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Refugee turned top model raises funds for charity at Buddy Bear Auction

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The Buddy Bear auction took place on November 15, 2016 at the Mercedes-Welt at Salzufer in Berlin. At the event, the iconic Buddy Bear sculptures, the likes of which can be seen all over Berlin, were auctioned off to raise funds for several charities.

The bears were painted by renowned artists and celebrities like Elvira Bach, Kana Alavi, Dennenesch Zoudé and Zohre Esmaeli

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Attendees gather at Mercedes Welt in Berlin for the 2016 Buddy Bear Auction

I met up with model, designer and author, Zohre Esmaeli at the event. The bear she designed and painted was auctioned off to support her charity organization, Culture Coaches

Culture Coaches aims to improve the integration of refugees into German society. The project helps refugees settle into German culture, while at the same time introducing Germans to the culture of the refugees home countries. Coaches work with refugees to help them understand German culture and trains managers at German companies to enable them to better integrate immigrants into their workforce. 

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Zohre Esmaeli with the Buddy Bear “Azadeh” she designed and painted to raise funds for Culture Coaches

There is a significant need to integrate newcomers into Germany society. Over 1.3m asylum seekers are currently in Germany. 222,264 arrived in the first half of 2016. The growing number of asylum seekers in German society has led to a polarization in attitudes towards immigrants.  Violent attacks on asylum seekers and their housing have increased. Street protests descend into right-wing chants of “Merkel must go!” and left-wing cries of “Out with Nazis!”  

The anti-immigrant alt-right party is gaining in popularity, riding a wave of discontent over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s embrace of refugees. In response, the German government is strengthening efforts to speed integration. 

Failure to integrate results in educational stagnation, lack of career prospects and lack of assimilation for immigrant populations in Germany. In this environment, Esmaeli thinks improving integration efforts is more important than ever

Esmaeli understands first hand the challenges facing newcomers to Germany. In 1999, when Esmaeli was thirteen, her family fled Afghanistan to escape the Taliban. After a harrowing six month journey, they immigrated to Germany. At age seventeen, Esmaeli began a successful international career as a model. She appears on catwalks and in the pages top fashion magazines like Elle, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire. 

However, coming from a traditional culture, her transition into German society was not without challenges. Esmaeli is keen for other newcomers to Germany to benefit from her experience.

Questions for Zohre Esmaeli

What inspired you to take part in the Buddy Bear event?

It is a great opportunity to raise money for a good cause. We received a good price for the Buddy Bear and it goes to the Culture Coaches project.  

Tell me about the Buddy Bear you designed- what does the name of the bear “Azadeh” and the artwork on it signify?

As “Azadeh” means “to think freely” there is a golden cage with an open door where white pigeons are flying out of. Especially on the front there are symbols representing my Afghan heritage and positive words in Farsi that translated mean “family”, “hope”, “freedom”, etc.

On the back the bear is representing my creative personality. I started working as a model when I was seventeen years old so you can see objects related to fashion and beauty.

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Esmaeli’s “Azadeh” bear is covered with symbols representing her Afghani heritage and creative personality

What is the goal of the Culture Coaches initiative?

As I immigrated to Germany when I was thirteen years old, I know about the obstacles of integration. A lot of aspects about life are completely different here than they were in Afghanistan–where I spend my childhood. That’s why I want to help today’s immigrants and the German society by offering a program that teaches reciprocal understanding of the cultures for both immigrants and the management level in companies. Integrating immigrants into companies is one of the best ways to make the entire integration process work.

How come the Culture Coaches’ work facilitating the integration of immigrants to Germany is so relevant, especially at this point in time?

It is very important to start the process of integration as soon as possible as there’s a risk of developing parallel societies where people only move within their cultural boundaries. We want to prevent that from happening. I’m very grateful for the self-determined life I can live in Germany but it was a long way to get to that point. With Culture Coaches I want to make it easier for today’s immigrants to become a part of the society they live in. 

How to get involved

Interested in supporting the Culture Coaches initiative? Visit the organization’s website to make a donation.


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Soheila Yalpani View All

Soheila is the founder of Thinkstr.co and the Principal of Oppfinn Consulting. As a project manager and consultant, her interests lie at the intersection of innovation and societal impact. On Thinkstr.co, she writes about business, technology, travel and smart cities.

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