The integration litmus test

Success for some means failure for others

The presentation in the media of the outstanding success stories of refugees in certain professions or in their studies misses the mark, in the opinion of Syrian author Housamedden Darwish. He believes that life after flight and integration into a new society should not be represented as some kind of test

Accounts of individual refugees' particularly exceptional achievements in integration are receiving a great deal of social and media attention in certain host countries. Such success stories are being spread not only by mainstream media outlets in the respective countries, but also by those operated by refugees themselves or media dedicated to the themes of flight and migration.

Some of the articles tell of extraordinary professional or academic achievements. They highlight excellent exam results or certificates with which refugees surpassed their colleagues or fellow students. Others recognise cases where refugees learned German particularly quickly, or completed a course of training with better results than (nearly) all the other participants or trainees. And then there are the accounts of refugees being financially supported by institutions abroad, or honoured in other ways for their exceptional talents or achievements.

Although all these stories are presumably told with the intention of fostering a positive image of refugees and pointing out successful cases of integration, they are accompanied by problematic implications.

What makes a "successful refugee"?

In the following, I would like to discuss the two most important aspects involved: first, what kind of image is being spread here of the "successful refugee"? And second, these stories tend to gloss over the deeper reasons that underlie the success or failure of social and professional integration.

Trainer Wolfgang Wonneberger (l) from Jenaer Feinblech GmbH in Jena, Thuringia demonstrates working techniques to 19-year-old Afghan refugee Rezwan Waziri, 25.08.2016 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/J.-U. Koch)
Objective circumstances make for an unlevel playing field: it makes a serious difference whether a person receives only one year of subsidiary protection without an entitlement to family reunification, or whether they are granted a three-year right of residence and can live under one roof with other members of their family

The first problematic implication is reflected in the frequent presentation of outstanding individual accomplishments as being based solely on the exceptional talent and capabilities of the protagonists. Such portrayals can trigger frustration for "normal" refugees: the feeling of not being good enough and having no realistic chance of successful integration into the new society.

"Normal" or "average" people are, however, in the majority in every society and community. There is no reason why this truism should not also apply to refugees. Many of these success stories thus lead to greater frustration among refugees rather than encouraging and motivating them to follow the example of these ostensible role models.

Therefore, we should carefully consider the following question: are special abilities and exceptional talents really necessary for success in the host society?

Objective circumstances are vitally important

What is often concealed within the context of these success stories is the importance of "objective" circumstances and factors that have little to do with the individual's determination, skill and talent, and more to do with the host society and new environment the refugees find themselves in.

A scholarship or other form of individual assistance is always an exceptional case. Apart from this, refugees' starting conditions differ greatly regarding for example their housing situation, the opportunities they have to learn German, or their residence status. It makes a serious difference whether a person receives only one year of subsidiary protection without an entitlement to family reunification, or whether they are granted a three-year right of residence and can live under one roof with other members of their family.

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