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Conquer Babel helps refugees with translations, German lessons and intercultural events

What started a good year ago as a group of four students in Göttingen has bourgeoned into one of the largest student initiatives for refugees: Meanwhile, Conquer Babel – Students for Refugees – has about 70 members who organise help with translations, German courses and intercultural festivities. "Many of us come from a foreign country or have a migrant background and grew up with multiple languages," says Manik Chander, together with Annette Ruml, Nathalie Fuchs and Ahmed Dessouki original founding member. They know from their own personal experience that understanding is sometimes not a question of language, but is also influenced by the cultural meaning of what is said. "We are more mediators than translators," Dessouki adds.

The students accompany refugees to doctor's appointments and public agencies or when enrolling their children in school. Their pool of translators is constantly increasing: Rahf Jahlbut got involved two months ago and interprets in Arabic and German: "I am familiar with the situation of refugees from my own experience," she says. Now she wants to give back the help she received herself. Conquer Babel also organises German courses – a project that was initially fraught with difficulty: "We were surprised that the people confirmed and then did not show up for the courses," Chander notes. Dessouki translated the Arabic communication: "It is impolite to refuse an invitation. Therefore, we as organisers have to follow up and ask a second time concretely once more after they accept." But not too often, because then they quickly feel like they are being pressured. In the meantime, the group offers German lessons at seven levels. Some pupils have ten years' of schooling and are accustomed to attending classes, whereas others haven't attended a class in over 20 years. Alphabetisation courses are on the curriculum as well.

It is hard, when learning the language brings back horrible memories. For example, when learning about relationships between relatives, it can happen that one or the other refugee becomes sad because he or she lost their sister or father. "In that instance, we are not only challenged as teachers but also have to pick them back up emotionally," notes Chander.

Once a week, the group meets in a café in the centre of town. They discuss current issues in a relaxed atmosphere or provide quick help with translations. Above all, they want to impart a feeling of community. The group regularly celebrates intercultural festivities. Afterwards, eating and dancing are on the agenda. A cinema evening with Bollywood movie is planned. "A compromise," says Chander: "Everybody likes watching Bollywood films."