Berlin: Turkish 'neighborhood mothers'

You can recognize them by their red shawl and a red and white bag, which resembles a school satchel.

"We always have to wear this when we are at work," said Hacer, fiddling with her red shawl around her neck that seems to melt with her yellowish orange and white headscarf. "In the bag is all the material we need," she added, tapping her bag. The 31-year-old mother of a daughter and a son is a "neighborhood mother" in Berlin-Neukölln, an area with a high Turkish population.

"Many people don't know where to go when they need to file an application for something," said Hacer. "Other people have problems with their kids." Neighborhood mothers receive special training and afterwards visit families from their own ethnicity and mother tongue. They must already have personal experience with children and speak at least two languages: German and the language of their origin. In the course of a six-month training a neighborhood mother-to-be acquires information on healthy nutrition, addiction prevention, children's rights, the authorities and the school system. Full-fledged neighborhood mothers know how to deal with bureaucracy and have learned how to impart the information to immigrants from their own ethnic group.

"I feel much more secure now that I can ask someone who knows the answers to all my questions," said Ayfer. The 34-year-old mother of a three-and-a-half year old son came from Ýzmir to Berlin in 2001. It is the fourth visit she has received from her neighborhood mother Hacer. "Ayfer does not speak German very well," Hacer said. "Therefore we do the program in Turkish." The information leaflets are usually in both languages.

Before the session starts, Ayfer, who used to work for a cultural institution in Ýzmir, switches off the television. Her son walks out of the room. He will spend the next hour at the neighbor's. On the living room table are the remains of a hamburger and some salad. "We are going to talk about healthy nutrition today," said Hacer and explained to Ayfer that children need to drink something warm, tea or milk, before going to school or kindergarten, that they should not eat more than two to three eggs a week and that it is important for them to brush their teeth after every meal. Hacer also explained that certain products contain artificial additives and told Ayfer what the names of those are. Together they look at tables and graphics that show what is generally good or bad to eat, for children as well as for grown ups.

A neighborhood mother usually pays 10 visits to a family. In most cases it is a meeting with the mother of the family. "We have 10 topics that we talk about: School system, sex education, children's accidents, children's rights, health improvement, language development, addiction prevention, media, motor development, healthy nutrition," said Hacer. "I usually ask what they are most interested in. Many people first want to know about children's rights." Like Ayfer, many divorced women are uncertain about the financial support they can expect and how to enforce their rights. "We fill out forms together," said Hacer. "I know who to turn to in order to receive the necessary information." Hacer also gives out advice on child education to the mothers she visits. "Children need attention. We need to listen to them. Otherwise they feel they are worth nothing," said Hacer.

The neighborhood mother project aims at making contact with more families in the area and encourages mothers to work together. One of their key messages is: Being a good parent requires active participation. Neighborhood mothers remind parents of children who already go to school that they should view their children's grades and pay attention. While many migrant parents shy away from communicating with their children's teachers because of lacking language skills, neighborhood mothers help to establish contacts.

Being a lone parent with little children in a foreign country is particularly hard. "I used to quickly loose patience and got angry easily," said Ayfer. "I guess I understand my son better now. We talk more, we get along better." Knowing that other people are in very similar situations and learning from each other can ease the tension.

"Everybody in my neighborhood knows me," said Hacer. "It's really like in a little village, I very much enjoy that." She received her neighborhood certificate last year in June. "I always wanted to work. Staying at home doing nothing does not make me happy." Having left school after the ninth grade and being a housewife for some years, Hacer never had much chance to gather work experience. "One day I found a flyer advertising the neighborhood mother project. They were looking for participants. I was fascinated right away and signed up," she said. "It's a good work."

The neighborhood mothers' project is an adoption of the originally Dutch "Rucksack" –concept. It has meanwhile been taken up by various organizations internationally. In Berlin, the neighborhood mother program is funded by different sources, the EU commission as well as the municipality. For many women it is a good, sometimes first opportunity to earn extra money and, more importantly, gain satisfaction out of work. "You learn a lot for yourself," Hacer said, "and I enjoy passing my knowledge on." Hacer, whose parents did not want her to continue her school education, is a very accurate and patient teacher. Her voice reaches another level of self-confidence when she talks about her job. Being able to answer questions and to help other people strengthens her. Her husband, a gardener from Istanbul, supports her in what she does: "The money is very little. But the job makes her happy." As an exception he sits next to his wife on Ayfer's sofa. "I wanted to see how it goes." While Hacer is giving her course, her husband listens carefully and sometimes interrupts with questions. "It is actually really good to know all these things," he said.

Source: Turkish Daily News (English)

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