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A multilingual team is assisting Berlin immigrants in their battle against the coronavirus.

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A multilingual team is assisting Berlin immigrants in their battle against the coronavirus.
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A multilingual team is assisting Berlin immigrants in their battle against the coronavirus.

A multilingual team is assisting Berlin immigrants in their battle against the coronavirus.

 

Aliye Tuerkyilmaz visits Neukoelln’s markets and busy shopping streets three times a week to distribute coronavirus informative flyers to residents of the German capital’s crowded immigrant neighborhood, which is peppered with minarets, kebab shops, and hookah lounges.

The 48-year-old Turkish immigrant, who speaks four languages, is one of five street workers enlisted to illustrate the risks of COVID-19 to people who are often not reached via conventional networks in an environment where infection rates are consistently among the city’s highest.

“Especially the older immigrants don’t speak German, some are illiterate, and some are still unaware of the pandemic’s health risks and regulations,” Tuerkyilmaz says as she walks through a Turkish market along the Landwehr canal, where many people had come to buy fresh vegetables, chicken, and bread.

A number of factors have combined to make Neukoelln a virus hotspot in Berlin, including low wages, which means living quarters are often small, public transportation is often the only choice, and employment in high-risk areas such as the food service industry.

The Berlin NGO Chance BJS, in partnership with district officials, formed Tuerkyilmaz’s “intercultural educational team,” or IKAT, in September in response to a lack of knowledge reaching residents.

According to Kazim Erdogan, a group leader with Turkish roots, the hope is that they will be able to break through the barriers to contact, which include not only language barriers but also a deep mistrust of German authorities fueled by a sense of nonacceptance.

“If we can’t create a sense of belonging together in normal times, when people live next to or even against each other, then we won’t be able to create it now,” Erdogan says.

Around 35% of Berlin’s 3.6 million inhabitants are descendants of immigrants, many from Poland, Turkey, Arabic countries, and the former Soviet Union. Almost half of the people in Neukoelln are from another nation.

The number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in the district is currently 4,828, compared to 3,575 in the county.

According to a report released in February by the Berlin state health authority, the hardest-hit districts were those with higher unemployment, a higher percentage of welfare recipients, and lower household income. COVID-19 cases grew in parallel with the percentage of people with a family history of migration and increased population density, all of which are factors linked to poverty.

“Migration is not the key explanation for a higher risk of contracting the virus, but it is one of them,” said Nico Dragano, a professor of medical sociology at Duesseldorf’s Heinrich-Heine University, who has been investigating the pandemic’s disproportionately strong effect on the poor.

Owing to a lack of knowledge early in the pandemic, many immigrant populations continued to follow beloved rituals such as large weddings and extended family meals in their tiny homes, leading to outbreak clusters, according to Erdogan, the Neukoelln group chief.

Erdogan added, “Among my peers, there were also 20 people who got infected from one family.” “They were having a good time and didn’t take the obstacles seriously, which came back to bite them.”

More than 135,000 people have been confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus in Berlin, though the number of unreported cases is likely to be higher, and around 3,000 people have died as a result.

Though Neukoelln was one of the city’s major virus hot spots last summer, its most recent number of cases — 75.5 new infections per 100,000 people — is on par with the city’s current average of 75.1.

It’s too early to say how much programs like the multilingual street workers’ team have helped reduce virus numbers, but district mayor Martin Hikel said that unorthodox ways of engaging with Neukoelln’s diverse immigrant communities have been important anecdotally.

Many people in Hikel’s district don’t read German newspapers or watch German television, where virus regulations, such as lockdowns, school and store closures and reopenings, are published on a regular basis.

Neukoelln has attempted to correct this by other programs in addition to the IKAT team.

Basic pandemic laws, such as mask legislation, have been painted directly on sidewalks in bold letters and multiple languages by city staff. They’ve also produced short multilingual videos highlighting the dangers of COVID-19, which feature numerous community leaders, including Erdogan, and can be easily shared on Facebook or through mobile messaging services.

“We try to spread the word on social media, through social workers, and through local associations,” Hikel said, noting that local governments are always a step ahead of state and federal officials in terms of outreach methods because they are more conscious of the ground realities.

When Izabella Grajkowski, a 34-year-old IKAT member with Polish roots, approaches people on the street, she says they are usually accessible.

She also credits the success of IKAT’s outreach efforts to the fact that all of its members are immigrants who can rely on the knowledge when speaking with others. They also support those with in-depth medical questions in engaging with a doctor who regularly attends IKAT outings and provides on-the-spot antigen testing for those who believe they have contracted the virus.

“We all come from various cultural backgrounds, and we get along well with the Neukoelln residents,” she explained.

The reopening of schools, supermarkets, and restaurants, as well as whether or not they will be permitted to fly abroad to see friends, and when and how they will be able to get vaccinated, are the things that people are most worried about.

“Vaccination invitations have already been sent to the elderly, with instructions on how to enrol online,” Tuerkyilmaz said. ”However, everything is written in German, and they have no idea what to do. It’s a challenge.”

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