Mentoring Insights – Our Experiences and Thoughts

Franziska Seise, Clara Bolldorf, Mona Hartel, Josefine Hilbeck, Leonie Anna Koll, Nina McAllister, Dennis Lange, Stefanie Roth, Katharina Sonnberg, Elena Tietze

Illustrations: Elena Tietze

For our work placement project ‘Integration as a Dialogic Process’ (2019-2020), we – a group of students at Freie Universität Berlin’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology – worked with Wedding-based charity WIR GESTALTEN e.V. to mentor young refugees. We regularly held private, guided discussions in which we considered these experiences together, critically questioning basic assumptions and everyday notions. The ethnographic vignettes you see here are the first fruits of this project. They are an attempt to bring the concept of mentoring to life, to make it more real, while also giving voice to our own experiences, thoughts and doubts. What does mentoring mean in this case? It’s a question we were often asked, and one we often asked ourselves, but it’s largely impossible to come up with a universal definition. All of us, however, can identify with the individual accounts to some degree. We learned a great deal from these experiences and encounters and gained new insights in the process – not least about ourselves. The resulting relationships have brought the diversity of our city into our everyday lives, and they grow dearer to us day by day. 

Elena – Berlin Identity

It’s one of our first times out with the kids. We really want to take them ice skating, so we head to Potsdamer Platz, passing the Christmas market with all its lights and making for the skating rink. As we approach the ice, the boys start to get a bit nervous; they’ve never been ice skating before. But on the ice, they get faster and faster, more and more confident, and by the end they’re even overtaking me. When we return the hired skates, the people at the skate hire stand try to engage us in conversation. Hassan hands back his skates, size 32, and the man asks him his name.
“H-A-S-S-A-N”, he replies. Then Jonas comes over and states his name too. I notice the man’s curiosity is piqued. He asks them how old they are and whether they’re at school, and asks me if I’m their supervisor. Evidently he assumes we can’t be related. “Something like that”, I say, and let Hassan and Jonas carry on talking. The man asks them where they’re from, to which they say: “Berlin!” – “Yes… but where are your parents from?” Hassan, slowly growing impatient, adds: “Our parents are at home!” He turns away from the stand, leaving them somewhat unsatisfied with this answer, and we all head back.

Josefine – A Cosy Chat at Home 

Hala is sitting at my kitchen table. I’m boiling water to make tea. She’s been to mine quite often and is perfectly at ease as she talks about her day. I ask her if she wants something to eat or drink. She declines, saying she ate at home, yet when I put out a few biscuits, she helps herself. Hala tells me she’s tired because she came more or less straight from school, where she and her parents had been at a parent-teacher interview. I ask her how things went. She’s pretty happy with it and shows me a photo. I don’t understand at first, but then she explains: “Here, that’s us with my teacher, Mrs Bulut. Actually I don’t like her that much, but a few days ago we tidied up the classroom and gave it a really good clean. Me and two friends. She praised us and we took some pictures together. She was really nice then, totally different.” By now I’m sitting at the table and looking at her phone. I agree that it’s a sweet photo and her teacher looks really nice. Hala laughs: “Yes, in that moment she was really cool but, I’m telling you, her teaching is dead boring, she drones on the whole time and I can’t help but be bored.” She goes on to say that she was glad that, at the meeting with her parents, the teacher repeatedly stressed how helpful she is and how she helps bring the class together. Then there were the usual criticisms: she talks to other students too much during class and has difficulties concentrating. And, most of all, she laughs too much. This Hala finds hard to understand. “Josefine, do the teachers want us to cry in class instead? Surely they can’t ban us from laughing. It’s much better than us always being sad.” I’m at a loss to think of a good answer.

Katharina – Teacher or Friend?

Franziska, who mentors one of the younger sisters of the girl I’m mentoring, meets me on the corner so we can go to Juju’s engagement party together. At the family’s apartment, we somewhat shyly greet the guests who are already present, then sit down in one of the back rows. We’re nervous because we don’t know what to expect. We repeatedly get talking to the women and girls around us. Mostly, they want to know who we are, what we do and when the event is finally going to get started. When one woman asks if we’re Juju’s teachers, Franziska says yes, as if it were a statement of fact, and this makes me feel a little uncomfortable. 

Among the mentorees’ families, the mentors are often referred to as teachers. The charitytriesto explain the different roles of a mentor, using terms such as companion, facilitator, empowerer, friend and teacher. “Teacher”, however, seems to reflect a key motivation for parents arranging a mentor for their child, which is why the term has stuck among many of the families. Clearly, there are conflicting expectations at play here – there’s how I see my role as a mentor, and then there’s how the parents and children see it. Obviously, help with schoolwork is a part of our mentoring activities, but I don’t want to be regarded solely as a teacher. But why exactly do I have a problem with this description of my relationship with Juju? Perhaps, for one thing, because it seems so one-dimensional. Also, it conveys a sense of responsibility and authority, establishing defined roles and suggesting a clear power dynamic that goes against my understanding of mentoring. Perhaps I also resist it because I still cling to the oft-cited ideal of mentorship as a meeting of equals, an ideal our group flagged as illusory quite early on in our research. If, on the other hand, I say we’re friends because I aspire to a less hierarchical relationship, then maybe that helps me get around such asymmetric power dynamics. Or is it simply masking them, seeing as they exist all the same? 

At any rate, Franziska notices my irritation and asks me what I think I am to Juju, to which I answer, questioningly, “Perhaps something like a friend?”. I recall how, one of the first times we met, Juju said to me: “You’re my only German friend”.

Nina – Covid Solidarity 

It’s a Saturday in early March 2020 and the family, too, is worried about coronavirus. The boy I’m mentoring and I are sitting at the living room table and drawing when I receive a message: a housemate is coming back to our student residence from a coronavirus hotspot where a stay-at-home order is in place. I mention it to Sero, just in passing, but soon afterwards his mother comes into the room and insists I stay with them for a few days. I’m very reluctant, as I don’t want to add to their burden. Then his father and the kids also say I should stay over. We agree that I’ll stay for one night before travelling to Bavaria to my family. I dash off to pack a small suitcase. When I’m back at their place, Sero’s mother Leila says she wants to talk to my mother, so they chat on the phone for a while. After dinner, I help with the washing up – this is the first time I’ve been allowed, the justification being that I’m part of the family now. Before we go to bed, Leila shows me where I can find the breakfast things, explains that I can use everything in the bathroom and that I should sleep in her bed. She and the little one lie down on the bed too and we listen to the Koran on YouTube. I’m not a Muslim, but I’m moved by the video nonetheless. The boy is still very active and it’s a while before things settle down. All the same, there’s something very soothing and intimate about the situation. At some point, I notice Leila getting up and going to her husband. After a while, I hear praying from the living room. At half past five the next morning, I’m woken by the sound of voices. Sero’s brother has gone to prayers. I go back to sleep, then at seven Sero comes into the room and we chat and play quietly together until his older brother wakes up. We spend the morning together, the two of them helping me to make coffee.

The complete vignettes are available soon at
If you’d like to know more about our experiences as mentors, just drop us a line – email Franziska Seise at For more information on the organisation WIR GESTALTEN e.V., visit their website or get in touch with them at