This post was first published on Between Borders.
Germany is cold, in many senses of the word. Syria is warm, in many senses of the word. As more than 400,000 Syrian asylum seekers have made their way to Germany over the past two years or so, the challenge of integration, of adapting to the culture, norms, laws, and climate of Germany, is not easy, and the size of the challenge has caught many—on both sides—off guard. A series of attacks, some of which were perpetrated by Syrian and other asylum seekers, has done little to calm everyone’s nerves when it comes to the “i-word,” integration. ‘What does it even mean?’ some ask. ‘Is it even possible?’ I’ve heard others say. Like refugees’ notion of home, integration remains elusive, recognized as a challenge and addressed only at the levels of economy, movement, and government benefits.
I assume that the word integrate comes from the Latin integrare, which means “to make whole.” The discussion of integration—of refugees in Germany, of minority communities in London, of schools in the 1960s—would sound and feel vastly different if we stuck to Latin, if we stuck to discussing about how to make people and communities whole. If integration policy were focused on making people whole, the programs we design with and for migrants, refugees, and native-born who feel excluded and marginalized—would look vastly different, focusing on more robust models of social work and health care, mental health, oppression, corruption, and privilege.
Berlin, the second largest city in the EU, is a messy case study (also here) in diversity, inclusion, and integration, and is in the midst of a formative period in her history. Almost certainly, history books of 100 years from now will make mention of the country that—like it or not, want it or not—is weathering an experiment of allowing more than a million “unvetted,” practically unknown, individuals to settle in her borders. Furthermore, Germany has been providing social benefits to those granted asylum and refugee status. Basically, they have made a major political, ethical, and financial commitment to asylum seekers within their borders, far more than any other Western country.
Criticism is easy, as is generalization; there is little to gain by exploring attacks against or by migrants, as such information tells us little, other than that there are terrible people everywhere. However, beyond the hard-to-verify data on attacks, and irrespective of the flaws in Germany’s service and benefits provision for asylum seekers and refugees, or the complex implications of Germany’s policies for other countries in the EU, the basic decision do what no other nations were willing to do in response to this major migration crisis is something of historic significance. And, it must be noted that there are countless stories of sharing, caring, selflessness, and hospitality by Germans, some of whom have gone to unbelievable lengths to welcome those “newcomers.”
People around the world have latched on to different parts of Germany’s refugee story, the parts that fuel what they already want to hear and see. Indeed, there is a macro story of Germany’s refugee crisis. This story—the story of headlines and emotions—discusses refugees as an “issue,” a monolith of trauma or resilience, risk or benefit, Islamization or diversity, depending on who is talking, and what incident they are talking about. In the macro story, refugees are considered and decided about in bulk, tied to yet more events and people outside of their control or influence. We know this macro story—one Afghan murders people, and Muslim refugees are suddenly a major security risk. A young refugee opens a business, and that means that it’s easy to integrate in Germany.
Underneath the macro story, though, there is a micro story of the crisis, a mosaic story comprised of the experiences of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, and others trying to make sense of Germany and life in Europe. These micro stories are first about survival, and second about adaptation, and each one is filled with milestones of loss, love, sacrifice, and resilience—together forming an unclear image that brings to light major shortcomings in the system, the disgusting toll of hate speech, and major risks within the refugee community. The micro story is overwhelming, but it is the refugees’ reality.
At points, the macro and micro stories touch, affecting each other, for better or for worse. In December 2016, a Tunisian migrant with an impressive criminal record and penchant for finding loopholes in EU deportation law, rammed a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin’s upscale Ku’damm neighborhood. This incident became a massive black spot on the macro story of Germany’s refugees.
For the Syrian refugee in Berlin, the connection from Anis Amri to Syrian refugee made little sense cognitively, but a lot of sense emotionally. On the one hand, why would Anis Amri, a criminal who came to Europe from Africa, well before the war in Syria escalated, affect the reception and reputation of Syrian refugees in Germany? But Syrians, like most of us, understand how the tribal human mind works, and they knew that this incident was bound to be a new roadblock in their personal micro story as a refugee. They knew they would face backlash, yet again, for something outside of their control. The cycle is a familiar one for hundreds of thousands of refugees around the world.
I went to Nader’s house on the promise of shawarma, sheesha, and watching for the first time a loved Syrian comedy called Dayaa Dayaa, which, interestingly, is subtitled from Arabic to Arabic, as the characters speak in a difficult, and apparently entertaining accent unique to the hills between Hama and the Mediterranean (As a Bostonian, I could empathize.) We made it through half a shawarma and ten minutes of the show before Ra’ed, who had invited me to Nader’s house, started talking about the “i-word.”
Syrian refugees don’t necessarily feel safe talking about their struggles in Germany; they have deeply internalized others’ expectations that they be grateful and accepting at all times, especially around guests. As Ra’ed spoke about the countless challenges of making a life in Germany and within her systems, Nader’s leg twitched furiously, anxious about what he could, should, and should not say. Ra’ed put his hand on Nader’s shoulder. “It’s okay; say what you want.”
Nader blurted out: “I‘m shy to call myself Arab now!” His leg stopped twitching, and he sunk his forehead into his palm.
He continued: “No society is all good. There are always a few bad people who ruin things.”
The seven other men in the room, ranging from six to thirty-two years old nodded, each one recalling incidents where they felt ashamed, needing to apologize on behalf of someone who looked like them—dark-skinned, bearded, with broken German, Arab or not, Syrian or not.
“The son of a bitch who ran over those people in the market…he wasn‘t Syrian.” Nader was emotional. “But that doesn‘t matter to people. He was ‘Arab‘ and that‘s what people cling to.” His micro story, affected by a macro story.
Nader, paranoid about being watched and wire-tapped like many Syrian refugees I’ve met—hardly a surprising response from people who fled a military state with a massive secret police and surveillance system—quickly grew quiet. Ra’ed, my “in” to the group, reassured Nader, saying “Talk. This is a safe space. He is safe.”
With much to say and little outlet to say it, Nader went on: “Some Syrian kids just find it fun to do drugs, to smoke, to harass women. This is all new. They‘re lost. It‘s hard to just be uprooted entirely and still remain ‘you‘. The few sons of bitches who don‘t get it and who screw up are ruining it for everyone else.” He took a breath, and kept going.
“They‘re all ‘Arabs’ they [Germans] say. We hear them; we speak basic German. We see their subtle looks on the metro every day. I‘m scared to be Arab. They don‘t know if I‘m Tunisian or Syrian or whatever.” He sighed; he had run out of this round of steam.
Shame is a profoundly destructive feeling. Shame should not be part of the life of someone seeking asylum and protection. But, as we let our tribalism spin uncontrolled, shame and fear will continue to outpace safety, compassion, and logic, in our own communities, and among refugees. For Nader, integration and shame remain locked in a very confusing, very destructive, internal battle.
I had little to say to Nader, a single father raising two sons on his own in a foreign country that he walked to from Turkey, scared to talk in his own home for fear of being misunderstood, scared to admit he resents subtle racism and misinterpretation of who, and what, he is and wants. What could I say to provide any insight when he is subject, every day, to manipulation by multiple entities—media, terrorists, charities—when he feels impotent and fears near constant misunderstanding.
Nader walked to Germany with his youngest brother and six-year-old son, little Amr. He hoped that the German government would help bring his wife, Amr’s mother, and his other kids to Germany as a family re-unification case, if he first came with half the family himself. It has been a year, and the system is backlogged, placing Umm Amr’s case in a pile with many like it. Did Nader separate his family? Yes, but he did it in order to get them all together again, away from war, as quickly as possible. A father who loves his wife and kids usually never has to face such a choice. He did what he thought was best, but paperwork proved him wrong. This is Nader’s micro-story, tossed aside but caught up by the macro story which favors a less complicated, and still tragic and true narrative—a truck ramming into a Christmas market.
Frequently, I see people posting on social media, asking where the “moderate Muslims” are, why they don’t speak up. Well, here you go. They—a “they” which is really just code word for “normal people”—speak up every day, working constantly and self-effacingly within their own families, communities, and neighbors to keep the ship together on a horrible journey of forced migration, complete breakdown of families, and insurmountable daily stressors, where the risks outpace the rewards, and the fear speaks louder than the hope.
Right-wing new outlets would eat up the chance to run with Nader’s words, to exploit even the slightest self-condemnatory talk by a Syrian migrant. Nader’s expression of fear, resentment, and shame—towards Germans, and towards some individuals in his own community—illustrates the complexity of the refugee issue. Nader lives in a climate where even the slightest admission of imperfection, the slightest concession that there are problems in the refugee community, cedes existential space to his enemies.
We can all predict the headline—“Syrians admit to violent culture, violent individuals among them.” That was easy to do, because we’ve created a world where the admission of a problem is received as surrender, and the criticism of a (Western) host is read as a security risk. Neither being a victim of war, nor being a recipient of aid, nor being welcomed by strangers, requires gratitude, and it should not strip you of your right to speak up and out about your own community, or the community you reside among. But, Nader knows that few ears can really listen to his fear, his condemnation, and his gratefulness in the same sentence. This is why the macro story is shaped by the villains.
As Nader began to feel safer in conversation, he ate more of his shawarma. He continued, “And the terrorists, they use us too. Do you really think a Syrian refugee, who keeps his ID papers tightly guarded like a treasure in his pocket at all times, would plan mass murder, and in the process of fleeing, somehow leave his passport and asylum papers on the seat of the car? No. Something is wrong. It‘s completely illogical. Not how a refugee‘s mind works.”
Indeed, that is not how a refugee’s mind, a mind that prioritizes survival and coping, works.
Earlier that evening, Mohammad, a 30 year-old refugee, explained his “deep instability” (عدم استقرار) since arriving in Germany, and the internal aspect of integration, in the mind and heart. Mohammad teared up as he talked, saying that he is now “so far—farther than I ever imagined”—from all he knew, from what he expected his life would be, just a few years go.
Mohammad, like many young refugee men I’ve met, fell in love soon after he arrived in Germany, and he hoped that his girlfriend would be one point of stability in a time of constant change and adaptation. Months after they got together, they broke up, sending Mohammad into a place of renewed insecurity and instability. And, like so many, he has internalized a lot of the negative rhetoric about himself, and about refugees.
“I shaved my precious beard,” he lamented, running his hands through his stubble where his hipster, waxed beard was once full. “I felt watched…paranoid, but a paranoia I know is rooted in my complete and deep instability in every area of life.”
Mohammad has applied to jobs and has been rejected. He has tried to advance in German, but depends on the registration center (“job center”) to be assigned a spot in the next language level. A small hiccup with documentation moved him out of the running for a refugee teacher training program; he now has to wait a year. Little, to nothing, is within his control, so he has invested immense amounts of time in becoming painfully self-aware, a skill which has saved him from falling into major depression.
“I just need something, anything to bring me that deep breath that comes with feeling ‘settled‘. I’ve been here a year, I can’t continue unsettled.”
Mohammad was a physics teacher in Syria, and as we drank mate in his room, we talked about high school physics—my worst class of all time. Mohammad hopes to become a physics tutor or teacher for Syrian kids in Germany, and we discussed that, for the sake of stability and normalcy, perhaps he should take a refresher physics course online.
“I forgot Newton’s laws” he laughed, while scouring Coursera for something useful.
“You are Newton’s laws,” I replied.
He scoffed, “shlon? [what?]”
“A body in motion stays in motion” I reminded him. “You’ve been in motion for 4 years.”
For Mohammad, as for Nader and Ra’ed, integration has become yet another obstacle, something they risk doing wrong, something elusive yet obligatory, and something too much controlled by others, be it Anis Amri or the man behind the counter at a job center.
To be a Syrian refugee in Germany is not paradise, as many assume. To be a self-aware invisible statistic in a macro story is a prolonged agony. “What are we supposed to do?” Nader asked me. “Like us, the vast majority of Germans are good, and kind, but that doesn’t get me any closer to feeling ‘integrated’.”
Nader and Mohammad have not found peace; their peace has been delayed by perceived looks, glances, and insults, by the inability to openly ask, complain, and cry. For Nader, stability and peace may only come when his wife and other children arrive. For Mohammad, after being in Germany, in the same city and same house for a year—a feeling he hasn’t known since fleeing Syria in 2012—stability and peace may only come when he finds some small thing he has control over. For both men, they crave a sense of rest, but for now, they can only imagine it in an unknown timeframe they summarize as “inshallah.”
To really integrate, to be made whole, has little to do with language acquisition, employment, or housing—though those steps are pieces of the puzzle. For someone fleeing war, losing family, losing identity, waiting in countless lines, wholeness is seemingly intangible, but a first step is rest, is feeling settled. And, only from a place of rest—psychologically and physically—can the bigger questions of integration, of crime, language, job markets, and education, be meaningfully discussed and addressed.
Back at Mohammad’s house, he slowly put his cup of mate down. He repeated Newton’s First Law. “A body in motion, stays in motion.” He laughed, trailing off with “ya zalemehhhhh…” which translates roughly to “duuuuuude”.
He smiled. “I’ve been in motion for so long. Maybe I’m scared what is behind me when I finally rest.”
Maybe, for Mohammad and thousands of others, tending to what lies underneath their inertia—maybe fear, stress, loneliness, pain, anger, confusion, love, stoicism—should be the focus of our integration, of making all of us, whole.