Who needs integration?
Refugees vary greatly in their ability to integrate into their new society. Many do their utmost to learn the German language. Some attempt to understand the customs of Germany and how society functions here. Most would like to make German friends, as it is easier to get used to a new environment when one has a support network. Yet, there is a feeling among many others, particularly the elderly, who hope day and night for a quick return to Syria, that it must be possible to live here without making any effort to integrate.
These individuals prefer to live in places where their countrymen have already settled. They want to make friends without the barriers posed by language and culture. And, of course, they need a satellite dish so that they can continue to watch their familiar Arabic television programmes.
For people in this category, the task of integration is extremely difficult, if not downright impossible. Initially new arrivals are sent to German language classes organised by the state Job Centres. However, the Job Centres and the requirement to acquire a new language alone cannot force people to speak German. As the saying goes, you can bring a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.
You can get by just fine without having to integrate
I recently saw a Palestinian wedding on Sonnenallee in Neukolln, a Berlin district with a large Arab and Turkish population. The event immediately brought to mind life in a Palestinian camp near Damascus. The rituals, ceremony and songs that were sung were exactly the same. Nothing had changed for these people, with the possible exception that they now had the opportunity of enjoying a life of greater prosperity. I made an effort to observe any signs of integration. I did not find a single one.
Many of the Syrian refugees I have met so far in Berlin have complained that the Job Centre has exerted pressure upon them to learn German. One man even started to lecture me about human rights, claiming that being forced to learn a language is incompatible with these lofty principles. He then continued, "We constantly have to see how we can integrate ourselves. But are all Germans integrated?" He wanted to know if there were also Germans who did not live in harmony with mainstream society, raising the examples of isolated, aggressive former criminals. "What, then, is the big deal with integration – you can get by just fine without it!"
Young refugees have an easier time adapting. Falling in love is the simplest and, at the same time, most important reason for embarking on the long path of integration into a new society. The young men traversing this path of love are the lucky ones, who eventually succeed in correctly employing "der," "die," and "das" – and even, someday, in mastering the dative case.
Those who do not enjoy such an opportunity attempt to find other means of fostering contact with Germans. With the few words they have acquired, they talk untiringly to all the salespeople in every store. Even if they don't want to, the latter are forced to listen, barely able to understand the gibberish uttered as a result of a handful of German lessons. After all, the newcomers might become regular customers.
Others opt for the easiest integration route – via fashion. They tear their pants, put on absurdly shaped hats (without knowing that only a small percentage of German football and carnival fans don such headgear – and even then only on certain occasions) and wear oversized headphones. They obviously want to show that they are a part of this modern society.
Yet, these are only superficial attempts, more of an imitation of integration. Real integration goes deeper. It should manifest itself in a different, liberal orientation towards Western values and be accompanied by the conviction that individual freedoms, including equal rights for women, are incontrovertible central pillars of this new social order. Those who truly want to integrate into mainstream society have to accept these values and, ideally, internalise them.
I recently observed a man who looked as if he could have been a fashion model. He was lovingly embracing an Asian woman. Had he been an Arab, he would have had trouble presenting her to his mother, taking into consideration the beauty ideal prevalent in the Arab world. In our strict and superficial society, you still hear the brutal saying: "she will never find anyone to marry." In Germany, by contrast, there is the wonderful adage: "there′s a lid for every pot".
Our traditionalists are uncomfortable with any attempts to explain such a wonderfully free and unprejudiced love. Yet, it shows that the "love of a woman" entails more than supposed outward beauty, guaranteed virginity and the recommendation of the bride's mother – presented to the mother of the potential groom with the ubiquitous gift of cookies.
Most young men in Syria have had pre-marital relationships, in secret of course. During their years at university, clandestine couples are far from uncommon. Things only become problematic should they desire to cement such a relationship in marriage. This is because it is the role of the mother to search out a wife for her eligible son. It is clear that this practice results in numerous problems – ranging from a boring married life all the way to divorce.
Here in Germany, the young as well as the old have the guaranteed freedom to decide for themselves who will be their partner in life. There are no necessarily unwanted or forced marriages that arise out of or are guided by the desires or needs of the extended family.
The wonderful idea of finding your own partner
One part of real integration begins when the newcomers give up their prejudices against open pre-marital relationships between men and women and then embrace the wonderful idea that you can find your own partner. For me, the European-Asian pair was a wonderful expression of this idea. Their families and society accept the free will of the couple to share their lives together. I can even imagine that their parents did not even raise questions concerning the origin, appearance, or even level of education of the partner chosen by their child. It is a matter of trust and respect.
Immigrants have to learn to respect individual preference, as evidenced in the variety of lifestyles here in Germany. For instance, I met a young Lebanese man who is married to a woman at least 25 years older than himself. The difference between them did not appear to bother them. As far as I know, they live a completely normal life in Berlin – together.
But what would happen if they took a trip to Lebanon? Would it be easy for him to present his wife to his mother, who is probably the same age? Could the two of them walk through a city or even his home village hand in hand? I find it difficult to imagine. I am certain that he would find many excuses not to introduce her to his family.
A sense of embarrassment
Daily life in Germany confronts people from Arab countries with previously unknown experiences. Those who have felt embarrassed upon seeing a man and a women wildly making out in public for the first time will soon find this pales into insignificance when they two men or two women kissing.
And since this is something that you see constantly, at least here in Berlin, it is very probable that most refugees will, over the course of time, cease making comparisons with their old homeland. Slowly, the new impressions will set in motion an intellectual process of integration.
Those who nonetheless decide to hold on to their old values with all their might only serve to exclude themselves from the process of integration. They will soon find themselves enclosed by a wall built of their own making – yet one so high that they will no longer even be able to see what is going on around them.
© Sueddeutsche Zeitung 2016
Translated from the German by John Bergeron