Elternseminar’s Rucksack Program: Integrating Immigrant Families in Germany

Rucksack meeting of Mothers in nature, shortly before summer vacation. Photo: Rucksack Program

For Elternseminar getting help for families with migrant backgrounds is the right way to go in integrating migrant population into mainstream society. Elternseminar is the Family Education service of the Youth Welfare Office of Stuttgart, located at the capital of the region Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany.

For years, it has been organised into a cross-cultural family education service to respond to the growing migrant population of the city. Elternseminar has placed more efforts in helping migrant families by providing services for the education of children but also to the development of women and mothers.

Stuttgart, along with Frankfurt, have the highest migrant population in Germany with up to 40% of inhabitants with migrant background and over 60% of families can show other cultural roots.

Creating Equal Opportunities for Everyone

For Peter Wahl, Headquarter Director of Elternseminar, his office’s integration task is to create opportunities for all inhabitants in all towns through education.

“In Stuttgart, to participate in social life, and all possibilities in society that means (to create opportunities) for every mother, every father, every child who are inhabitants of our town,” Wahl said.

By creating opportunities for everyone, Wahl believes that this create equal chance and the first thing that has to be done is to support good education for the inhabitants and to learn to live in diversity.

He also sees the multi-lingual and cross-cultural backgrounds of the inhabitants of Stuttgart as a good resource and a good chance to create a cross-cultural society.

Rucksack Program to Help Migrant Mothers

One of the programs that work exclusively with mothers under the family education service of Elternseminar is called Rucksack, backpack in German. The education program for mothers who have children in kindergarten and is run by Nesrin Tyurksyoz as program coordinator.

The name, “Rucksack” or backpack is meant to symbolize all the knowledge that mothers need to carry with them on how to help in the development of their children.

Mothers who joined the program attend discussions on special topics such as language acquisition and child development for two hours each week.  Each group is instructed from the cross-cultural team (one educator such as a teacher or pedagogue and one qualified for a program mother, mostly with a migration background). They discuss and speak on how knowledge of these topics can benefit them as parents who are taking responsibility for the development of their children’s learning.

All services in the program are offered free of charge to parents from diverse groups in Stuttgart.

Cross-cultural Openness for Better Collaborative Efforts

As a target group, Elternseminar sees the parents not as subjects but as inhabitants of Stuttgart that they provide services to. It also sees them as individuals that have their own ideas, their own problems, and wishes to develop, that they need to support. It also sees families as a “microcosm” that are often “on the last part of the chain” in terms of support from social structures that usually focus on children protection and development.    

“So, we find a good way to get access to these families and parents, and get a good feeling for these offers and supporting what they can use for a better life,” he added.

While the rise of racism and right-wing extremism is felt strongly in Germany, the institutional challenge in integration work still lies in the ‘cross-cultural opening’ of the institutions that will provide for a chance for institutions to learn together across cultures. 

To become cross-culturally open, institutions need to tear down barriers that hinder inclusive access to their services, such as fear of bureaucracy and lack of proficiency in the German language. For these institutions to work, they need to lower the access threshold for migrant families. 

Wahl explained further that Elternseminar needs to collaborate with partners such as schools, migrant organizations, kindergartens and cultural clubs to be able to conduct their activities as they rely on them to provide facilities. However, they need to know that they are open to cross-cultural activities. This is crucial to their collaborative efforts because if cooperating partner is closed and think about the target group in a negative way, it will have a direct impact to their services that are dependent on the voluntary participation of parents.

Reaching Isolated Migrant Mothers

On the individual level, Tyurksyoz struggles with getting contact with these migrant families as some of them stay isolated at home. This makes it difficult for her to reach them and explain to them what opportunities are available for them in society.  

Immigrants who she finds harder to reach are mothers who have newborns, and newcomers who have very little social contacts and are not working, feels very isolated from society. Usually, she says, these families have difficult personal situations and need more attention.

With a new immigration law passed to recognize the immigrant realities in German Society, Wahl sees an opening for the raising of services and improving conditions for migrants by pursuing equal chances, equal education and equal pay.

But unlike Wahl, Tyurksyoz would rather pin her hopes on the newer more diverse generation of young Germans to drive the integration in society further.

To improve on their services for integration in Germany, both are looking for inspirations from Sweden and Norway.

Seeking Inspiration from Scandinavian Countries

“We are very interested to look (into these) Scandinavian countries and (how they work) to support the families, to handle all the issues of differences and diversity, to deal with the new target group of asylum seekers and so on,” Wahl revealed.

In particular, Wahl was interested in his visit to Oslo to look at the services and opportunities being offered to families and how Norway connects the two important spheres in integration: the civil society to the public sector at the municipal level. He said that his visit to Goteborg in Sweden showed him the difference between how the Swedish practices connect these spheres from how they do it in Germany.

For Tyurksyoz, she is interested in looking at how the Norwegian administrative structure and institutions encourage the work with migrant families, and to visit schools and kindergarten and find out what they look like and what programs they have for parents, as well as the importance they place on the mother tongue in the education of the children.

In comparing the Scandinavian and German countries, Wahl sees the two different but dialectically related ways to improve the society. He expressed the dialectical relationship between the two approaches in integration in the slogans: “integration through education” in Germany and “education through integration” in the Nordics.

In Germany, they have a special form of family education which is oriented towards parents and families, and they “try in a pedagogical way to improve the skills and the competencies of the mothers and fathers because we hope that they are good success for sustainable education and learning career of these children.”

On the other hand, he sees that the Nordic countries concentrate more on integrating the families into the labour market and in the society in general.

A Closer Look in Integration Initiatives

Wahl also said that it is very exciting for them to look closer at the topics and issues in both of these approaches; and the strategies in integration in the light of the political, economic, and social structures in these countries.

While he sees that the Nordic way of focusing on the economic aspect of integration, giving support to raising the skills for getting a job as a crucial issue to ensure participation in society, he thinks that the use of educational instruments is not enough to deal and to change the conditions of poverty and the lack of economic resources in migrant families.

But he also said that he likes that the real conditions in which people live and work (or are unemployed) are kept in mind in the Nordic model. People are accompanied through educational efforts/offers (like language courses) and supported at the structural level (labour market, participation in socially important areas such as culture, education, social issues) and cited the “Mamas Retro” and “Tråd &Trade” as best examples that uses the strategies of intercultural opening from institutions and workplaces, or concrete policies and practices of anti-discrimination and empowerment in their work.

Disappointed By The Disruption of COVID-19 Lockdown Measures

However, he was sorry that he was not able to see similar relevant projects in Oslo after their third study visit (three-day conference) of the Family+ project was cancelled in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. The project is aimed at overcoming the social exclusion of families through family education and empowerment activities, adapted to the needs of disadvantaged and migrant families.

The third study visit would allow them to explore the integration initiatives in Oslo to exchange knowledge and practices for an inclusive society. The project is partially funded by Erasmus+ programme of the European Union. The Oslo Desk interviewed them for a podcast season called, ‘European Initiatives for An Inclusive Society’.

However, Wahl sees the Nordic approach as important to their work of trying to integrate some new forms of, or offer better services for the parents in Stuttgart and incorporate the Nordic practices in their work.

Tyurksyoz realized after their Gothenburg visit that one of the needs of migrant families is to find jobs and they have started to incorporate in their discussions by including information on job-seeking and how to get help finding jobs in the topics.

Still she thinks that while vital that parents get help in job market inclusion, their main purpose of their work in Elternseminar remains to be the development the competencies of the parents to contribute to the best development from their children.  

Both Wahl and Tyurksyoz also recognise the great resource in the Scandinavian countries, such as in Sweden and in Norway on the topics of gender equality, human rights and that they see the importance of being able to transfer these attitudes and opinions into the German society.

Despite the disappointment in the cancellation of the study visit and conference, Tyurksyoz said that she remains excited about the programme and happy to be part of the project. The project, as she explained gives them the possibility to show and compare integration practices, to learn about institutions, and to see how other countries are dealing with these big topics of integration and diversity.

In collaboration with Oslo VO Rosenhof and financed by Erasmus+ programme of the European Union

Macel Ingles

Macel Ingles is from the Philippines and has worked in various capacities in Philippine media as news bureau chief, executive producer and news desk editor over 20+ years. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Development Studies from the University of the Philippines and a Diploma in Media and Communications at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. She also got a Masters in Science in the Development Studies focused on Conflict Studies from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. She was also a fellow of The Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise's Global Future. She has also worked as researcher on sustainable agriculture for the Interchurch Fund for International Development and on Labor conditions in Economic Zones for Urban Missionaries. Skilled in Translation (Norwegian/English/Tagalog), Breaking News, Journalism, Media Relations, and Television.