Exploring Berlin On Foot

The PDK International Study Tour is a 10-day professional development experience for educators. This year’s tour traveled to Berlin, Prague, and Krakow to learn about the culture and education of these areas. I have the privilege of serving as PDK’s Ambassador on this trip, as I did in 2014 when we traveled to Amsterdam and Paris.

Our third day in Berlin was one of the most emotional experiences I can remember having while traveling (a couple of days in Kenya while on a UNESCO/International Reading Association professional development trip being the exception). To this point, I’ve been sharing the study tour experiences via Instagram, but felt there was too much to Day 3 to try to express it with photos.

We had a choice of tours on Day 3. One was a bus/walking tour led by a local guide with a Ph.D. in History. The other was a walking tour of two communities with our EF Tour Guide, Aidan. In the morning, I was torn on which of the two to select, but decided a considerable amount of walking would feel nice after traveling and sitting in schools the day prior.

The two neighborhoods we walked, Mitte and Wedding, were situated in the area where the Berlin Wall once separated East and West Berlin.

The first stop on the walking tour was at a refugee shelter where we met with two of the Residents, one from Afghanistan, the other from Syria. The man from Afghanistan traveled for 45 days to reach Germany, paying a smuggler 8000EUR/person for each of the 28 family members in his convoy. They traveled with his wife and two young children, one under two years, the other under one. In Afghanistan, his family owned a transport company that was contracted by the U.S. military. After the Americans pulled out of Afghanistan, however, the Taliban began hunting down and killing anyone who had supported the U.S. military during their occupation of the country. Given this, his family was forced to flee. He is 25, his wife 23.

The man from Syria, whose job was one that for his safety, I won’t share on social media, fled the country with his wife and six children, but was forced to leave them in a Turkish refugee camp because they did not have proper documentation to cross into E.U. countries.

Both men are looking for work in Germany, though neither have the necessary documentation to gain employment, and there is no timeline for when they may be able to get that documentation. The man from Afghanistan at least has his family, while the man from Syria does not know whether he will ever see his again.

One hundred eighty people reside in the refugee shelter we visited, a fraction of the 800,000+ refugees Germany has allowed cross its borders this year. Each has their own story like those I shared above.

With a heaviness descended upon us, we left the shelter. As we did, we learned we were in a largely Turkish neighborhood. The photo below shows apartments in which a mostly Turkish population resides. They were invited to East Berlin in the 60s and 70s as skilled workers. The intent was that they would be in the area for 1-2 years and then return to Turkey, but they instead put down roots, mostly living in the less expensive housing near the wall where East Germans did not want to live. From the photo, you will notice that many of the balconies have satellite dishes, which provides the families’ access to Turkish TV. For our tour, this is relevant because it indicated that the children in those apartments spent their home life speaking and listening only to Turkish, which means they enter school knowing little to no German. Having just left the refugee shelter, we wondered how (or whether) Berlin would learn from the educational challenges presented by the Turkish families as they begin to incorporate the hundreds of thousands of new refugees into communities and schools.
IMG_2097Though we’d barely been away from the hotel an hour, much was weighing on our mind at this point in our tour.

It was then that we came across a group of Kindergartners and their teachers demonstrating on the street. They were carrying orange balloons, wearing orange headbands, blowing whistles, and chanting. We learned that they were fighting for more resources and support for Kindergartens. Not only was it adorable watching toddlers waddle down the sidewalk blowing their whistles in support of their school, but it was an early introduction to the way individuals are empowered to speak for their rights.



We later had the opportunity to visit their school. We learned that Kindergarten (ages 2-5 in Germany) is focused on play, rather than academics. One point that resonated with me was when the teacher shared that they have no manufactured toys in their school. They have only unfinished materials that force children to be creative problem solvers, rather than passive players. The level of independence expected of the children also struck me. They served their own food, cleared their own plates, took off/put on their own shoes, etc. The teachers guided them and reminded them of next steps, but they were in charge of their learning.

Our roller coaster of a morning led us to a rose garden and park in the middle of these neighborhoods. Being autumn, the roses were waning but still beautiful, the leaves were changing, and the air was crisp and cool. It was a lovely stroll, and a nice reminder to enjoy one’s surroundings.


We continued our walk, passing several landmarks from the Berlin Wall, including a reconstructed section of the wall that allows you to understand the danger in attempting to cross the Death Strip.



We also happened upon a place called the Factory. This is a space for start-ups to be born. Largely funded by Google and Lufthansa, the Factory is a site built for innovation. It had a very hipster vibe, with transparent, open spaces for collaboration and conversation.

We met up with the part of our group that went on the bus tour and walked to the Berlin Parliament. There, we met with a Deputy from the Pirate Party, Martin Delius, who spoke with us about policies impacting Berlin broadly, and education specifically. Delius is the kind of guy I’d like to grab a beer with and talk politics, as I get the feeling he tells it like it is and doesn’t shy away from explaining why he believes what he believes. As a Socialist, he said he would increase the debt in order to pay more for education. He believes Germany’s economy can absorb such spending in order to strengthen one of their fundamental rights. After listening to him, I know I must learn more about the philosophies behind different political parties.


Our evening was especially powerful. We had an optional gathering at Café Schönherr, which is located where the Death Strip once was. Aidan (Tour Director) had invited two women to speak with us about their experiences living on either side of the Berlin Wall. They shared touching stories about their families, about their schooling experiences, and about the struggles of integrating the two sides once the wall fell. Both of these women could speak to times in their life, or the life of their parents, when they were forced to flee and themselves became refugees (or, in one case, her mother was a refugee). Given the current situation in Germany, and the fact Aidan also invited no less than a dozen of the refugees from the shelter to the café, their messages were poignant.

Although most of our group left following this conversation, a handful of us stayed to speak with the men from the refugee shelter, including the two we spoke with earlier in the day. They shared how they came to be in Berlin, who they were in their home country, who they left behind, what their dreams are for the future, and what they knew about how to integrate into their new home.

These men were from Afghanistan, Albania, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, amongst others. Most were educated professionals that left for their safety. Gut wrenchingly, many were forced to leave because the foreign militaries that once occupied their country left them with no safeguards after their withdrawal. They’ve lost everything, and in many cases this includes their identity. These proud and hopeful men were also bewildered and haggard. They dream of a life free of war and full of family and prosperity, but they struggle with knowing the steps they need to take to reach those dreams, or whether any such steps exist.

Nearly 10 miles walking and a short night’s sleep later, I am still reeling from these experiences. I am filled with guilt and slightly sickened by the U.S. role in so many of these men’s reasons for fleeing. We have Pearl Harbor and 9/11 in our history, but we’ve never experienced a Berlin Wall or, more recently, a Gulf War on our soil, yet we were intimately involved in both and left remains of that involvement in ways that have completely disrupted the lives of so many. As an educator, I was made aware of the education we stole from children in these war zones. By bombing their schools and leaving their towns unsafe, they will not learn to read and write unless their family flees to unknown lands.

I am not entirely sure how long it will take me to process these experiences, but I know they’ve left me forever changed.


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