The first counsellor, South Asia Division (Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) of the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, Gerhard Almer, welcomed the Bangladesh delegation. They were hosting a lunch hosted in honour of the delegation. It was at the Federal Foreign Office canteen. After the initial greetings and introductions, we sat for lunch. The hosts had already fixed the lunch menu, so we didn’t need to order anything. The waiters served us while we talked about a wide range of issues, from international politics, militancy and Islam to Germany’s policy towards refugees. The waiters served us in no hurry, no sign of tension or servility (a propensity we see in Bangladesh). I found the waiters calmed and collected. And the officials of the foreign ministry of a powerful country were equally cordial and polite towards them in their interactions and made no abrupt gestures to make sure the items were served properly before the beginning of business. The officials duly courteously thanked the waiters after lunch.
Perhaps I haven't been able to perfectly portray the cordiality what we saw in the communication between the foreign ministry officials and the canteen waiters. Maybe it is not possible to translate that into words. What I saw there was “human dignity” -- one of three principles based on which Bangladesh was liberated through a bloody war.
A six-strong delegation comprising three academics, a government official, a journalist and a social worker, was on an official trip to Germany under the visitors’ programme of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Under the programme styled: Diversity and Co-existence of Religions in Germany, the Bangladesh delegation - of which the writer was a member - visited the foreign ministry, home ministry, the city district administration office, offices of different non-government organisations, churches, pagodas and mosques and held series of meetings with the respective officials and people.
The Federal Foreign Office organised the programme to apprise us about the measures Germany takes to integrate people from different religious and ethnic groups into their society, what measures it takes to ensure coexistence of religions and what measures it takes to welcome several thousands of refugees.
During our weeklong stay in Germany, I found them showing respect to each other as fellow humans, regardless of their professions - be they drivers, shopkeepers or ticket counter men, or even government officials, no matter which religion, country, creed or colour they come from.
When law enforcers frisk me at various checkpoints in Bangladesh, I feel like I am guilty, I feel terrorised. I felt totally opposite there as we had to go through several stringent security checks.
There is a common tendency among us to look down on people who are our subordinates’ or belong to a group of comparatively “lower social stature”, and this is very apparent in our traits and communications. But things are different there. You will find respect, you will find human dignity in their communications. One of my European friends told me that it will be deemed an offence if anyone calls you “a Bangladeshi” with contempt or calls anyone of different nationality with their national identity with contempt.
I had asked our guide, Stefano Sciulli - an Italian descendent - about today’s Germans’ outlook towards Adolf Hitler. He replied: “Not good”. He also informed us that speaking in favour of Hitler publicly is an offence in Germany, ostensibly to stave off breeding nationalism or racism or any sort of hate culture in the society.
During a meeting with Reinickendorf city district officials, they described measures the authorities have taken to welcome the refugees and to ensure that they are not deprived of their basic human rights.
“The primary challenge is to ensure education for refugee children as this is obligatory in Germany that every child, irrespective of their citizenship status, gets education,” said one of the city district officials.
Outlining different projects the city district authorities have taken for the refugees as part of its programme for integrating them in German society (even for a temporary period), the official said common people are often hesitant to welcome newcomers as foreign persons might be “fearsome in appearance.
“But we are trying to spread a message among the people that they too are humans.”
Mentioning that their projects have engaged many refugees in various community-based social activities as part of their integration into the society, the official said xenophobic people are now “realising that the refugees are helping us”.
A Syrian lawyer who fled the war in his country, took refuge in Berlin and has been given a job in a project run by the city district administration. He narrated what he does in the project and how he got involved with it.
The Reinickendorf city district administration informed us that the city of Berlin alone is currently housing as many as 48,000 refugees.
Briefing us on religious co-existence in German society, Deutsche Welle journalist Christoph Strack said one-third of German society have no religion and due to growing debate over religious identity in politics, many politicians prefer to hide their religious identity.
He also said that secularisation is increasing in German society with more people leaving churches. He, however, said church tax might be one of the reasons behind the fact the more people are leaving than attending Church.
Although there are elements of racism and hate crimes in the divergent German society -- comprised of people from different nationalities, religions, creeds and cultures - like in any other society around the world, you neither can look down on the people from different culture nor humiliate them in any way there.
With several incidents of attacks on mosques by bigots, mosques have undertaken several projects, like meet2respect, in association with government agencies and leaders from Christian and Jews communities to dispel the fear among the people of different communities.
Apart from taking up various social welfare programmes among different religious communities, the Christian community has undertaken a unique project called The House of One where people of three Abrahamic religions - Islam, Christianity and Judaism - will worship under the same roof.
One house for three communities, the House of One, which is being built on the remnants of almost 800-year-old church in Berlin, will be at the same time a synagogue, a church and a mosque with a common room at the centre.
Now let’s talk about their lifestyle. My understanding is that it’s very difficult to fall ill, given in their lifestyle and food habits. With all the shops closed by 8:30 in the evening, except food shops, people start their day early in the morning.
Given the way the public transport system has been kept in place there, those who use public transport will need to walk on average three to four kilometres per day to complete his day’s work and you will love to walk there.
Although there are no flyovers in Berlin, as we have in Dhaka and of which our rulers often boast, they have developed the public transport system in a well-knit and integrated manner, like in other European cities, comprising buses, trams, metro and trains.
On one ticket, you can ride in all modes of transport except taxis. You can even ride in public transport like the metro or train along with your bicycle. There is special compartment for the cyclists, let alone on the city roads.
Whenever I asked our guide: “How far is that place?” His reply was same always. “It’s close or very close to our place... we’ll be there in 15 to 20 minutes,” this is how he used to reply and we mostly used the public transport system.
People, I think, love to use public transport there except in some cases where you have no alternative but to use your private car.
Another thing I must share with our readers is that during my eight-day stay in Berlin, I never heard the sound of horns while people in our cities incessantly honk with no reason in 99 per cent cases, showing the level of our impatience.
With all my experience in Berlin, I would say that I visited a civilised city, even though there may be some lapses or shortcomings if you go for an academic discussion on it. I don’t know when it will happen, but I look forward to that day my cities will be civilised ones, not the so-called developed ones.
*Abu Taib Ahmed is a journalist working for Prothom Alo. He could be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org