Refugees in Germany – A Quest for Social Cohesion

Sirad with her children

Sirad with her children. Sirad fled Somalia and is now a German Citizen

Another year has come to a close, and within the EiCC community, we are well aware of the 65 million displaced people around the world who are still in search of a safe home that will allow them to pursue fulfilling lives. A couple of months ago, ECCN hosted a roundtable on urban refugee education and the key takeaways are available here. Conversations from that event lingered in my mind during my recent trip to Germany last month, and I took the opportunity to talk to urban refugees, asylum seekers, German administrators and volunteers to see what has changed in the ten months since my last blog.

In 2015, the news were filled with stories of tens of thousands of refugees risking their lives trying to get to Europe and in 2016 over 4,500 have again died in the Mediterranean Sea. Germany has shown a lot of solidarity with the refugees. In response to other European countries closing their borders, German Chancellor Merkel’s statement “Ihr Seid Willkommen.” You are welcome—echoed around the world. That simple statement and the good intentions behind it, fueled heated debates among politicians and citizens alike and the consequences of this invitation —to say nothing of the feasibility of realizing it, also as part of the Dublin Regulation, have become regular debates in Brussels and in the streets of Europe.

Contrary to previous predictions, the number of refugees in most German communities is now stable and the influx of refugees in my community just outside Stuttgart has stopped. We have about 350 refugees (5% of the local population) and the immediate crisis to provide housing for them has passed. But new problems have arisen, as it is now obvious that many of the refugees will be staying for longer than previously anticipated. Many of them are now seeking to make Germany their new home. Integration and social cohesion are the buzz words that are supposed to show the way to successful programming and help foster stable communities

Refugees are not a homogenous group

We often talk about refugees as if they were a homogenous group. But they represent a wide range of nationalities, they speak dozens of languages, and they have different religious beliefs and value systems. In addition, they are in Germany for different reasons. Some flee from war, violence, and political prosecution. Some want to stay, and some know already that their requests to stay will be denied. Some are here to build a new future for themselves. Some don’t think about the future and focus only on the present, and how much money they can earn to send their loved ones they left behind.

I went back to the trailers where most refugees have found temporary housing and sat down with half a dozen young men most of them from North Africa. I asked them how they were doing since my last visit. Initially they expressed a lot of gratitude. “We are happy, we want to stay, one of them said. “Here we are safe and have no fear.” Another said, “You have no idea what it means to be constantly afraid for your life.” Another shared a bit more about his odyssey and told me that it had taken him ten years to get to Germany. His journey took him via Senegal and Libya to Greece and finally on to Germany.

But when I asked what was not going so well, our conversation grew more somber and frustrations came through. “I wish I was from Syria – Syrians get everything,” declared a refugee from Gambia. He continued “Their paperwork gets processed quickly. They get German classes. They get training, apprenticeships, and work.” Another refugee chimes in “What do you expect me to do? We are good people; we are not criminals. We just want a job.” His friend added, “We want to contribute, but all we are allowed to do is sit here and wait. It’s frustrating and stressful.”

The local officials who are in charge of programming and integration for the refugees are well aware of the difficulties refugees face and the divide between them and the larger population. One of the greatest challenge they face is explaining political decisions to the refugees, decisions such as which countries are categorized as safe and which are unsafe, as those labels have far reaching consequences. Their decisions may determine a refugee’s fate and who gets access to what level of help. What makes sense on a systemic level, often feels unfair on an individual level. At local volunteer organizations, officials discuss decision-making power and try to help supplement the existing government programs. Often, however, their hands are tied, and volunteer burnout has become a big problem.

Max, a refugee advisor appointed by the town, said, “It breaks my heart to tell our refugees from Gambia that they don’t qualify for sponsored language courses and apprenticeship-to-work programs because they are from Gambia, a ‘safe’ country. We try to make up for it, but sooner or later, most of them will be sent back to Gambia, even though they will, upon their arrival, likely be incarcerated, tortured, or worse.”

Refugees from such “safe countries” often try to assume new identities, to increase their likelihood of obtaining refugee status. They destroy their passports, their birth certificates, and their educational records before being processed in Europe. Thus, tracking and vetting refugees has become increasingly more time consuming.

Integrating refugees is not a new mission

After World War II, many guest workers came to Germany, and they ended up staying. Many of them are now in their third or fourth generation. But they often prefer living in their own communities. They are not fully integrated, even today; their communities coexist with German communities.

Gabi, a former teacher in the community, who, for the last two decades, has led workshops for Turkish, Greek and Italian women, said, “Integrating people in our communities is not a new task. We know what works and what doesn’t, but we are not being asked. We didn’t label it an integration program then – we simply referred to it as what it was: homework support, language classes, social hours, etc. Integration is not something you can learn in a course, integration is a process you need to live, it is an experience. This process also needs to include the German locals. We need to learn too. Many of us don’t understand the changes that are happening and how enriching this can be for all of us.”

In my community, over 300 volunteers currently work to fill the gaps where the official programs fall short. Gabi explained, “A couple of hundred hours in German language classes and lectures on  ‘Life in Germany’ will not be sufficient. We all need to learn to adapt and fit into a new society, and we best do that when we do things we enjoy together.” The task is to coordinate the efforts of the volunteers and develop a curriculum and extracurricular activities that work. Often, however, the well-intentioned volunteers are not experienced or knowledgeable about what works. As Gabi put it, “Unfortunately, sometimes good people try to do good things in bad ways.” Recently, for example, bicycles were donated to refugees, to increase their mobility, so they can more easily get around and partake in life. But the refugees lacked knowledge of German traffic rules, and this caused several accidents, which in turn generated bad publicity for the program. To make matters worse, already disenfranchised Germans, living on social welfare, felt further ostracized, and they became vocal, as they had never received bicycles and other gifts. In the end, a small and well-intended program upset the community and became counter-productive to the goals of fostering integration and social cohesion.

Over the past fifty years, Germany has experienced a small but steady flow of refugees. I spoke with Sirad, a woman from Somalia who came to Germany as a refuge over 20 years ago. Since her arrival, Sirad has gained German citizenship and raised five children, the oldest now attending college. She feels quite integrated. But she still vividly remembers her early days. “When you are new to a country,” she said, “you understand nothing, it’s hard. You have to be here a long time before you really understand, feel at home. There wasn’t much help back then. I had to fight for everything myself.”

Sirad is aware of the different support programs in the community and I shared with her that despite all efforts, 80% of the current refugees don’t participate in any of the offered activities. She frowned and then she told me, “The new refugees get everything handed on a silver platter, but they don’t use the opportunities. I don’t understand that.”

Faisal, her oldest son, said, “Not everybody wants to be integrated. Many of them are here because it’s their best way to support their families at home, with money they get here.” His sister Fadima disagreed, however. Many refugees, she pointed out, come from countries in turmoil, that have often lacked functioning infrastructures, such as schools. “They are no longer ambitious, they simply don’t know how to build a future, especially not in a foreign country. We need to help them see the value and vastness of opportunities they have here,” she said.

Both Faisal and Fadima agreed that traces of racism and prejudice are still noticeable in Germany, and having a darker skin color and covering your head with a scarf still carries a stigma. The family often gets mistaken for refugees. They chuckled when recalling how perplexed some Germans were when they spoke to them in a flawless Swabian dialect and explained that they too were German citizens. Most people, Faisal said, are really nice and try to help. He added, “Those that are mean, are probably just bitter and unhappy with their own lives. I mean, look at us, how can they think we are a threat to their jobs? Germans have countless opportunities for social mobility. It’s not our fault if they don’t use it. I say to them, if you think refugees take your job away, you must have made some bad choices in your life, as you’ve been given a head start. A refugee will probably never be able to fully catch up.”

Is social cohesion a dream?

As my trip drew to a close, I began to wonder if social cohesion was simply a buzzword. Is it unattainable, or can it become a reality? What are the plans for 2017? I was told of a strategy meeting that brought together all the stakeholders in the community, to assess the situation and plan programming for the coming year. The all-day meeting was attended by 30 representatives, under the leadership of a professional facilitator. What I carried away from the meeting was not a silver bullet but some words of the people who are working hard to improve the lives of urban refugees in Germany. Their words are lingering now in my mind as we embark on a new year hoping to find new ways to help 65 million displaced people find a safe home and a new life.

For example, a town administrator working with the refugees said, “Not everybody really wants or welcomes true integration.”

A local businessman who is willing to hire refugees as apprentices and workers said, “Integration has to grow from the bottom up. Integration needs to happen at the state or district level; it cannot be dictated on a national level. Rigid policies at the top can lead to perceived injustices, which then can become the seeds for envy, fear, and anger, all working against the quest to reach social cohesion in local communities.”

A former volunteer who now has a paid position to help with integration of refugees said, “Overall, I think our biggest challenge is that our lives are just too good. We have a hard time really connecting with people having to flee their countries. We cannot understand why people try to come to us. Can we condemn people who come to Germany because they believe it provides them with better opportunities? After all, many of us travel to Switzerland for work.”

A volunteer teacher said, “We have to learn to share again. We need to come together to grant freedom and justice for all. There are many good attempts, but it seems like we lose the empathy and connection to the individual when we go up the system ladder. At the top, we focus too much on numbers and data and forget why we do it in the first place. We no longer see the essential, the individual human being needing help. It’s not all about numbers, but people, after all.”

If this blog, the stories, or the quotes resonate with you, I invite you to share your thoughts in the comment section below. Thank you for your contributions.

Posted in Community of Practice, Forced Displacement Education, Understand and Strive for Equity

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