Top Ad unit 728 × 90

In Berlin, refugees become friends—through board games

Jeffrey D. Allers
An individual Parcheesi board colored by one of the children.
Jeff Allers
Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games. The author of today's piece, Jeffrey D. Allers, is the Berlin-based designer of numerous board games such as Citrus, Heartland, Order of the Gilded Compass, and Piece O' Cake.
The current refugee crisis is not a game. There are no clear rules, information is often untrackable, hidden variables can lead to utter chaos, and there’s no endgame in sight.
And yet, tens of thousands of refugees were welcomed into Berlin—my adopted home city—during the past year. As they have taken up residence in makeshift shelters and previously abandoned buildings, I find myself connecting with many of them in my neighborhood through the shared language and experience of playing board games.
I am often frustrated that I can do little to help them navigate the German bureaucracy, find a job, or secure an apartment, but what I can do is give them the dignity of spending time with them and listening to their stories.
Whenever I play games with others, we share each other’s stories. The games themselves do not have to tell a story; they simply give us a starting point and a framework for interaction. The multicultural game nights I host through Meetup.com are often just the beginning of ongoing stories—relationships that soon go beyond playing games together. And now the same is happening with my new refugee friends.
These are some of their stories, told through the games that connected us for the first time.

Chess

Nuradin is an older man who fled here with his wife, who suffers from diabetes. He greets me with a hug and a kiss, always followed by “I miss you!” in heavily accented English.
Nuradin was a philosophy professor in Syria and is an excellent chess player. I tell everyone who comes to watch us play that he is my teacher, and he smiles as he studies the board, not allowing my compliments to distract him.
During graduate school, my roommate and I taught ourselves basic chess strategy, although I am far from a grandmaster and have rarely played since discovering more modern “German games.” Still, it’s fascinating for me, at this stage in my gaming life, to rediscover the beauty of chess.
There’s also something exciting about playing the game with an Arab man. After all, chess may never have become the world’s most studied board game had it not been for the Arabs, who—after conquering Persia—adopted the game and brought it to Europe. In fact, they still refer to chess by its Persian name, shatranj.
Nuradin believes strongly in tolerance for all worldviews, and he’s against extremism. Although he is Muslim, he has read the Bible and western philosophers such as Kant and Kierkegaard.
But chess is a war simulation. We advance our pieces as each of us positions ourselves to control the board’s middle territory, and I think about the advances and retreats taking place this very moment in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The death toll rises, the table next to the game board fills up with casualties, yet the board remains devoid of actual bloodshed. Even so, I can’t help but project the images of my friend’s ruined hometown onto the white and black squares.
My friend shakes me out of my daydream with a warm smile as he says to me encouragingly, “You are getting better.”
Allers (right) and a new friend playing chess in Berlin.
Allers (right) and a new friend playing chess in Berlin.
Jeff Allers

Trex

Integration is a two-way street. When I meet Fayez, I teach him helpful German words and phrases, but I also try to learn his language and something more personal about him. When I engage someone from another culture, we are both changed and enriched.
I ask Fayez what his favorite game is. For the next half-hour, he can’t stop talking about a partnership card game called Trex. He speaks about it as if he were speaking about his family, who taught him the game, and he always seeks out people to play it with him. Playing Trex is one of the few things that makes the drab walls and bunk beds of the school gym around us disappear and the pain and destruction of war fade—if only for a moment.
A game of Trex with good friends makes Fayez feel as if he were home again.

Turkish checkers

While I play chess at another shelter, Amed and his friend borrow a second chess set to play on the table next to me—except they set the pieces up randomly in two rows, one row removed from the back, and move each piece in the same way.
Jeff Allers
When I finish my match, I watch Amed’s game intently. “What are you playing?” I ask, using gestures, as he cannot speak English or German. He tells me that the game is called Dama (otherwise known as “Turkish checkers” according to the Internet search I make when I get back home). After Amed finishes off his opponent, I challenge him to the next game.
I have to play it, however, without knowing the rules. I can only go by what I have observed. I make a move; he shakes his head. I gesture another move and raise my eyebrows inquisitively; he nods. I’m not just playing a variant of checkers—this has become a game of deduction for me. I have to scrap my strategy multiple times because my plan unknowingly falls outside the rules. This puts me at a disadvantage, of course.
This is Amed's situation. In a foreign land, he is learning by doing. Even though many people help the refugees navigate the rules to registering, fill out forms, and find better accommodations, refugees are still often on their own in having to deduce many new cultural rules—especially the unwritten ones.
I make a few clever moves, but Amed defeats me in a matter of minutes. I ask for a rematch. I won’t give up, and neither will he.

Hey, That’s My Fish!

It is not enough for me to go to the refugee shelters on my own. I want to share my experiences and give my friends the opportunity to have some of their own. The appeal of board gaming, after all, is making memories through shared experiences.
My gaming groups in Berlin are already quite multicultural—sometimes as many as eight different countries from five continents are represented. Aaron is a game designer from the United States who decided to work from Berlin for a month. He designs digital games for a living, but he has begun to design “analog” board games as well, and that’s how he found our game designer’s group. I tell him about my experiences with the refugees, and he takes me up on my invitation to help with a gaming café I initiated for them.
We make coffee and tea, set up some games on different tables, and I go to the shelter down the street to help the refugees find their way. Soon, the room is packed, and I’m thankful I have Aaron to help me.
I get my Syrian friends started with simultaneous games of chess, then introduce the German classic Lotti Karotti to several children. Finally, I teach Aaron Hey, That’s My Fish to play with a mixed group of Afghans. Co-designed by my Berlin friend Günter Cornett, it’s one of those games that I can teach without needing to use words. Everyone catches on quickly, and the Afghans play the game all afternoon with Aaron.
We are both exhausted when people leave, but we enjoy the time spent with them, even if our communication is often limited to moving pieces on game boards. 

La Boca

I want to encourage more people to step out of their comfort zones and connect with refugees through shared interests. I want to show them how easy and rewarding it is. I write invitations on various Facebook pages and report on my experiences for Board Game Geek. A gamer named John from the United States writes and says that he and his sons want to get involved. They do not have refugees in their neighborhood, but they do have a German au pair, and they want to send board games for the refugees.
Ali is one of the only teenagers in my neighborhood’s shelter. He is not really interested in games or competition; he just wants to fit in. He cherishes the times he is allowed to visit a local high school and interact with German teens. A friendly extrovert with a warm smile, Ali greets several teens as we walk together on the sidewalk outside, and they all seem to know him, answering enthusiastically, “Hallo, Ali!”
I find out later that he speaks great English, but he chooses instead to struggle through German because he is determined to master it. He knows that his future depends on it, and he has much more of that future ahead of him than the older people in his shelter.
The two of us play La Boca, a game sent by John and his sons. It is a partnership game, and we play cooperatively. La Boca is also a communication game, so it fits the bill perfectly as a fun activity that exercises Ali’s increasing German language skills.
John’s sons have written personal letters to give to refugee children who might play the games they sent. These are in English and German, translated by the boys’ au pair. I give them to Ali, and he is touched by the letters and photos of the boys; he takes them home to practice reading German.
<em>La Boca</em> hits the table.
La Boca hits the table.
Jeff Allers

Tsuro

Every other Sunday afternoon, I bring games to a local youth club that hosts a “Café Without Borders.” I sit at a table with a mixed group. Susanne and Per are Berliners, but she is originally from western Germany and he is from Sweden. They have lived in Berlin only slightly longer than refugees Abdul and Bilal, who also join us. I ask if they would like to play Tsuro, one of the games John and his boys sent. They oblige, but after a few rounds, it is clear that no one wants to knock another player out of the game. We spontaneously decide to play the game cooperatively instead and try to keep as many of us on the board as possible until the last tile is placed.
When finished, the Tsuro board looks like a big puzzle that has just been completed, and we stare at it for a moment with satisfaction before we go back to our pre-game conversations.
All of us came from different places, yet here we are, trying to put together the multicultural puzzle that is modern Berlin. And we are choosing to do so cooperatively. I meet at this same youth club every month with scores of volunteers from the neighborhood who tirelessly work to help individual refugees with integration and paperwork and also provide opportunities for the community to connect with them. It’s clear that even with extensive government aid, the refugee effort in Germany would be unmanageable without the cooperation of so many volunteers.
The influx of refugees has actually had a wonderful side effect: it has helped the rest of us get to know our neighbors and learn to work together for a common cause. In a world that is increasingly divisive, this gives me hope.
In Berlin, refugees become friends—through board games Reviewed by Chidinma C Amadi on 7:40 PM Rating: 5

No comments:

Kogonuso © All Rights Reserved!

Contact Form

Name

Email *

Message *

Powered by Blogger.