Refugees giving museum tours — Providing new insights into ancient cultures
At the café meet in Schaffhausen’s Museum zu Allerheiligen, refugees and locals have an opportunity to get to know each other – and take part in a fascinating slant on historic exhibits. The Migros Magazine joined the first day of tours.
Razaw Ibrahim is very nervous. She is standing in front of a small group of curious museum visitors, and next to a 2000-year-old stone hand mill from the Schaffhausen region, which she – a 22-year-old Iraqi-born woman – would like to present to them. Something she has never done before: speaking in front of people in a language she is still learning.
She is so visibly nervous that a woman among her listeners comes over and reassures her. At first Razaw is grappling for words but then, once she is able to talk about her personal connection to this object in the Museum zu Allerheiligen in Schaffhausen, she finds her feet. «The mill reminds me of my childhood in Iraq, my grandmother used a very similar one to make bulgur and couscous,» she explains. A way of grinding that has now died out in her home country too, she says, in reply to a visitor’s question. Today, people usually use machines.
Razaw Ibrahim is one of seven refugees taking visitors around the museum on that rainy Saturday afternoon in Schaffhausen, showing them objects from their own individual perspective. This is the first time the museum has hosted the café meet, with a view to repeating it every six months. The aim is to bring together refugees and locals for conversation and contact. Two days earlier, at the “dress rehearsal”, nobody had a clue how many people might come.
«It might be five or 100, we simply don’t know,», comments Jwan Ali (39), who has been preparing the project with museum employee Bettina Bussinger (44) and cultural mediator Prisca Senn (53) for about one year. They created this cultural offering in partnership with the refugees.
Nurturing a welcoming culture
Ali himself fled from Syrian Kurdistan 20 years ago and was recently granted a Swiss passport. He is a youth worker at Schaffhausen’s House of Cultures. With its mission to integrate refugees, it came up with the idea of the café meet quite some time ago before it was transplanted to the museum.
«Some of the refugees were captivated by the idea right from the start, but it took me many a long conversation to talk round others,», says Ali. «Some of them are very much wrapped up in themselves and were worried about the language barrier.»
In his case it took ten years before he first set foot in a museum in Switzerland. «I’d like others to find this cultural connection sooner.» For Ali, it is all part of a welcoming culture. It certainly strikes a chord with the refugees who are taking part here: «They feel they are respected and welcome.»
The museum jumped at the opportunity when the enquiry came in, says Assistant Research Director Bettina Bussinger. The main thing was to devise a concept that worked. «We want to facilitate encounters on an equal footing, a chance to learn from and about each other, and discover a new take on familiar exhibits.»
An enriching experience for both sides
The Museum zu Allerheiligen is one of seven participating in the «conTAKT-museum» project launched by Migros Culture Percentage. The idea for it emerged in the aftermath of the 2015 refugee crisis, as a Culture Percentage social affairs venture. Its aim is to run activities and projects that promote social cohesion and dialogue. «The focus was originally on refugees, but we’ve now broadened it to include people who may have much or little experience of migration,» says Marlen Rutz (40), Social Affairs Project Leader at the Culture Percentage. The first events open to the public started in 2019.
«On the one hand we noticed there was untapped potential for encounters and dialogue in museums, and on the other hand they approached us because they wanted to become more open and reach a wider audience,» is how Rutz explains the partnership venture. At first, there was a degree of fear of the «other». «But we offered expert support and helped the two sides connect with each other, fostering a spirit of trust.»
Around 30 migrants have now played an active part in putting together the «conTAKT-museum» programme and more than 200 have attended as guests. With very positive experiences. «It’s an enriching way to expand your horizons.» It has also helped the refugees become much less inhibited about visiting the museum. «Their involvement is rewarding for all of society,» adds Rutz. «This is an exchange and education programme that benefits everyone.»
Dates of further café meets at the Museum zu Allerheiligen: 7 March 2021 and 25 September 2021
Lobsang Chungpotsang is one of these refugees. He is just having an animated conversation with an older couple. The 20-year-old Tibetan has been in Switzerland for five years and already speaks very good German. For their part Dagmar Pletscher (65) and Hansruedi Stierlin (75), who lived in Bhutan for a time, are telling him about it and want to know how he comes to be in Switzerland. «This Café Meet is a brilliant idea,» says Stierlin, «it’s exciting to see the museum exhibits through new eyes.» It is also interesting to chat with people like Lobsang, adds Pletscher.
But then the young man has to leave – it’s time to start his tour. He has chosen to give a presentation on the Kesslerloch Diorama, which shows a cave with Stone Age people. «I find it fascinating to imagine how people lived back then,» he recounts. «They were nomads, as were my Tibetan ancestors until just 40 years ago.»
Lobsang was 14 when his mother told him he should go abroad. His family was in a difficult situation for political reasons. He really wanted to stay, but was eventually persuaded to leave. «But it was tough at first, I shed a lot of tears. And I really miss my mother.»
He only has a vague recollection of the journey. «I took several flights and trains in the company of a taciturn minder who didn’t tell me where we were heading almost until we got there.» Chungpotsang eventually landed in Switzerland where, after half a year in asylum seeker hostels, his aunt in Neuhausen was finally allowed to take him in.
He attended Swiss schools, is still eagerly learning German, loves playing football and mobile phone games – and wants to train as a caregiver. Yet his status makes that difficult: his asylum application has been turned down. But because Tibetans cannot be sent back to their home country, he is nevertheless allowed to stay. He is also planning to plead hardship and hopes his case will be accepted. «I’d really like to stay, to live and work here.»
Hair-raising stories of escape
The asylum applications of Razaw Ibrahim and her husband are still being considered. Two years ago, the Kurdish couple from Iraq had a hair-raising journey that took them across the non-fortified border from Turkey to Greece and then on to Italy. «From there, we wanted to continue to Germany by car but were arrested in Switzerland. We’re now glad we were stopped here.»
The pair live in accommodation in Schaffhausen together with five other refugee families; they have their own room but have to share the kitchen and bathroom. They are both learning German and hope to take vocational training. «I’d like to become a pharmacist,» says Razaw. Her husband, who was a baker in Iraq, wants to do something creative where he works with his hands. «Hopefully in a couple of years we can work and have our own apartment,» says the young woman – there are no plans yet to start a family.
Razaw’s tour group includes Andrea Külling (43), who has been supporting a female refugee from Eritrea for quite some time, helping her with everyday matters. «We both wanted to come but she had to work.» Külling thinks the setup is great. «I’m possibly even more interested in the people giving these tours than in their take on the museum exhibits. It’s a nice opportunity to get to know each other and develop a closer understanding.»
She proceeds to the café, where there are free drinks and homemade cakes to encourage people to stay and chat. Which they do – because the number of visitors exceeds all expectations. «We were literally overrun,» comments an astonished Jwan Ali. «A wonderful, very promising start,» adds Prisca Senn. Because coronavirus restrictions mean only small tour groups are allowed, they are repeated several times to give all of the more than 100 guests a chance to join at least one of the three groups.
Lobsang and Razaw are also called upon several times. And each time they find it that bit easier. «First time round, I was so nervous I suddenly felt I was going to pass out,» says Lobsang with a laugh. «After that, it went much better.»
Razaw echoes his experience – and is delighted she has even learned a few new words. «A really nice afternoon.» They will both probably be involved next time, too. «If I can, definitely,» says Lobsang. «I’ve now spent so much time here in the museum that it almost feels like home.»
Photo/Stage: Julius Hatt