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How an international youth exchange can (almost) fail

Abidjan/Côte d’Ivoire – Berlin/Germany


Sometimes young people from the Global South see a youth exchange as a chance to stay in Germany or the Schengen Zone without papers. This happened during a weltwärts exchange between jtw spandau from Berlin and Les Pieds dans la Mare from Abidjan.

by Michaela Schlagenwerth

Young Dancers

It sounds like the beginning of the same old story and the fact that it will go on for the foreseeable future makes it even more of a bitter disappointment. ‘We’re just going out for a cigarette,’ said Kader, Syfy and Rougo. It was early Wednesday afternoon. The next rehearsals were due at 4 p.m. When the three Ivorians did not return immediately, Julia Schreiner, project leader of the Youth Theatre Workshop (jtw) in Berlin-Spandau, and Jenny Mezile, a choreographer from Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire, initially thought nothing of it. However, when the three still had not come back by the evening, they contacted the police.

This is the story Julia Schreiner recounted in a café in Kreuzberg on a rainy afternoon. She had been working on the exchange project with young people from Côte d’Ivoire and Spandau in Germany for almost three years and had always insisted that the Ivorians should be allowed to travel to Germany for the actual encounter. After a successful weltwärts exchanges project with a youth theatre group from Angola, she could not have imagined that the project with the group from Abidjan could have turned out like this..

The fruits of one’s labour

Pieds dans la Mare is a project that offers young people who have failed to gain formal qualifications the chance to train as dancers in Bracody, a poor district of Abidjan. Julia Schreiner and Carlos Manuel, director of the jtw, got to know the group during a research trip three years earlier. After a first attempt at running a joint project was unsuccessful because the immigration office refused to issue visas because of doubts regarding the applicants’ willingness to return home, nine young people were finally granted visas for the weltwärts exchange. The immigration office assured them that if they returned to their home country, they would not have any problems with obtaining visas in future..

All seemed well. The exchange project with the small jtw in Spandau was to ease Les Pieds dans la Mare’s leap onto the international dance stage. The plan was to travel from Germany directly to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso for a guest appearance at Fido, the largest contemporary dance festival in West Africa. Everything that the dancer and choreographer Jenny Mezile had worked on with the young people in Bracody and that she had promised them seemed to bear fruit. And then, a few of those for whom all this effort was made “went outside to smoke a cigarette” and endangered the entire project.

Without money or belongings

The guest appearance in Ouagadougou never happened. After Kader, Syfy and Rougo, another two participants disappeared. ‘All five ran off without their belongings, without knowing the language, without money. There was no way they could have done this alone,’ said Julia Schreiner suspecting that this had already been organised by people smugglers before the group’s departure from Abidjan. That would be one explanation. Julia Schreiner und Jenny Mezile do not know what type of people smugglers the 23 to 27-year-old men got involved with.

Mezile believes that there is a pattern, the young people are promised the earth, a fixed contract with a large dance company and the chance of an international career. Most of them end up somewhere completely different working as illegal kitchen helps, drug dealers or worse. Had the immigration office’s initial assessment been correct? ‘It’s not quite as simple as that,’ said Julia Schreiner. Would the young dancers have run away had they been confident that they would be permitted to enter Germany again when they receive the next international invitation? They could not rely on that. Perhaps they thought that this project was their only chance and that the door to Europe would close forever after their return home..

If the political situation in Côte d’Ivoire continues to deteriorate, the promises made yesterday will not count for much, especially in view of the restrictive visa policies applied to people working in culture and cultural education. Moreover, there are indeed people smugglers who procure young new talent from Africa for companies in Western Europe. Those who are successful, the ones who “made it”, are celebrated in their home country. This is what makes young people like Kader, Syfy and Rougo believe that they have a great career ahead.

The chances are small.

‘It’s not the ones who run away but the ones who return that should be regarded as heroes.’

Jenny Mezile

The “betrayal of the five” as it was called in the daily papers of Abidjan now stands in the way of something else: the cultural development of the country from the inside that could have been achieved through projects such as the one organised by Jenny Mezile. Cases like this mean that other young Ivorians have no reasonable chance of getting a visa. In Spandau, the four remaining dancers of Les Pieds dans la Mare and the local young people still managed to organise a powerful and inspiring youth exchange together that culminated in the public performance of the dance theatre production of ‘Plastique fantastique’. The young people from Spandau are now planning to go on a return visit to Abidjan. Everybody is looking forward to it.

It is an exchange in both directions, which is important to Julia Schreiner. Jenny Mezile is going to continue her work in Bracody but draws a bitter conclusion, ‘You have to learn to stave off your hunger and not prostitute yourself for a plate of chicken. The five runaways are now going to find out what that means.’

This text is taken from the BKJ's practical guide “Global Partnerships”:



BKJ: How an international youth exchange can (almost) fail
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