Mohammad Dalla came to the University of Potsdam from Syria in 2016 and studied in the Master Anglophone Modernities in Literature and Culture. He is involved in several projects on "Special Vulnerable Groups" of refugees with various organizations such as the Stiftung Sozialpädagogisches Institut Berlin (SPI), the Lesbian and Gay Association (LSVD) Berlin-Brandenburg, Hiwarat e.V., and the Gunda Werner Institute of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. From 2019-2020, Mohammad worked as a research assistant in the team of the award-winning project "Critical Cultural Literacy Online" at the University of Potsdam. After his work at the Federal Magnus Hirschfeld Foundation (BMH), he was drawn back to his alma mater again. Now he is doing his PhD in the Research Training Group minor cosmopolitanisms at the University of Potsdam and the University of Melbourne.
You came to the University of Potsdam from Syria about 5 years ago on a student visa. What was that like for you? What motivated you to take such a big step?
Having a passion for languages and literature has always been my motive to explore new learning opportunities such as studying Spanish, German, and English and working in journalism and media in Syria. Since educational opportunities in Syria were hampered by the political situation, I considered studying abroad. While researching for a suitable opportunity, the Anglophone Modernities MA program of the University of Potsdam caught my attention. As I was finishing my BA, I started preparing for this journey.
What did you think about Potsdam before you moved to Germany and to what extent have your ideas been confirmed, or not?
Since coming to Germany was my first experience abroad, I didn't have specific expectations, I was simply hoping for things to work out smoothly. Upon my arrival in Berlin, I was overwhelmed by the challenges of moving into a new country, especially in light of the difficult housing situation in Berlin/ Potsdam and the lengthy administrative processes involved in securing residency. On the other hand, I was very lucky to meet amazing individuals who have helped me all along this journey, many of them were from the university community.
Why did you decide to study at UP? And why did you want to study Anglophone Modernities in Literature and Culture?
This Program offers a glimpse into Anglophone literatures and cultures from around the globe, not just North America and the UK. It also aims at understanding “modernity,” or rather a multiplicity of modernities, with a particular emphasis on the constitutive role of non-Western cultures in the formation of the modern world. This critical approach and interdisciplinary nature of the MA program make it stand out from traditional American/ English studies programs, which was very intriguing to me.
What issues are driving you and why?
Working on various educational, cultural and political projects, I had the opportunity to explore the complexities of identities, and I realized that everything boils down to people; without true understanding, diversity loses its value and meaning, and this is where my interest in identity politics and refugee studies evoked, which became my research topics in for both my MA thesis and PhD.
I consider my professional and academic engagements to be embedded within a larger activist agenda that aspires to dismantle the social inequalities and their structural causes that refugees (as well as many others) face at the intersection of multidimensional discrimination.
Any society would benefit greatly from breaking free from oppressive systems like racism, classism, nationalism, patriarchy, sexism, homo- and queerphobias, toxic masculinity and Islamophobia that affect many, not only (queer) refugees. Critical engagement, empathy, openness and lifelong learning are the keys to bridging the gaps and bringing people together.
You have always been very active as a volunteer. What did you do there? What is your drive to volunteer for refugees alongside your studies/job?
Very often, if not always, refugees face violence, discrimination, and challenges in their countries of origin as well as during (and after) the asylum procedure in the countries of asylum. Although I was privileged enough to come to Germany as an international student and kept my student status until I got my German citizenship last year, the fact that I arrived in Germany in the historical context of the so-called “refugee crisis,” I considered myself, and was (politically) seen, to be belonging to the Syrian diaspora and refugee community in exile. My motivation to be engaged in the refugee relief sector was not only driven by my personal identity, but more so by my political commitment to the transformation of social inequalities, power asymmetries, and injustices.
Since 2016, I've been active in several projects addressing the issues of “Special Vulnerable Groups” of refugees with different organisations such as the Foundation Social Pedagogical Institute Berlin (SPI) als Betreuer für unbegleitete minderjährige Geflüchtete, Lesbians and Gays Association (LSVD) Berlin-Brandenburg als Mentor für LSBTIQ+ Geflüchtete, Hiwarat e.V as a moderater and a trainer of civic education, and the Gunda-Werner-Institute of the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation as a project lead. These experiences have profoundly enriched my perspectives and inspired me to follow a new approach to academic research and engagement.
You were a fellow of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. What did that mean to you?
As a former scholarship holder of the Heinrich Böll Foundation (HBS), I had the chance to experience this unique form of political participation in Germany. In addition to the financial support, the fellows are offered all sorts of optional seminars, workshops, and summer schools that deal with today's most urgent issues from climate change to internal political problems such as the rise of right-wing populism and dealing with social inequalities.
In my experience, the main goal of those events was to create spaces for critical discussions, exchanges, and debates. I learned so much about Germany, its political system and its history at these events, and had some of the most inspiring discussions with other fellows of similar and diverse fields of studies. This also led me to do an internship at the Gunda-Werner-Institute, which is associated with the HBS, which set the path for my future career.
After working at the Federal Magnus Hirschfeld Foundation (BMH) for about 3 years, most recently as assistant to the management, you are now back at the UP! What brings you back to your alma mater?
In 2019, I joined the team of the BMH as a student assistant in the Gesellschaft, Teilhabe und Antidiskriminierung Unit. For 2 years, I worked on projects addressing the issues of the LGBTIQ+ communities in Germany. After graduating, I worked as an assistant to the managing board and project funding management for over a year and a half.
The BMH has an interesting positionality at the intersection of state institutions, civil society, and academia. Working there for almost four years, I gained insights into possible ways of addressing the social, structural, and political discriminations marginalized groups face. But at the same time, it left me with many questions on the limits of existing minority rights movements and antidiscrimination institutions, much of which are involved in / working in the framework of identity politics. Those questions eventually led me to start my PhD project.
What are your plans for the future?
Being part of the Research Training Group minor cosmopolitanisms, the following years are quite exciting. I am doing my PhD in a joint-degree constellation with the University of Potsdam as the home university and the University of Melbourne as the guest university, where I will spend a one-year research stay at the end of this year. Alongside our research, and together with my colleagues from the RTG, we are organizing a variety of events; a lecture series in the coming semester, two summer schools, outreach projects connected to our research, and the final conference for the RTG in 2025.
The goal of all of these events and projects is coming closer to an understanding of how we, although under conditions of inequality, can think of, in, and with a plurality of "we"s rather than a single universal ‘I’ or ‘We’, when it comes to addressing and overcoming the prevailing injustices in our modern world.
In times of global escalating military conflict, rising nationalist and far-right movements, and ongoing economic and environmental crises, rethinking the cosmopolitan project might seem far-fetched, but the RTG has undertaken this challenge, and I am happy to be part of this adventure.