Finding Sisyphus in Germany

Pity for Sisyphus, or anger at his rock, are equally as useless. Unfortunately, the Greeks didn’t chronicle what it felt like, what it meant, for Sisyphus to push his rock up the hill. Sisyphus’s story ranks as one of the most popular Greek myths, indicative of its imminent applicability to many struggles of modern man. For those new to the myth, Sisyphus, King of Ephyra, was punished by the gods for his deceitfulness and his hubris, condemned for eternity to roll a large rock up a hill, only to have it overpower his strength and roll back down the hill every single time. Such was his fate—a sadistic torture for a manipulative man. Many suffer his same punishment without the luxury of merit.

In eighth grade, I read what was likely a scrubbed and sanitized version of the myth, nodding my head as the teacher said in conclusion, “Many things in life feel this way, but we keep going, we persevere.” Fatalism would not have been the way to end a middle school lesson in ancient history, so I understand the positive spin, but the unredeemed quality of the story has stuck with me since and has remained a backdrop to my understanding of privilege, injustice, and suffering.

Last week I spent a night north of Bremen, Germany, with more than a dozen young refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, each carrying burdens, memories, and loss, not yet fully uttered since they arrived on European shores. Tying to stay afloat, now only metaphorically, each person I met exuded a comingled gratefulness and pain, and spoke of hope and defeat engaged in a desperately tired boxing match.

After a dinner lovingly prepared by a family I had met years earlier in Jordan, when boats, drowning, and Germany were not yet items on the cognitive buffet of a Syrian refugee, I stepped outside with a young Afghan man named Afsar, 17 years old, who donned a too-small blazer for the occasion of visitors to this tiny village. He lit a cigarette, looking up to the third floor window to make sure his older brother wouldn’t catch him in the act.

I went Turkey first. I wait three month, checking before my older brother come,” he said.

Earlier, Afsar’s brother Afshin told us that he has epilepsy, adding that his younger brother has been, in many ways, the older one. “He takes care of me more than I can for him,” Afshin told me. “I try to help him as much as I can,” he added, asking me if I have a younger brother, if I could understand. I showed him a photo of my brother, who looks younger in photos, and Afshin nodded “yes, yes, you have younger brother.” I told him no, that my brother is, in fact older. I told Afshin that older and younger is a matter of perspective. I suggested that scales will balance over time, and he need not worry.

Back at the cigarette, Afsar continued.“I looked at the sky,” he said, actually looking up as he said it. A raindrop fell into his eye, brining a small smile to his face. “I looked up, and thought many things. Many family, friends. House.” His eyes stared into an unspecific distance—not the first time he had done this—staring, I imagine, into the recent past, which is quite far from Bremen. “I think, please God, will I die?” He took a few drags of the cigarette, taking time to figure out how to construct his sentence in English. Surely his inner thoughts in Dari were at full volume, having deconstructed and reconstructed this story dozens of time, day and night.

Five hours I stay water, above water, not knowing…die…or live? Greek boat come and rescue me…but many die.” Afsar grimaced, reassuring me, and himself, with “Alhamdulillah.” Praise God.

Three months earlier, Afsar and Afshin crossed the Aegean on a rickety boat. Afshin had said “forty people in boat for ten” caused it to capsize in a nighttime crossing from Turkey to Lesvos.

There was a deep irony in my meeting these Afghan brothers that day. Part of their language learning at the local German school includes physical education, and today included swimming lessons. The irony was not lost on them, either, as Afshin said “I start to go under, so I left.” He laughed. “Not first time” he added with both grief and humor, staring to the same unspecific distance known only to him and his brother.

Hours later I got a message from Afsar, saying “I’m happy to talk with you, I don’t share stories with anyone.

The German system has more than one million Afsar stories stuck in files, and their mental health system has no way of catching up, let alone in the native languages of all the new arrivals. Of course, counseling services in German may help, once Afsar, Afshin, and others can speak German well enough, but trauma’s monologues playback in the language of the heart.

house 1
Living Room of a house for migrant youth in northern Germany ©2016, Mike Niconchuk

A few miles from Afsar lives Karim, a Syrian of Palestinian origin, born and raised in the now-starving, now-decimated Yarmouk Camp for Palestinian refugees in Damascus. This is not Karim’s first hill, nor his first rock. He was born into this, in many ways, as his father and mother fled to Damascus in 1967 from the West Bank.

A German social worker brought me to Karim’s house, where he lives with eight other men 20-30 years old, most of whom came to Germany alone to pave the way for wives and children. Others came alone as a result of losing the rest of their families. Each of the eight faces in the IKEA-appointed dining room bore evidence of a long journey.

Karim, the most fidgety of the group, kept eye contact longer than usual, as if trying to tell me something, but without words. After mere minutes he couldn’t deal with the smalltalk, bursting into his story as his eyes welled with tears and his leg shook uncontrollably. “My wife and baby daughter are stuck in Idomeni. The border is closed. They’ve been there almost two months.” He spoke quickly and loudly.

Do you have a child?” he continued. “Can you imagine listening to her cry because her lungs are filled with tear gas?” He stopped. He composed himself, breathing deeply, “I would give my life if it would mean they can get out of there. I’m sorry, but I cry every day. Seriously, all of us here do. We all have family stuck somewhere. I feel in a complete hysteria when I talk to them.” Hysteria is an English cognate in Arabic; the Germans in the room also understood, all of them slowly blinking and nodding their heads in acknowledgement, and with desperation, agreeing with Karim about the problems of family reunification in Europe.

Why does everything feel like a punishment?” Karim added to me after. As soon as the words left his mouth, he expressed his immense gratitude for all that the village council has given them. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “It’s not the town’s fault. It’s not their fault. They’re kind.”

Across every conversation I had with young refugees in Germany, gratitude was a common theme. In Bremen in particular, each conversation was full of pain and gratitude simultaneously. Where there was safety, there was also anger. Where there was peace, there was risk. My goal here is neither to highlight Germany as exemplary nor to say she is terrible in her management of the migrant crisis, but only to say that each refugee brings a dense rock of pain–the resolution of which may be uncomfortable for the Europe that receives it.

Slavoj Žižek recently explored this issue, suggesting that dwelling on fear or idealizing the suffering refugee are both irrational and immature options. Specifically, he says “humanitarian self-culpabilization is thoroughly narcissistic, closed to a true encounter with the immigrant neighbor.  The task is to talk openly about all the unpleasant issues without a compromise with racism.

In a world of binaries, so much about the refugee situation in Germany is gray. Surely, listening to the anger and frustration of a young refugee, who sits in an IKEA-furnished apartment in which he lives rent-free, will deeply upset many. If only those people could hear the gratefulness that sits simultaneously alongside the anger. Those whose ears seek only sycophantic gratitude clash with another set that I’ve come across, those whose chants of “Refugees Welcome”—while obviously the overarching narrative I agree with—are equally as unable to recognize accurate levels risk posed by thousands of youth whose successful integration hangs in the balance, and among whom surely sit a few bad eggs. Recognition of the realities of colonialism and imperialism do little to change its immediate consequences or its current manifestation internally within Europe. Indeed, Europeans are positioning themselves within two camps—both potentially failing the complex Sisyphean reality of being a young refugee in 21st century Europe.

Koln cathedral
Cologne Cathedral, overlooking the train station where the New Year’s Eve incidents took place, ©2016, Mike Niconchuk

Few incidents highlight the tension of the situation more than New Years Eve in Cologne. Two hundred miles before Bremen, I sat with Mahmoud, whose talent for languages has given him a head-start in making a home, and in integrating into German society. Thankfully, the village he was allocated to, unlike many others, does not isolate unaccompanied men, instead offering them regular meetings with the village council and high schoolers.

I asked Mahmoud about the New Years Eve incident. “Dhabhoona.” He said. They slaughtered us.

Who?” I asked. “Dhabhoona dhabeh” he reiterated. They made a sacrifice out of us. He was referring to his fellow Algerians, who were overrepresented in the arrested attackers, along with Moroccans and Tunisians. Mahmoud held his head in shame, repeatedly tsk-ing the way he learned from his Algerian mother. In that moment, his voice dropped to a tone fear and shame. “It will be more difficult for the rest of us,” for the thousands of North Africans who—whether or not you find it legitimate—have made the journey across the Mediterranean to Germany. He has to start again, his tender, growing reputation as a young man who “understands German ways” damaged by compatriots. Ironically, Mahmoud was no apologist, and didn’t pretend the solution was as simple as “culture classes” or mass deportation. For Mahmoud, legitimate relationships are the only way forward. “Those boys probably hadn’t met even one German since they came here,” he added, “Integration is what matters. It is not easy, for them or for us.”

housing plans
Construction plans for refugee housing, Cologne, ©2016, Mike Niconchuk

Over those few days in Germany, I sat with some families who I first met in Jordan, who used to serve me dinner to the sound of shelling right across the border in Dara’a, Syria. Encountering them again, all with slightly lighter hearts now, was surreal. Over a bowl full of rice pudding, Haneen sighed. “The journey is far from over,” she told me. She looked tenderly at her two boys, one born the very week his father was lost in the Mediterranean on a boat full of Syrians, Libryans, Malians, and Sudanese somewhere between Tripoli and Naples. The last time we saw each other, Haneen was eight months pregnant, wondering when her husband was going to find a way out of Libya, asking for any possible way I could get her name to the top of UNHCR’s “resettlement list,” which remains enshrined in myth and legend for those of us working in the humanitarian space in the Middle East.

The notions of #SafePassage” and #RefugeesWelcome are crucial but incomplete. The passage is long—for most, it has been years, each new destination requiring a force of will unlike anything I know. Among the human species, it is counterintuitive to willingly choose confusion, risk, and chaos over home. Few have to make that choice, and ever fewer have to make it more than once. For Karim, he and his parents have had to make that choice on multiple occasions, each time throwing themselves towards the verges of hysteria. The countless tears of migrants in Germany, the thousands of bodies in the Aegean, are testament to the accumulating difficulty and pain of each appearance of that dreadful decision—one that should be familiar to no man. Warshan Shire’s now widely-circulated poem captures it in way I have seen, but could not express myself,

no one leaves home unless home chases you

fire under feet

hot blood in your belly

it’s not something you ever thought of doing

until the blade burnt threats into

your neck

and even then you carried the anthem under

your breath

only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets

sobbing as each mouthful of paper

made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.”

Surely, #RefugeesWelcome is the only legitimate option, but what a bittersweet welcome it is, and I only hope Europe, Canada, or whoever receives refugees, is capable of extending and holding embrace to those who are under no obligation to be happy about their latest, familiar, journey with their rock up their hill.

house 2
Syrian Revolution flag in the rented room of a Syrian refugee, Berlin, ©2016, Mike Niconchuk

In fact, all refugees I met in Germany were expressly grateful—a natural response to the tireless and selfless work put forth by brave German social workers. Some refugees bordered on joy, smiles lighting their faces as they envisioned, just as they had in Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, of Turkey, what they could be, if this time—just this time—they reach the peak of the hill. As Othman, a Syrian of just 19 years old who made it to Germany in spite of multiple detentions and police beatings in the Balkans, said, “It just takes a while. We thought it would be paradise, compared to Syria, or to the camps, so we just need to recalibrate. We didn’t envision all the paperwork in paradise.” He laughed, ordering another Pepsi in near-perfect German from a waiter whose face implied a similar origin to Othman, but whose German implied that he was born already embattled in Europe’s decades-old issue of integration.

Othman understood the key to perseverance. He understood that only the most self-effacing man can find redemption in the Sisyphean life. Here, Albert Camus offers the tiniest hope, even if that is just my biased reading of what is otherwise a dark reflection on unredeemed suffering. In his brief The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes: “He goes back down to the plain. It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.

Surely, Germany will benefit from one million people who are stronger than the rocks they push, stronger than the rocks of the earth itself. For them, “home” creeps ever closer towards the gates of mythology. Of course, in all of this there is a risk, as mass migration has never been blissful for anyone involved, nor has it ever been free from manipulation, exploitation, and ill-intent.

In a paradise hidden under paperwork, refugees in Germany long for redemption, just as they have since they packed their bags for the first time. The complete decentralization of the integration process will definitely complicate this goal, but ultimately, hopefully more hands, of all sizes and colors, will lighten the burden of the one million rocks being pushed up the hills of Europe.

10 thoughts on “Finding Sisyphus in Germany

  1. Wow que fuerte!! Es impresionante lo que pasan estas personas Sin duda son personas más fuertes q un roble … Realmente inimaginable todo lo q pasan … Y si parece q solo el hecho d e poderlo hablar contigo, es su idioma con alguien q se preocupa e interesa ya debe ser reconfortante

    Te quiero y admiro

    Enviado desde mi iPhone

    > El 23/04/2016, a las 4:08 a.m., Mike Niconchuk escribió:

  2. Mike, seniors at St. John’s Prep have read your posting of “Finding Sisyphus in Germany.” We have been reading and writing about the refugee crisis for the past eight months through our own blog that collects the materials we have studied: Refugee Crisis: Poetry, Photography, and Society 2015-2016.
    Your writing inspires us, Mike. Many students have commented that they would like to join service groups to offer aid to the refugees. Please keep posting in your blog. Your observations give us a vital perspective to this global problem. Bravo, Mike! Blessings on your work! [You are now featured in a posting on our blog, and we have linked to your blog.]

    1. Hi Mike! I first was given the opportunity to read your blog as a senior in Ms. Muhilly’s English classes at St. John’s Prep, and I am so thankful to have had such wonderful writing and insight brought to my attention. I try to keep up on national and global news as much as possible, and I always found the Syrian refugee crisis, largely because of its scope of the problem. I feel like it can be so easy to get caught up in political rhetoric when problems become this significant and lose the fact that there is a real human impact. Reading your blog helped to open my eyes to the real challenges and obstacles refugees face every day, and has truly helped to humanize and add depth my view on the issue. I feel truly privileged to have been able to read your first hand account of such a pivotal event in our lives and hope too have the pleasure of reading more of your pieces in the future! Thank you!

  3. Hey Mike! Loved reading about your story. Your work is very inspiring, and shows that anyone from anywhere with a passion too help can make a difference. I thought it was amazing that through everything these refugees still have hope and can be genuinely nice people. I feel that we take so many things for granted while living in the states, and these people’s attitudes can show us that we shouldn’t take things for granted. And we should be happy for being able to go about our daily routines and have health and safety. Again thank you for all the work you do and keep it up because it is very inspiring!

  4. Hi Mike! My name is Nolan Webb and I am currently a senior in Ms. Muhilly’s AP English Literature class at St. John’s Prep. I really enjoyed reading your blog in class and wanted to let you know that it changed my initial opinion about refugees in Europe from Syria. I thought your story was very inspiring and eyeopening. Thank you for sharing your ideas and perspective!

  5. Mike, thank you for taking the time to travel and listen to the refugees stories and also for sharing them on this blog so anyone can read it. As it is the case with many world issues that occur, it’s difficult to really understand how bad things are unless you are there experiencing it. You really capture the spirit of these refugees and show their optimism to people that didn’t have the opportunity to sit down and talk with them. Thank you for inspiring us, and best of luck with any future travels.

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