At the end of August, the bikablo akademie provided guidance for a collaboration between the “Joblinge”* campaign and the Frankfurt offices of Commerzbank. Using giant posters as canvases, the stories of young migrants were visualized. This project is an outgrowth of the #ourStories events that were held in 2015 and 2016 by the bikablo akademie and St. Agnes’ Church in Cologne. This year’s project was organized by Stephan Frank, himself a passionate visualizer. The posters will be exhibited in the lobby of the Commerzbank tower in Frankfurt until the end of December.

The initial idea for #ourStories originated at the bikablo akademie in the summer of 2015, at a time when many German cities and communities were facing enormous challenges from the large influx of refugees. Klaus Nelissen from the “Willkommensinitiative Neue Nachbarn” (Welcome Initiative for New Neighbors) of St. Agnes’ parish in Cologne and Martin Haussmann from the bikablo akademie came up with the idea for a project that would go on to become known as “#ourStories – Using Posters to Tell the Stories of Refugees.” Visualization trainers at bikablo listened as refugees told them their personal stories, which they then illustrated on giant posters. These were exhibited for several weeks at St. Agnes’ Church, attracting considerable positive attention from the media. At what was a moment of great uncertainty, many dedicated refugee helpers felt their efforts affirmed by this event. The reaction was so encouraging that the project was repeated in 2016, during which refugee helpers in Cologne were also able to tell their stories.

Commerzbank employee Stephan Frank heard about the event and decided to begin a similar campaign in 2017. “In 2015 and 2016, I participated in a bikablo training course for becoming a Visual Facilitator, and I heard about the project in Cologne. Even back then, I thought it was a fantastic idea,” he says. As part of its Corporate Responsibility program, Commerzbank also supports projects that assist disadvantaged youth by providing them with internships and educational opportunities. “I’ve participated in these training projects for several years now, serving as a mentor for young people, trying to help them better understand the realities of life in Germany and helping them with job applications and interviews,” explains Stephan.

#ourStories: Visual Storytelling in the Commerzbank Tower

It was Stephan’s idea to bring an #ourStories event to the “hallowed halls” of the Commerzbank offices in Frankfurt/Main. Together with bikablo and the “Joblinge” organization, which has been involved for several years in the integration of young refugees into Germany’s primary employment market, he wanted to share the stories that the young people he mentored had told of their flights from countries in the Middle East and Africa. It didn’t take long for the idea to become popular with his colleagues at Commerzbank, and at bikablo, too, we quickly found people who wanted to help. Through our bikablo akademie online community, which brings together thousands of bikablo alumni, Stephan found a broad range of visualizers who wanted to participate. Martin Haussmann, along with bikablo training team members Justo Garcia Pulido and Ramona Wultschner, assisted the Commerzbank employees with advance organization. To determine how to meet the challenge of using brushes and paint to visualize on large surfaces, lively discussions were held regarding materials, techniques, and approaches.

An Exciting Change of Perspective

As preparations were taking place, intensive discussions were held with five young people and their mentors from the “Joblinge” project. In these conversations, these young people, who had fled from Syria, Palestine, and Somalia, told of their own personal experiences. They spoke about their journeys and talked about their experiences with societal and cultural differences, as well as the challenges in their careers in their new surroundings. Many dreams, hopes, and desires, along with a great deal of enthusiasm, and even humor, were brought to light. Susanne Schuch and Stephan Frank spent a day together with the “Joblinge,” getting a glimpse into their work and recording their experiences. Along with these stories, two Commerzbank employees who volunteer as language teachers shared their experiences.

Stephan, in conjunction with the Commerzbank’s “Kompass” program, saw to the needs of the visualizers and the “Joblinge,” while his colleague, Hannes Glock, from the Corporate Responsibility area, arranged for the infrastructure and materials. Stephan explained: “The “Kompass” program was established as a collaboration between Commerzbank and the “Joblinge” organization, with the aim of specifically expanding mentoring activities to youth who had experienced refugeeism. This allowed us not only to visualize the stories of people who had fled their home countries, but also the experiences of their mentors, and what a typical day looks like for a “Joblinge.”

Telling and Visualizing Stories

On August 21, following an intensive planning phase and continuous close communication between all of the participants, the time had arrived: the Commerzbank entry hall was transformed into a public art studio. The visualizers picked up their brushes and began to work, using acrylic paint to transfer their sketches to the giant canvases. The trainers from bikablo were also present, using the experience they had gained during the events in previous years to assist visualizers from the bank and the bikablo community. By the fourth day, the work had already been finished and the exhibit was ready to be opened to the public. Stephan explained: “My primary intention was to attract the attention of my colleagues to this project so that we can repeat it next year – and maybe even take it to a next-higher level.”

The posters, which will be on display until the end of the year, portray more than just stories of flight and arrival: moving portraits of a wide variety of different people tell, in vivid colors, of desires, dreams, and very personal experiences. Here and there, there are also success stories that depict positive integration experiences.

An Experience Everyone Will Long Remember

The members of Stephan Frank’s team are not only enthusiastic about the project itself – they also view the collaborative aspect of the work as extremely positive. The visualizers all enjoyed themselves immensely, and it was also a very positive experience for the “Joblinge.” At the opening of the exhibit, conversations could already be overheard, in which options for providing internships and other forms of support were being discussed. We can only imagine the feelings that the images must have evoked in the young storytellers themselves. The bikablo akademie team looks back on the elaborate organizational efforts with a sense of pride at the successful outcome of this collaborative project. “We are very happy that the #ourStories concept has already been taken into its third round,” says Martin Haussmann, “and we hope that in the future, even more people will want to become involved in this simple, yet promising, concept for working with refugees.”

The visualizers for #ourStories 2017 were:
Stephan Frank (Commerzbank)
Verena Hopfgarten (Commerzbank)
Erich Pfarr (Commerzbank)
Susanne Schuch (Commerzbank)
Birgit Spahn (Commerzbank)
Maria Strobel (Commerzbank)
Martin Hausmann (bikablo akademie Köln)
Daniela Kauer (Deutsche Bahn)
Justo G. Pulido (bikablo akademie Köln)
Monika Ripperger (Stadt Frankfurt)
Ramona Wultschner (bikablo akademie Köln)

*”Jobling” is a fusion of the word “job” with “Flüchtling,” the German word for “refugee.”