Benjamin welcomes Bronx students from Germany exchange

Recent Bronx German exchange students, community members, and dignitaries came out to celebrate and discuss the students’ experience at the Bronx School of Law and Government - (l-r) Nasias Veloz, Durrel Noel, chaperone June Smith-Bryant, Isaiah Holston, German Consul General Dr. Hans-Jürgen Heimsoeth, the assemblyman’s chief of staff Kennedy Benjamin, Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, Consulate press secretary Dr. Heinrich Neumann, and Pastor Rev. John Udo-Okun, of Word of Life Church, at 914 Prospect Avenue. - Photo by Adam Bermudez

Bronx students Nasais Veloz, Durrell Noel and Isaiah Holston returned on May 3 from the one of the most profound two weeks of their young lives, traveling overseas to Germany as goodwill ambassadors for their community.  

The students held a press conference, to discuss their journey, at the Bronx School of Law and Government on June 13 with program sponsors Assemblyman Michael Benjamin and Kennedy Benjamin along with German consul Hans-Jurgen Heimsoeth.

The two-week exchange program was born out of the assemblyman’s desire to create positive responses to a racist German military training video, which encouraged soldiers to “pretend they were in the Bronx shooting at African Americans.”

Nasias Veloz recalled a different world at F.F. Runge Gymnasium, their host school in Oranienburg, Germany.

 “Imagine entering the school building without having to make a line for the scanners or having to constantly look at the security guards standing by the staircase, entrances and doors,” wrote Veloz, who will attend Smith College this fall. 

The students visited German Parliament and other tourist sites, but the students agreed that a trip to a former Nazi concentration camp was one of the most powerful moments.

One bit of common ground came when Noel spoke of Edgar Allen Poe’s Cottage, featured on a quilt made by the Bronx Historical Society of famous borough sites presented as a gift of goodwill to his hosts.  His host father spoke of his love of the poet’s work with the student, forming a bond between the two.

 Veloz also raised the consciousness of some German peers when she described her variety of music tastes, including rock, which shocked those who assumed she only liked hip-hop music. 

In response to the many questions he was asked reflecting negative impressions of an American inner city lifestyle, Holson commented, “We’re not all thugs, we’re not all thieves.”

Heimsoeth called the program “a pact against ignorance and a chance to create mutual understanding and friendship.”

The diplomat is no stranger to the Bronx, having lived here for a short time in his youth before his family returned to their homeland.  German children may share a similar experience.

 “I want to give the German students a chance to come to the Bronx and get a better understanding of life here, to be able to break down the stereotypes of African Americans and all Bronxites and bring that back to their community,” Benjamin said. 

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