KAMA conversations is a platform to highlight the stories and thoughts of some of our teachers and volunteers.
"KAMA’s mission is, as naive as it may sound, to remind us that in the end we are all human beings." - Jonas, co-founder of KAMA DC
Beiti Beitak is a community platform for sharing thoughts and stories through which the Arab diaspora can reclaim its definition of home and its right to define its own identity, created by Lama Al Jarallah in collaboration with KAMA DC.
Anna: Hi! How are you? Skype finally worked! How were the Alps?
Jonas: Oh, they were incredible!
Jonas: I'm actually heading back there in about a week and a half because I’m a little bit addicted right now.
Anna: You’re in Austria? Berlin?
Jonas: I live in Berlin and work in Potsdam which is quite close by. I work on climate impact on migrations, so I’m still staying, let’s say, loyal to the topic of migration.
Anna: Yeah, I was going to say, that's very relevant to KAMA. In lieu of that, tell me a little bit about yourself and what made you decide to bring KAMA to the states
Jonas: I had a very enthusiastic and passionate experience in Vienna with the “mother of all KAMA’s” when I took part in a few classes. I was really excited to see how people were not only learning and sharing skills with each other but also mixing and mingling at a very personal level. By default, talking about the different realities of their lives and sharing stories created a very interactive platform for people coming together. I hadn’t found this with other initiatives that I had worked with before. Some organizations are very well intended, but still have a somewhat paternalistic approach to classify refugees and immigrants as victims and not looking beyond categories, instead of seeing just a human being, that brings lots of things to the table - not only hopes, dreams, and feelings but also a lot of experiences that they're just very eager to share. It was quite an amazing experience to see how the organization in Vienna has grown organically over time and how they were involved. Also, the teachers and their relationship with the classes were amazing.
Anna: Oh, in what way? That’s really interesting
Jonas: They [the teachers] had this vivid imagery of what they wanted to be and had already succeeded by the time I met them, offering quite a variety of different classes. Not only cooking classes or language classes, but all different types of things. I found that quite beautiful because it reflected the diversity of things that people bring to their new communities. At that time, I was actually doing my studies in Dresden, Germany, but was so fascinated by that initiative that I spread the word in one of the refugee networks I was working with, knowing that I would leave to the U.S. in a couple of months, but hoping I would find people that would be able to carry that on. The reaction was quite positive and enthusiastic and people have been carrying it on ever since. And I guess in a way that's a similar thing that happened in Washington D.C.
Anna: Yeah, absolutely.
Jonas: I didn’t understand quite as well as I did in Germany what was already going on terms of initiatives for refugees and migrants. I had been looking for some kind of space to contribute, to get engaged again in the community, and wanted satisfying and inspiring work. Through my studies at Georgetown and other initiatives I had come to know other amazing people and at some point, I just said we have to do this - there's nothing like this out there. I talked to Will and others and presented the idea, started drafting emails and tried to recruit new people who could shape what this might look like in the U.S. Asking questions like: how we would like to transform? How can we adapt the model to different contexts? The initial group was thrilled by the idea and more kind, amazing people put a lot of effort into making this happen and I’m delighted it got brought to life, it’s just amazing.
Anna: The more people I tell in D.C. about KAMA D.C., they are just so excited about it in large part because nothing exists like this, which is unique and pretty incredible.
Jonas: What we did at the beginning was mapping existing initiatives. We didn’t want to replicate efforts and wanted to see what was already out there, helping like-minded organizations become more efficient and bring in new ideas and such. But we found out very quickly that there was nothing like this. We started making lots of phone calls and doing interviews trying to see if this would be valuable or just a redundant effort. The feedback we got was quite positive and encouraging. We did a kick-off event that brought together a lot of diverse people to brainstorm together and we got good feedback from that too. At the time, we were thinking KAMA could be a model for other cities in the U.S. and on a national scale at some point, this was of course still a very different political context…
Anna: Right, I was going to say we’re in a different landscape now, it’s even more important now.
What do you wish for KAMA and what do you see as KAMA’s potential?
Jonas: First, I hope that KAMA continues to be a vibrant group of people that puts time and effort into creating a platform for people to come together. At its heart, this is what KAMA is. I really love the idea of having more people from the teacher side involved in the structure of KAMA, I think that's a major step in becoming an inclusive platform. Second, I have also always been an advocate for trying to actively recruit class participants from groups that do not have by default access to or interest in these types of classes and community bonding, such as elderly homes or more conservative suburbs. This is where inter-group contact, as it is called, can really have the strongest effects: People who don’t interact with other groups are most prone to discriminate against them and have prejudices. It would be really exciting to try and work on these biases. Finally, I really think the KAMA idea holds potential for expansion. Beyond KAMA, there are various similar initiatives now in Germany. We’ve seen KAMA come to Washington and now it’s in Oxford as well. I’d love to see two people get a stipend and travel for half a year or so across the U.S., meeting with initiatives all over, presenting the idea and spreading the word and getting little bubbles of KAMA popping up.
Anna: I love that idea! It’s just so needed right now. It was always needed, but now particularly, it’s just so important.
Jonas: There are so many people that want to do something. It’s easy to get lost in the day to day stuff, but at the end you’re doing something that’s very exciting which has been very successful in other cities and holds great potential, so I'm very excited for the future of KAMA.
Anna: What has KAMA done for you personally? You have such passion and commitment and I would imagine seeing this come to life and interacting with these refugees and immigrants would deeply impact you.
Jonas: Absolutely. KAMA’s one of the healthiest initiatives I've seen in terms of contact between migrants and displaced persons and their communities. The teachers and participants have really given me a broad array of perspectives that are so useful for even my theoretical and academic work. KAMA has given me great friendships and has also been a simply a lot of fun, in the beginning we used to joke that we held sessions of the “excitement committee” when we met, and I feel a similar excitement still exists!
Anna: You can see it when you go to a class the amount of interaction, curiosity, and electricity in the room. The genuine understanding between the teacher and the participants. It's really rare as you said to have such a healthy model where everybody feels they are in a safe space and can let their guard down.
Jonas: It's a very different way of engaging at eye-level. In a way, you come to learn and I think that creates a very different mindset.
Anna: Absolutely. You also see the teachers being valued and you can quite literally see fear melt away in front of your eyes. These individuals want to get to know you, hear your story, and allow an authentic self to emerge.
Jonas: Exactly. This has been even more salient in Germany because we tend to have asylum seekers rather than resettled persons, as it is often the case in the U.S. And the setup for asylum seekers in Germany tends to be very difficult. Many of them are marginalized and put into housing that effectively cuts them off society. We had a couple of people teaching classes again and again because it was such a good outlet for their energies and a way to proactively engage with their communities and sharing something active from their own experiences and skills. That has been such a good and powerful experience.
Anna: Absolutely. What were the classes that they were teaching?
Jonas: You mean in Dresden? We had a cricket player from Pakistan.
Anna: Oh wow, that’s amazing
Jonas: Yeah! We had a mason from Afghanistan. Ah what else … stitching classes, some felting, dance classes, language classes, cooking classes obviously.
Anna: That’s so incredible. Those are really diverse classes too.
Jonas: I've seen your classes in Washington too. It's so fun to be keeping track of what’s going on your side.
Anna: We have so much fun with it and are learning constantly. I think one of our favorite things is when we meet, everyone goes around the table and gives updates on existing classes, but even more fun is to hear about potential new classes.
Jonas: That’s really great.
Anna: What is your dream KAMA class?
Jonas: My favorite KAMA class would be one where you guys engage with somebody who is very excited to teach but isn’t sure that their skill is easily translatable. I think that's the most fascinating KAMA class I can think of. A class like this would truly mean KAMA was breaking down barriers and helping to bring somebody into this position of teaching and sharing doubts and fears. I think that’s the most empowering experience that you can imagine. Sometimes we also just need our imagination and try to think outside the box in reflecting on what could be interesting to people and to turn it into something that is accessible.
Anna: We've been trying to figure that out too. I really liked the idea of two teacher’s co-leading a class. Right now we’re planning a media activism class where I was worried about the technical aspect of it and how it could maybe be not relatable to participants. It’s not necessarily the most un-applicable skill, but it’s hard to get beyond the technical stuff. We had the idea to bring in one of our Russian narrative teachers to co-lead a class. That might be a route we want to pursue in the future.
Jonas: It’s great to think in all directions, right? It’s not only about contact between “them and us”, in the end it’s about contact between a group of interested people - from the community, participants, KAMA members, the teachers, and other teachers. If we overcame these categories, I think that’s the best thing to happen to KAMA.
Anna: I think so too. What do you think KAMA’s mission is?
Jonas: KAMA’s mission is, as naive as it may sound, to remind us that in the end we are all human beings. It’s about bringing us back to this very empathetic level of interaction that most people are capable of if given the right tools.
Anna: It's so easy, when you’re in front of a person you only see them. You know you see what's in front of you, and that’s compelling. I think people are usually willing to meet someone halfway at least.
Jonas: I wrote my final master’s project on inter-group contact theory, which is a theory in psychology. There’s solid and robust evidence showing that how contact between different groups really is one of the most important mediators of prejudice and empathy. It's just such a healthy thing to be in contact.
Anna: Absolutely. I just do think people are so keen on hearing other people’s stories that any prejudices are erased pretty quickly, hopefully.
Jonas: Yeah, and even if it doesn't get erased completely - just to listen to somebody else and getting their perspectives, seeing that it’s not whatever categories people make up for them, but that they are fathers and mothers of a family who have dreams and hopes, neighbors, that they share and they love, and that they can be also very humanely annoying just like everybody else, no one’s perfect. I think it really helps to see the human being behind these categories. A lot of times people have misconceptions of other people that come from not knowing each other, not engaging with each other. We need to see each other as fellow human beings. Also, it’s so easy to shut off your mind. Like ok, I don’t want to be stressed with all these different opinions. Something we see in Germany is society putting things into different bubbles of opinions and spirals of taboos and how to talk about these issues in public and differences of opinion. That’s a really a dangerous trajectory to go down with liberal society.
Anna: I think so too. I think it's an interesting thing to live in D.C and to witness these grassroots organizations that always existed in D.C. gaining more strength over the past few years. We don't have a choice but to stand up and make our voices heard. We have to live with it every day in a unique way that no one else in the country does. And that's made me an even more passionate advocate about these issues.
Jonas: I think that’s great. I also witnessed this when I was in the U.S. I think it's a very fertile ground for this kind of work that you're doing. Obviously, it's a very polarized situation right now but that also makes that a lot of people want to engage and really want to go good things, on a direct interpersonal level. I always feel like KAMA shines because of the diversity of thought and mind.
Anna: KAMA has almost doubled in size in the last month or so, which is really remarkable and fun to watch - and so good for the community. And even if not everyone can be at every meeting they want to be engaged in some way - the sky's the limit right now.
Jonas: That's amazing. I just see that KAMA really has potential to grow in Washington and beyond.
Anna: I completely agree. It's a highly talented group of people. There's a lot of energy and inspiration there.
Jonas: That's wonderful, so much fun to see.
Anna: KAMA has added so much to my life, personally. And I've met some incredible people that I would never would have met otherwise, it’s been such a good thing for my soul.
Jonas: I'm really happy to hear that. Say hi to everybody. It’s always so lovely to hear from all of you. Very much looking forward to staying in touch.
Anna: I will! Thank you so much for everything and enjoy the mountains!
Jonas: Thank you!