Muslim Wire

Cultural interpreter opens minds about other religions, people

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 22, 2009

Hamburg – Ayhan Cantay calls himself a “culture opener.” The job he does in a public school district in Hamburg, Germany might be more accurately described as “cultural interpreter.””Who among you knows Christianity?” Cantay, 31, asks a classroom of fifth graders. All 23 children raise their hands. “And who knows Islam?” About halfrespond. Cantay draws three columns on the blackboard. Over one column he writes Christianity, over another he writes Islam and over the middle column he writes Both. As the kids start naming what they know about the religions, the two outer columns remain empty, while the middle column fills up with things they have in common. “We are all human,” one student calls out. “We all pray,” says another. “We believe in God. The responses come faster than they can be written down. Cantay sits in the front row relaxed on a table while the children talk about various religious festivals that they celebrate with their families. The number of children in the class who celebrate the sugar festival at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan is about the same as the number of children who celebrate Christmas. About half the children in the class belong to families who have immigrated to Germany. A total of 30 nations are represented in the Hamburg district. Wearing sneakers, pants that rest loosely on his hips and a three-day beard, Cantay uses questions about culture to construct an interface between students, teachers and parents. The “culture opener” provides instruction on intercultural subjects such as food, festivals and religion. Students and teachers also can turn to him with questions and difficulties they may have regarding culture, and he is the person parents can talk with about their concerns from questions about a class field trip to concerns about their child’s German language ability. Sometimes he simply helps fill out forms and in especially difficult cases he visits students at home. Often Cantay clears up misunderstandings – from time to time these are between parents and children. “Sometimes children can no longer understand their parents’ culture because they live in another society,” said Cantay. Last year when a girl could not go on a school outing, the school assumed it was because of religious reasons. But when Cantay spoke with the parents in his capacity as a cultural interpreter, he found out that the family simply didn’t have the money to pay for the outing and was embarrassed. Cantay gained their trust, a solution was found and the girl was able to go. “I wouldn’t have been able to achieve that outcome,” said Cornelia Moeck-Schloemer, who is in charge of the fifth and sixth grades in the Hamburg school district. The key factor is the trust students and parents have in Cantay, whose family roots are, like many of the students, in Turkey. “The acceptance of Ayhan Cantay among the students is overwhelming,” said Moeck-Schloemer. “When I talk about the Alevi, Germans don’t know about them, but Ayhan understands because his parents were also Alevi,” said 10-year-old Cigdem, referring to the Turkish ethnic group. Cantay was 11 when he arrived in Germany with his parents. “At that time, I missed having someone I could go to. My parents couldn’t understand what I was experiencing outside the house,” Cantay said. The demands of the two cultures are completely different and that pressure is hard to surmount alone. “You know the little culture shocks you feel when on vacation – I had one every day,” he said. The biggest motivator, however, was his daughter. When she was born one-and-a-half years ago, the young father wanted things to go differently for her. After completing secondary school Cantay worked as a cook. On the side he was always active in unpaid jobs, including at social projects for children and youths. His experience helped him to become an educator and cultural interpreter. Marc, one of the fifth-graders, said the cultural differences are “not so dramatic.” His classmate Cigdem said it simply doesn’t matter. Cantay has the same approach. “If there are problems already, all you can do is administer first aid,” he said. Therefore, children should have a lot of experience with other cultures as early in their lives as possible to prevent prejudices from forming. In his estimation the job of reducing reservations people have about making contact with other cultures has to begin in kindergarten. He favours more diversity among educators, teachers and administrators in German schools. But ultimately, he hopes his job will someday be redundant. “Integration requires immigrants,” Cantay said. “It’s about not letting problems arise.”

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