Syrian refugee Nather Henafe Alali

Exile and integration: the double whammy

As a result of this war, we Syrians experience terrible things every day, even in exile: despite the distance, we suffer along with those members of the population who have stayed in our country. At the same time, we ′exiles′ experience what it means to be foreign, writes Nather Henafe Alali in his third column

For a few years now, we Syrians have been the topic of endless debate, not to mention the target of damaging verbal attacks – either as individuals or collectively. The discussion revolves around asylum, integration, differences in customs and culture – and often ends in Islamophobia, especially when it kicks off with the keywords terrorism and extremism. The latter may be nothing new and it is a long way from being something that only affects us, but we Syrians dominate such discussions, simply because – in the countries that take in refugees – we are the largest group and we have become synonymous with the misery of this century.

Ever since 2011, when the Syrian people dared to stage an uprising not seen in Syria since the 1920s and Assad responded by starting a war against his own people, more than a few Syrian intellectuals have been using the word ′exile′ to refer to those compatriots who have fled abroad. The ironic thing about this is that most Syrians had to leave their country at the very point when they were dreaming of and fighting for a new country: a country in which they would be free and could enjoy democracy. But the Assad clan′s killing machine confounded these hopes in a nightmare of massacres, arrests, sieges, expulsion and death by drowning.

Fear of the unknown

As a result of this war, we Syrians experience terrible things every day, even in exile: despite the distance, we suffer along with those members of the population who have stayed in our country. At the same time, we ′exiles′ experience what it means to be foreign; forced to examine our own culture and identity – something we had never considered before – which we carry with us as refugees and bring to the new society.

In many of the destination countries for migrants and refugees, voices are often heard warning about the new arrivals, who have been tested by crisis and suffering and might potentially pose a danger to the character and stability of the country to which they have fled. I hear these discussions here in Germany and I heard them elsewhere too, in Arab or Muslim countries such as Lebanon and Turkey.

Syrian refugees waiting outside Germany′s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Stratenschulte)
Integration is not a one-way street: "My fear is that when integration is simply demanded, like an allergic reaction, it aims at obliterating something fundamental about the other. Demand that other people change quickly and profoundly and the venture is destined to fail," writes Nather Henafe Alali

Against this backdrop, politicians and opinion leaders from all quarters are calling for integration. I too believe that integration, conceived in a way that serves both guests and hosts, is helpful; when it is based on mutual respect and anchored in law and in programmes. Calm and openness is needed on both sides, however. My fear is that when integration is simply demanded, like an allergic reaction, it aims at obliterating something fundamental about the other. Demand that other people change quickly and profoundly and the venture is destined to fail.

Integration is not assimilation

However we approach it, integration should be seen as a concept that has its limitations and above all requires time. It is not a re-education programme and it should not aim to snuff out one identity in order to protect the other. I see integration more as a lively and variable kind of interaction that opens up new directions. It should begin with constructive, intensive programmes that open doors to us, providing us access to day-to-day life.

The end goal of integration is not assimilation. If your only view of integration is from the watchtower of a battle between identities and cultures, you will just intensify the conflicts. I also find it paradoxical that the societies of the countries that take in refugees are so afraid for their own character, although it is undisputed and dominates everyday life. They are afraid of people who are suffering because they have to live as foreigners – in exile – and swho are themselves afraid that as a minority they might lose their character and their cultural identity.

Fears and concerns don′t always have to be incomprehensible. But in our world today, differences between people, particularly among the younger generation, are increasing. Despite this, the way some people discuss differences borders on mania and is damaging. Personally, I also regard the discussion surrounding integration, identity, exile and home as the weighty legacy of conflicts fed by nationalism and hatred. And unfortunately, both of these are present in all cultures.

Nather Henafe Alali

© Nather Henafe Alali

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

This article was first published in ″Der Spiegel, 27/2016″.

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