German swimming pools are a metaphor for Germany — and for the challenge of integrating newcomers.
Germany is one big swimming pool, trying to integrate the more than a million Middle Eastern refugees and asylum seekers who have arrived in the last couple of years. The most important thing, says social worker Hartmuth Kurzhals, is to make newcomers understand that in Germany, there are rules — and no exceptions.
One of Berlin’s largest pools, on Columbiadamm Street, is near two refugee housing centers, which means new arrivals from places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — and longtime Berlin residents — all swim there together.
Before the start of swimming season this summer, social workers like Kurzhals were bracing for culture shock at the pool.
“[The refugees] don’t know how to behave,” says Kurzhals. “Most of them know. But some of them don’t.”
Kurzhals helps run “Bleib Cool am Pool” (Staying Cool at the Pool), a team of conflict mediators from immigrant backgrounds, who patrol the pool. This summer, the group helped refugees learn about German pool culture.
The instructions come in a most German way: friendly cartoons, posted on pool walls and handed out at refugee centers. Some of the rules:
1) Don’t touch women
Germans have been concerned about sexual assault by asylum seekers since a notorious incident on New Years Eve in the city of Cologne, when hundreds of cases of harassment were reported.
At least two men have since been convicted. One German town banned adult male migrants from its public swimming pool this winter.
One Syrian refugee at the Columbiadamm Street pool, Jaber Zahraldeen, says Syrians and Germans must learn to respect each other’s body culture.
“If Arabs see a woman who wears a bikini, they have to accept it. And if Germans see a woman with a hijab, they have to accept it as well,” Zahraldeen says.
A 22-year-old woman in a bikini laying next to the pool, who gave her name as Laticia, says she doesn’t mind seeing burkinis, the full-body swimwear devout Muslim women wear for modesty. This is in contrast with France's controversial treatment of burkinis.
“It’s like the culture of their country, so I respect that,” Laticia says. “I don’t judge people.”
2) Observe German pool hygiene
“Just to explain the rules could sometimes be very difficult,” says Arne Freudenberg, another social worker with Staying Cool at the Pool. “Just to say, ‘At first if you want to go inside a pool, you have to clean yourself.’ They just said, ‘What do you want from me?’ They didn’t understand that at first they have to have a shower.”
Granted, even some of us in countries where public pools require swimmers shower first don't always follow that rule. But aside from washing one's body, Germans are concerned with the cleanliness of clothes that enter the water.
Nurcan Civelek, a mediator of Turkish background with the group, says it’s a problem when Muslim mothers wear long clothing at the pool.
“You’ll have women who will come and hold their kids at the edge of the pool, and their cloth dips into the water,” Civelek says. “You can only imagine how unhygienic that is.”
Unlike in France, burkinis are encouraged for Muslim women in Germany, since they’re made out of swimsuit material, and therefore considered hygienic. But German standards still don't allow for cloth to drag on the floor and then touch the pool water.
3) Know how to swim
Many refugees don’t know how to swim, says Civelek, who recently saved a 14-year-old Afghani refugee from drowning.
“They are 13, 14, 15 years old,” Civelek says. “They don’t like to be told they can’t swim.”
Syrian refugee Jaber Zahraldeen says he thinks German efforts to enforce swimming etiquette is a very good idea. He’s seen a lot of dangerous jumping at lakes and pools, including by fellow Syrians, he says.
“The Syrians don’t keep the rules,” Zahraldeen says. “They just want to jump anywhere. And this attitude plays a part in the statistics.”
In the last few years, there have been reported cases of refugees drowning in Germany.
4) Don’t break the rules
Again: In Germany, there are rules — and no exceptions.
“The German line is if you say 'no' it means 'no,'” Kurzahls says.
Despite pool mediators' concerns about culture clashes at the pools, Freudenberg says the season has been quiet. The main things people at the pool have complained about, he says, are lost property and insect bites.
And only a handful of poolside sexual harassment incidents were reported this summer. Still, this Berlin pool and others employ tough-looking security guards in black uniforms.
The guards are Middle Eastern themselves, to help keep Middle Eastern refugees in line with the German way.
Frank Hessenland contributed to this report.