society. National migration laws include work restrictions, a prescribed place of residence and possible deportations.(1)(6) These controlling mechanisms create a sense that “they [refugees] are in the system, but at the same time, they are not really part of it”(5), prescribing an ‘uncivil’ and ‘non-political’ image to the refugee, asylum seeker and migrant.(7) Additionally, discourses on immigrants having to adopt culturally and bureaucratically to the German society to integrate, which is known to be never complete. This further marginalises and excludes the arriving groups. The knowledge of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are silenced in the hierarchisation of knowledge. People inherit different knowledges based on their experiences, socialisation, but also geographies and norms. In the system we live in today, some knowledges are valued more than others. Often this is the case with Western/European knowledge being valued as reliable and “true”. Knowledge learnt from other parts of the world is often devalued and manifested in policies as seen in these examples:
Omar Mohamad, born in 1989, Aleppo in Syria, is a member of the management team for the Silent University Ruhr in Mülheim, Germany. He firstly fled to Turkey and then arrived in Germany in 2015. He studied a bachelor’s degree in business administration in Syria, but could not use his knowledge when arriving here. He felt voiceless on arriving: “In the beginning, for about a year or so, I was not doing anything, just sitting around because it was very difficult.”(8)
Similarly, Bridget Funkeau, who is in the management team today, arrived in Germany with a degree in education ready to teach. Instead of being able to start her career, she had to take on cleaning jobs to survive.(9)
Both of their previous careers and education were not recognised. With conditions like these, how is it possible to create new mechanisms to democratise knowledge and to reconstruct power relations? If the nation is an imagined community, can we imagine new, inclusive communities that promote diversity and hew human relationships based on solidarity? And if yes, how can we implement it?
How to implement a new imagined community?
Many initiatives for refugees evolved, “but people’s effort is often trapped in good attention” without leading to “substantial – and especially sustainable initiatives”(5), finding themselves in battlefields of different discourses and power interplays.
Yet, the Silent University (SU), a participatory platform initiated by and for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, emerged out of an ambition to create a change for those facing complex difficulties when arriving in Europe. The Silent University targets, in particular, those migrating to Europe who have worked in academia in their home countries, but who are unable to share their knowledge and skills because of the “restrictions of existing universities, migration laws, and other bureaucratic or judicial obstacles”.(5) The SU then serves as an exchange platform where refugees, asylum seekers and migrants can exchange experiences and knowledge with one another and co-create and run learning platforms, e.g. in thematic network sessions or “advice exchanges”.(8) The Silent University also opens its space to larger audiences to perform university-like lectures and workshops and to search for approximation with local citizens.
The first SU was established on the basis to create a platform based on solidarity and “transversal pedagogy” in London by the Kurdish artist Ahmet Öğüt, who is a migrant himself.(5) The idea and practice of the Silent University spread to Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Greece and Jordan with the aim of activating the knowledge that was silenced and to deconstruct the “uncivility” of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants and their initiatives.(5) What started as a pilot project, is now established in a variety of contexts, and successful in many ways when thinking about active engagement with local citizens and politics, the senses of community that it created and power structures it reframed. The Silent University in Mülheim/Ruhr in Germany was established in 2015 and has since been the first SU to be completely self-run by refugees, with a stable relation to its financial and social partners which allows participants to actively engage, to build a sense of community and to engage in politics on a local level.(5)(8)
Omar Mohamad, mentioned earlier, stated that without having the ability to decide where to work, life was frustrating. After learning German, he decided to engage in voluntary work in different projects to help people, “the people who came and had to flee, the people who are not so quickly able to learn in difficult circumstances”. This is how Omar encountered the Silent University. He passed the building and stepped in and was immediately welcomed by other participants. After volunteering and engaging with the venue Ringlokschuppen Ruhr, which is offering its place to the activities of the SU, he got offered an occupational training in the field of event management.(8)
Alternative education as instrument for change
The Silent University’s pedagogy can be seen as revolutionary, as it challenges traditional, hierarchical education systems by developing and practising alternative types of learning. Drawing on Paulo Freire, Chantal Mouffe, Ivan Illich and Gayatri Spivak(5), the Silent University aims to deconstruct education as we find it institutionalized today. However, the SU does not aim to destruct existing structures but to work with them in a meaningful way to create change. It actively questions and challenges the inequality of knowledge generation and existing power structures. Foucault’s theorisation of “Power is knowledge” is, therefore fitting in the context of the Silent University(10): Having normalised certain beliefs, values and behaviours throughout our lives, it is often difficult to imagine a new, alternative education system or to even see the flaws of the existing one. Constructing the notion of “valid” knowledge, often imagined as evidence from books and most likely created by Western “professionals” excludes those not falling into this narrow box and devalues their knowledge. It creates divisions between learners and educators, students and teachers, between people with different backgrounds and experiences, skin colours and the right passport documents. The Silent University, however, provides a space of exchange, in which each participant is treated as knowledgeable, as everyone’s identity is embedded in experiences and knowledge from an early age. Everyone is constantly learning with and from the other in a participatory way. The participants can decide the subjects they would like to share, ranging from migration experiences to the science on autism or calligraphy. The Silent University, therefore, practices a pedagogy based on reflexivity and participation and co-creates knowledge and practice generation, rather than accumulating knowledge constructed as “valid”. Everyone’s knowledge counts.
Having achieved the continuous participation of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, the initiative approached local citizens and can be argued to have disrupted the silence created by policies and shortened the distance between “Germans” and “non-Germans”. The political message of making not only voices but knowledge heard and counted, allowed SU participants, and in a larger scale other refugees, asylum seekers and migrants from the area around Mülheim/Ruhr to participate in local politics, e.g. as politicians in the council, as activists, speakers and artists voicing themselves and creating alliances with like-minded people and organizations.
What was imagined, practised and became manifested by the Silent University is changing the realities of many people in the context of migration and is and should become applicable in other contexts. Questioning knowledge production is not only an issue that those newly arriving to Europe should address in the European political landscape. The education system has long been injected with racist and discriminatory practices assuring that those without power remain powerless, namely students with a migration background, from a working-class, or with a female or non-binary identity. Solidarity and participatory knowledge exchanges can happen as learning processes outside the institutionalisation of school systems, but why haven’t they become the central points of our education system today yet? Let’s not accept that the powerful are going to stay in power and let’s create equal chances to all of us as knowledge producers and practitioners in a newly imagined community.
1. Milbradt, B.; Biskamp, F.; Albrecht, Y. and Kiepe, L. (2017) Ruck nach Rechts? Rechtspopulismus, Rechtsextremismus und die Frage nach Gegenstrategien (Pull to the Right? Right-wing Populism, Right-wing Extremism and the Question of Counter-strategies), Berlin and Toronto: Verlag Barbara Budrich
2. Ahmed, S. (2000) Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, London: Routledge
3. Bock, J. J. and Macdonald, S. (eds) (2019) Refugees Welcome? Difference and Diversity in a Changing Germany, New York NY and Oxford: Berghahn
4. Holmes, S. and Castañeda, H. (2016) ‘Representing the “European refugee crisis” in Germany and beyond: Deservingness and difference, life and death’, American Ethnologist 43.1: 12-24, doi:10.1111/amet.12259 (accessed 8 January 2020)
5. Malzacher, F.; Öğüt, A. and Tan, P. (eds) (2016) The Silent University: Towards a Transversal Pedagogy, Berlin and Wuppertal: Sternberg Press and NRW KULTURsekretariat
6. Landeszentrale für politische Bildung (2019) Flüchtlinge und Schutzsuchende in Deutschland, (accessed 31 December 2019)
7. Chatterjee, P. (2004) The politics of the governed: Popular politics in most of the world, New York NY and Chichester: Columbia University Press
8. This analysis came out of a personal conversation with Omar Mohamad. I had the opportunity to interview Mohamad via Skype on 7 December, 2019. He is one of the organisers of the Silent University Mülheim, Ruhr.
10. Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977, New York NY: Pantheon
Picture 1: Ringlokschuppen Ruhr , Blörn Stork (Ringlokschuppen Ruhr is one of the donors for the Silent University Mülheim/Ruhr)
Picture 2: Silent University Logo
Picture 3: Ringlokschuppen Ruhr, Björn Stork
About the Author:
Lisa Trebs is a Master student in Development Studies at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, where she focuses on participation and action research and issues related to power, gender and conflict. Previously she studied a Bachelor’s degree in Global Humanities with majors in International Studies and Cultural Encounters at Roskilde University in Denmark. She is interested in postcolonial perspectives, the arts as driver for social change and migration. Lisa enjoys volunteering and keeping herself busy, in student associations like the United Nations Youth Association or Global Justice Now, charities like ONCA or playing music in her band. She has been part of developing the Critical Edges magazine.