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Stratified Belonging, Layered Subjectivities

Zong Yao Edison Yap

5. Findings II: Integration

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1The preceding chapter presented the first part of my findings, which highlighted specific instances of discrimination experienced by both refugees and migrants in Berlin as well as the forces which play a role in sustaining and amplifying discrimination. This chapter shifts its analytical lens to the topic of integration and provides snapshots of the refugees’ and migrants’ social life in Berlin. Through these vignettes, I aim to highlight turning points which were instrumental in shaping their (dis)integration into Berlin and to underscore the complexity of integrating migrants and refugees.

2Accordingly, this chapter focuses on three aspects of refugees’ social life in Berlin. The first section explores their cohabitation experience in Berlin and shows how living with and being exposed to other cultures and worldviews have led refugees to develop a perception of cultural division or impermeability between them and the Germans. In the second section, I invited my interlocutors to reflect on the changes in composition in their social circle and the reasons for that since arriving in Berlin. Through this exercise, we are able to highlight key junctures in their settlement trajectory that are instrumental to their varying degrees of integration in Berlin. The third section delves into strategies refugees use to temporarily or permanently fit in or to mark themselves as different against the dominant German culture or society. The fourth section recapitulates the insights gained from Chapters 4 and 5 and responds to the academic literature cited in the literature review, in particular Esser, Uslucan and Yalcin, and Mandel.

5.1 Cultural Differences during Cohabitation

3In Berlin, and for the average migrant – regardless of nationality, legal status, duration of stay, and so on – it is notoriously difficult to find housing because immigration into the city and gentrification have led to soaring rents in popular districts of Berlin. For most migrants, including myself, the most common form of living is in a shared apartment, or Wohngemeinschaft (WG in short) – this offers the best chance of securing affordable accommodation in a favourable location. More importantly, however, living in a shared apartment can be seen as a microcosm of living in a diverse setting such as Berlin, for one interacts with other housemates possessing different worldviews, value systems, and lifestyles.

4Khaled had lived in five different WGs before settling on one in Kreuzberg. When I asked whether his cohabitation with his housemates had been harmonious, he stated that it indeed had been with the exception of three sticking points. First, he felt that his German housemates’ commitment to environmental sustainability – not allowing him to use the heater during spring, for instance – was less about saving the environment and more “an excuse to be cheap”. Second, Khaled said that his Arab culture had sometimes affected his relationships with his German and Canadian housemates: in his culture, claimed Khaled, people are very open about sharing their experiences and opinions. In contrast, however, his German housemates “are very strict” about the kinds of conversation topics they could talk about. “Sometimes, they would ask me what is the point of me discussing something.” Khaled then clarified that his refugee status had not gotten in the way of his cohabitation with his housemates – but occasionally his Arab culture did. Interestingly, Khaled’s negative impression and portrayal of his housemates’ energy-saving habits and Germans’ “strict conversation rules” agrees with findings that show an increased sense of in-group identification and positive attribution of in-group characteristics in order to achieve positive social identity vis-à-vis the out-group (Uslucan & Yalcin, 2012, pp. 15–17).

5Mustafa felt the same way about this so-called “Arab-German cultural divide”. He said that in the Syrian culture, it is not difficult or uncommon for him to get into an in-depth discussion about politics or race with someone whom he had just met. Few topics are considered taboo. In contrast,

For many Germans, those are not a “small talk” thing you can carry out with people who you have just met. You need to first reach a certain level of connection with them before doing so. So if for you that kind of interaction is essential to have a friendship with Germans, then it will be a problem.

6Sam shared Khaled’s and Mustafa’s sentiments about the Arab culture being more open. To him, when he lived with his Arab housemate, they were like brothers and could enter into each other’s rooms without first knocking on the door. When he moved into a WG with German housemates however, Sam learned about the concept of privacy in German culture. Sam said:

It is more private in the WG. I want to be friends with them, and I want to eat together with them. I want to watch Netflix with them and have funny conversations too. With the Arabs there were a lot of these – but with the Germans, not so many. There wasn’t much communication.

7Sam also resented the fact that his Arab culture was always being reduced to food:

Most of the people when they know that I am an Arab or from Syria, they will say “Ah, kannst du das machen, Kuchen oder Falafel?” [“Ah, can you make cakes or falafel?”]. Yes, I know, it is part of my culture. Food is very important to Arab culture too – but my culture is not only about food. Because a lot of people when I say I am Arab they go “Ah, Tabbouleh und Falafel sind echt lecker.” [“Ah, tabbouleh and falafel are very delicious”]. What the fuck, my culture is not only about food. Okay, they are delicious, but I also want to offer something else, not just food – maybe culture, actions, respect, Islam, the region. Everything. About my family, my thoughts.

8Aside from different conceptions of privacy, what is deemed appropriate conversation topics, and perceptions of what one’s culture represents, other more mundane factors such as age and work life can also lead to little interaction between the refugees and their housemates. For Mohamed, he hardly spoke to his housemates because they were much older and so shared few common interests with him; having a very busy school and work life also made it harder for Mohamed to spend time with his cohabitants.

5.2 Changing Composition of Social Circles Over Time – or the Lack Thereof

9One question which almost always caught my interviewees by surprise was that which invited them to reflect on whether the friends they used to have upon arrival were the ones they had at the time of the interview – and the reasons for the change in their composition. Often, the respondents and I would get into an interactive exercise where I would share the various channels of socialisation along my personal integration trajectory – i.e. through the four language schools I have attended; through my newfound interest in techno music, my exchange programme in Berlin, or getting to know progressive Singaporeans in Berlin, and so forth – in order to invite them to reflect on their own experience.

10Khaled initially had only Arab friends as he did not know much English and German upon arrival. Through living in various shared apartments, Khaled was introduced by his housemates to not just a new lifestyle, but also a new way of thinking. One of his German housemates introduced him to Berlin’s techno scene and another told him that “religion is a means of oppressing people and it restricts a whole range of possibilities in life”. Khaled agreed with his housemate and thought that “having non-Arab and non-Muslim friends allowed him to “examine his culture objectively”. Soon after, as he began to immerse himself in the Berlin nightlife and in drinking alcohol, he started to drift away from his Arab friends as “[he] didn’t have fun with them anymore”. Whenever Khaled was with his Arab friends, they would criticise his “haram” lifestyle (forbidden in Islam). In response to that, he gradually stopped sharing details about his life and soon stopped meeting them altogether.

11Khaled’s “opening up” to a new lifestyle in Berlin also spurred him to explore other avenues of socialising. Through social media pages such as Facebook, he attended events where he would meet other migrants in Berlin or show them around the city; this way, his social circle expanded substantially. Khaled credited consuming alcohol to helping him “relax” as he was by nature a very introverted person. He said that in Berlin and in Germany, “drinking was necessary if he wanted to fit in.” That prompted me to ask him whether he thought that he was well integrated in Berlin, to which Khaled replied:

Right now, I am integrated to a point where it is 40 to 50%. But I do not wish to integrate any further or to be fully integrated into German society because I want to keep my culture and not lose it. I have integrated enough.

12As he enjoyed his relative freedom in Berlin, Khaled began using mobile phone dating applications such as “Tinder”. At first, Khaled identified as a heterosexual, but curiosity got him to change the settings of the application such that he could socialise with both men and women. Subsequently, Khaled went on his first date with a man and that got him sexually confused. After subsequent dates with both genders, Khaled determined that he was bisexual.

13For Ahmad, a 22-year-old former Palestinian refugee from Syria who was studying his bachelor’s degree in Berlin, meeting new non-religious people, being exposed to new ideas and being preoccupied with work contributed to his questioning of Islam, becoming less religious, and thereafter, distancing himself from his religious friends. Ahmad lived in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates for most of his life as his family moved there from Homs in Syria in search of a better livelihood. Back then, he said that he and his religiosity was under constant surveillance by his family:

Over in Sharjah I was living with my parents and they knew my every move. Back then I was also very religious – also the first year when I came here. I guess I changed when I did not have this 24/7 surveillance.

14What sparked the process of becoming less religious was Ahmad’s heavy workload at the university and at work. Often, Ahmad would not have the time to pray. Whenever he skipped prayers, he would be “too lazy” to make up for them. Eventually, he stopped praying altogether as he “did not feel God” while praying. Prayers became mere “physical and routine motions” to Ahmad. Socially, his questioning of his faith brought him great discomfort when he hung out with his religious friends. He felt the need to “keep pretending” to be religious and, because he had just started consuming alcohol and smoking marijuana – things which are forbidden in Islam – he found it impossible to continue being around his initial circle of friends. Ahmad reflected that he began drinking alcohol in order to fit in, but soon he stopped consuming alcohol – ironically, because he realised he was doing so to blend into German society.

15Ahmad’s closest friends were five Syrian refugees who are non-religious. Even though his friends were refugees, Ahmad made it a point when introducing himself to others to highlight that he was in Berlin on a student visa and was therefore not a refugee. When I asked why he felt it necessary to do so, Ahmad had this to say:

The thing is, whenever you say you are a refugee, many people will immediately start treating you differently. All these stereotypes will start to apply. Even if they don’t want it [stereotypes and prejudice], they have it in them. People will ask “How did you come here?” And if you tell them you are Syrian. they will start feeling sympathy for you. I don't want that. I want them to just treat me not based on any nationality or any trait.

16Ahmad’s case is worthy of mention because it underscores the highly dynamic and mutable nature of one’s integration process. One would assume that Ahmad’s becoming less religious and his consumption of alcohol – which is oftentimes a barrier to integration for Muslim migrants and refugees – would lead him on a path towards having, perhaps, more non-Muslim or non-Arab friends. That assumption did not hold in his case because of a certain path dependency which followed him as he grew up as a Muslim – that is, his unfamiliarity with the beverage and its effects and his subsequent return to no alcohol consumption. This could explain why his closest circle of friends at the time of the interview consisted of only non-religious Syrian refugees.

17Similar to Khaled and Ahmad, Mohamed had only Arab friends – of whom most were Syrians – in the beginning as he could not speak German; that changed as soon as he became proficient and gradually his social circle began to be comprised of more Germans and people from all over. Mohamed admitted that he hadn’t had much time to hang out with his friends – German or not – because he now resided in the nearby city of Potsdam for his university studies, he was married, and he was too busy with work. Mohamed was a pious Muslim who prayed five times a day; even so, he did not mind attending events or meeting friends in places where alcohol or pork is served. Similarly, Mohamed said that his non-Muslim and non-Arab friends were very “easy-going” as they would be happy to go to a shisha lounge instead of a bar. However, Mohamed admitted that alcohol and pork still remained barriers to integration for Muslims like him:

Sometimes being with Germans, it is difficult because they mainly go to drink. So being with them, I cannot drink. Sometimes it is a barrier to integrate with them. When we go to their houses or when they come to ours, we need to drink something other than alcohol. With the many communities I encounter in Berlin, recreation is always about going to bars to drink, going to discos... something like this.

18The issue of food (e.g. alcohol and pork) surfaced time and again in my interviews with Arab refugees and migrants in Berlin. Sam resented his culture being essentialised and reduced to “food” as it was clearly more than that. Mohamed admitted that different ideas about both alcohol and pork were an inconvenience for both parties because either side had to compromise. Furthermore, Mohamed said that after working one year as a voluntary social worker dealing with refugee issues at an independent organisation called AWO Berlin, Germans still brought up the issue of alcohol as a marker of integration for him:

I have worked with Germans for almost one year. And after I finished that year, one of them said “You succeeded one year in Germany without drinking alcohol.” So for them it is like, “Oh, he is not drinking. He should be drinking. It is something normal for us in Germany.” Some of them… they want people to assimilate and be just like the Germans. Some don’t accept the differences. So sometimes this is annoying.

19Mohamed’s remark is an important one for it questions Berlin’s cosmopolitanism. It demonstrates how differences were not respected or accepted by some members of the dominant culture but were instead seen as barriers that should eventually come down with time, i.e. assimilation. This topic will be dealt with in more detail in the concluding chapter.

20Lastly, the composition of one’s social circle can depend on one’s mindset upon arriving in the country of destination. For Mustafa, his brother and him wanted to learn about Berlin society once they were settled in the city:

The first thing we did was to visit events in 2015. Then, it was common to have events organised by NGOs and other organisations which brought refugees and migrants together with locals. Like the “Sprachcafe” [an event where participants would meet other new migrants and practise speaking German] or music event. One of the activities we attended was a cooking event called Refugio. There’s also Give Something Back to Berlin (GSBTB) [a platform that aimed to foster community integration, intercultural dialogue and participation among migrants in Berlin].

At GSBTB, we met Lorna, who eventually became my sister-in-law. She’s one of the founders of GSBTB. Lorna was involved in a refugee movement which happened in 2013 where they occupied Oranienplatz [a famous neighbourhood in the heart of Kreuzberg] for a year. There, she lived along that area and she knew the people there and they started cooking there in the streets. Subsequently, she grew GSBTB and made it more sustainable and professionalised. Those events were my gateway to Berlin in a way. You can say that the people who went there... a lot of them are still my friends.

21Attending the multiple grassroots-organised events not only expanded and diversified Mustafa’s social network, it also spurred him to develop tours and workshops with his brother and Lorna to introduce tourists and Berlin residents to issues of refugee integration and immigration and the intricacies of humanitarian work. One of his tours, titled “Why Are We Here?” was truly innovative: it compared the experiences of authoritarianism and surveillance in both Syria and Germany and identified the parallels in both to underscore how the Syrian refugee crisis is not an occurrence totally foreign to German history. To Mustafa, in addition to fulfilling the usual integration “tasks” expected of a refugee such as learning the German language or going for skills-upgrading training, he had expanded on the idea of “integration” by delivering services that helped local Germans, migrants, and tourists have a more nuanced understanding of the immigration issues facing Germany.

22Dana was probably a shining example of a model immigrant in Berlin. As mentioned above, Dana had more than a decade of experience working with Iraqi refugees through UNHCR in Syria and, at the time of the interview, she was working at the Flüchtlingspaten Syrien helping Syrian refugee women integrate into Berlin society. To Dana, she had not faced any significant discrimination in Berlin because she was “a person with a sense of humour” and she “did not take it personally” when someone in Berlin asked her where she was from (in contrast, Syrian refugees resented that question because it disputes their belonging in Berlin and makes them feel like “unwelcomed guests”). Dana said: “I am happy to look different because I am different. Difference does not necessarily have to be a bad thing, you know?” She actively taught her two children – who identified as “just Germans” – to be proud of their Arab heritage.

23While Khaled, Sam, and Mustafa highlighted that Germans’ sensitivity to what was deemed appropriate for conversation differed from the general Arab culture of being open to discuss anything, Dana had quite the opposite opinion:

In our culture, it is always talk, talk, talk. “Look at this person, look at that person.” The Syrians and Arabs gossip a lot. It is nice that Germans are direct.

24Consequently, Dana added that all her friends are Germans. However, Dana used her husband to emphasise that the situation differed from person to person, as my findings have shown:

For example, my husband is a doctor, but he is not interested in being integrated into the German society but would rather like to be with Arabs. And we are different in this sense because to me, I live in Germany and I have no time to spend time with the typical who are always judging me and who are always talking behind my back. I have Syrian friends back home and many friends from school. I am more interested in the other side of the society – like the Germans. Even though we are coming from different social classes, my husband thinks differently. He only has two German friends and they are just his colleagues.

5.3 Fitting In and Standing Out

25Erving Goffman’s works on stigma and impression management and “passing” are especially salient here for he discusses how individuals in the social world project an idealised image of themselves or hide certain disadvantageous characteristics from others for the benefit of others and themselves (Goffman, 1959).

26As has been shown, despite living in a city known for its openness, refugees and migrants face frequent discrimination in Berlin for the multiple visible and invisible characteristics they harbour or the behaviour they act out: visible characteristics such as one’s ethnicity, religiosity (e.g., the Islamic headdress), and choices regarding the act of consuming alcohol, and invisible features such as one’s beliefs (and again, religiosity), legal status (e.g. refugee status), and sexual orientation. Consequently, refugees and migrants have developed multiple ways to respond to discrimination in Berlin: these range from the adoption of ready-made models of what German-ness in Berlin constitutes – alcohol and pork consumption, a critical view of religion and Islamic dressing, a mindfulness about privacy and appropriateness, respect for LGBT individuals, for instance – to acts of resistance, circumvention, and subversion of discrimination.

5.3.1 Performing “German-ness”

27There is no way of defining what constitutes German-ness or a “Berliner” for there exists a high level of heterogeneity among individuals. Nonetheless, there exists ready-made models for what could be perceived as being “German” or a “Berliner”, and this can include the act of consuming alcohol and pork, being open-minded in the case of Berlin, and so on.

28Broadly speaking, the adoption of these markers of German-ness can be temporary, permanent (but performative or to “pass” in Goffman’s sense), and permanent (with genuine change in preference and beliefs). The word “performative” is used here to express the situational and temporal nature of refugees’ and migrants’ change in behaviour as well as the underlying duality between one’s public performance and private beliefs. For instance, the act of removing one’s headscarf to avoid discrimination in the public sphere or discrimination during one’s search for employment is a performative act as the individual still retains her religious beliefs. In addition to a performative and permanent change to one’s visible characteristics, the respondents in my interviews have shown genuine changes in their preferences and worldviews – such as taking to more progressive values and being more open to and accepting of alternative lifestyles. Finally, it is important here to underline that the adoption of markers of identity can be reversible as will be demonstrated below.

5.3.2 Alcohol and Pork Consumption and Sexual Orientation

29As shared in the preceding sections, Khaled and Ahmad, knowing that drinking alcohol is an important gateway into German culture, began to consume alcohol in order to fit in. However, in the case of Ahmad, he stopped consuming alcohol altogether as he neither liked its taste nor the aftereffects it has on his body. Here, I attribute the reversal to a form of path dependency: Ahmad was never allowed to drink alcohol as he was always living under the “close surveillance” of his conservative Muslim family in the UAE; that lack of exposure to alcohol throughout most of his life likely explains his dislike of it.

30The performance of German-ness extends also to German-Turks. For Canan, whose grandparents were Turkish guest workers, she had performed multiple markers of German identity or culture in order to fit in. When out with her German friends, Canan reflected:

... being out with German friends, situations occurred where I would just drink alcohol (although I don’t like the taste), go to a party (though I don’t find it very fun), eat pork (which I initially had no problem with, but which is not my favourite meat), or stay out late (because I don’t want to be stigmatised as a Deutsch-Türke).

31While Khaled’s open-mindedness led him to discover his sexuality and to begin dating both men and women, he admitted that he would not consider entering into a partnership with a man as there was a “mental barrier in his mind and subconsciousness” that prevented him from doing so; in the face of familial pressure, Khaled ultimately wished to marry a woman. For Ahmad, even though he considered himself no longer religious and had begun dating men, he did not plan to tell his Syrian refugee friends that he was not heterosexual unless he was confronted by them. The experiences of both Khaled and Ahmad reflect not only the path dependency of them having lived in a culture which rejects homosexuality, but it also shows the transnational nature of societal or familial “surveillance”. This surveillance is furthermore sustained by both respondents’ close communication with their family and friends back home as they re-enact and perform the mentalities and personalities of old selves that had developed prior to their moving out of Syria to show their family that they “have not changed” in Berlin.

5.3.3 Removing One’s Headscarf – or Keeping It On

32Many female Muslim refugees and migrants decide to remove their headscarves as a result of the discomfort they get from being stared at in public and, more importantly, because the headdress will adversely impact their employment-seeking process. However, the mere removal of the marker of their Muslim character does not mean a change in their piousness. As mentioned by Khaled, many of his friends removed their headscarves because “they just wanted more opportunities” – but most of them “continue to be religious”.

33As discussed with regard to the discourse on Islamic dressing, Muslim women are not always passive individuals who cannot resist or exercise their agency. While Khaled’s friends had succumbed to the expectations of German society and institutions to stave away public judgement, discrimination, and unemployment, Mohamed’s wife and friends chose to resist. For Mohamed, an average of “two out of 100” of his female Muslim friends had removed their hijabs. For the others, including his wife who had wanted to be a kindergarten teacher, they chose to find work which allowed them to wear the headscarf – work which did not require them to deal with the public or German clients.

5.3.4 Playing with Identities

34Refugees and migrants have also resorted to switching identities or adopting new ones to respond to discrimination or to boost their social statuses when dealing with others in Berlin. As outlined above in the vignettes of Ahmad and Khaled, because they had been Palestinian refugees in Syria, they were able to use their Syrian or Palestinian identities at different times to avoid certain conversations or discrimination. To avoid discussions about the Israel-Palestine conflict, Khaled introduced himself as a Syrian prior to 2015; however, as the refugee situation in Berlin worsened, Khaled began introducing himself as a Palestinian to evade questions asking him when he plans to return or whether he likes Germany – questions which Khaled said made him feel like an “unwelcome guest”. Ahmad also used a similar strategy: he would introduce himself as a Syrian in Berlin “not because [he] is not proud to be a Palestinian” but because he does not want to “tell them the story of being a Palestinian refugee who was born in Syria.” This flexible positionality is not unique to Palestinian-Syrian refugees or migrants. The inherently multi-faceted nature of one’s identity allows one to pick and choose which aspects to highlight. Which identity to select is, of course, context dependent.

35Interviewees such as Ahmad, Khaled, and Sam also mentioned how not looking like a “typical Arab” had helped them stave off discrimination. In addition to that, Sam, remarked:

Maybe because I am tall, and I am not like an Arab. Maybe because I am quite blonde. And a lot of people tell me I am from France or Poland... or just European. When I don’t want to lose the girl, I would tell them that I am half-Palestinian and half-French.

36Crucially, Sam’s positionality as an Arab refugee who looked “European” allowed him to pass as a half-French, half-Palestinian to bolster his standing with women he was interested in. While that strategy had paid off for him – Sam mentioned multiple times during the interview his popularity among women in Berlin – Sam had, in doing so, inadvertently reinforced the relative “undesirability” of someone who might be of full Arab ethnicity and propagated the misguided belief that “white is better”.

5.3.5 Re-Ethnicisation

37Besides tapping into their identitary ambiguity to avoid certain discussions about politics and war or to achieve greater success in courtship, respondents facing discrimination have also re-ethnicised themselves vis-à-vis the dominant in-group (the Germans) to (re)gain a positive social identity and to maintain it in the long term (Skrobanek, 2009, p. 540).

38Examples of acts of differentiating out-group-specific cultural, social, and economic group properties vis-à-vis German traits have been mentioned throughout this paper when discussing how Arab refugees or migrants criticise German culture for its supposed “strictness” and superficiality when it comes to conversations, Germans’ directness in tone and their focus on private space, and describe their culture as being more “open” (in everyday conversations even with strangers) and “hospitable”. Such an act of highlighting a cultural division highlights the non-permeability of the dominant German culture. These observations are of course not restricted to Arab immigrants since Turks and other migrants (such as PJ) have similarly levelled such criticisms against German culture (Uslucan & Yalcin, 2012, pp. 16–17).

5.3.6 Challenging Stereotypes, Establishing Parallels

39In the anecdotes provided by the refugees, it was clear that they resented the assumption and stereotype expressed by Germans that refugees are terrorists or criminals. Recalling Khaled’s experience at a bar in Berlin where a lady, upon learning that Khaled was a refugee, told him that she was afraid of refugees because they are homeless, live in poverty, and so might resort to stealing and robbery, Khaled was quick to dispel those assumptions. He clarified that Syrians left their country because of persecution – and not because they would like to exploit Germany’s welfare system – and that most of them are in fact educated. That encounter left Khaled “angry and traumatised,” and made him increasingly apprehensive about dating German women. Ironically, Khaled committed the same mistake he himself resented.

40Mustafa took pride in “destroying stereotypes” that people in Berlin have about Arabs or refugees. He recounted one incident where he and his group of refugee and non-refugee friends were “too loud” in the dormitory; the following day, he received an email from the residential advisor addressing the group as “you and your refugee friends”. Frustrated at the assumption that it was only the refugees who were responsible, Mustafa wrote an email back to the university questioning the assumption and the kind of language used in the email. In another instance, Mustafa’s friend, a Palestinian-Syrian refugee, had ordered a meal at the cafeteria containing pork. One of their classmates then exclaimed: “Ah! There’s pork in there!” Mustafa and his friend instantly responded: “And your point is?” They then informed their friend that not all Arabs are Muslims – and in fact, his friend was a Christian Arab.

41Aside from actively subverting homogenising assumptions made by his university and friends, Mustafa’s tours around Berlin served to historicise and humanise the 2015 “refugee crisis”. His “Why We’re Here” tour introduces participants – tourists and other residents in Berlin – to first-hand accounts of the situation in Syria and why the country had become too dangerous for its own people. During the tour, Mustafa took participants to places of historical significance in Berlin and drew parallels between the history of Berlin and that of Syria. By doing so, Mustafa said, it highlighted how no one was immune to war or the threat of persecution. Ultimately and in the long run, Mustafa hoped that the tour will change people’s attitudes towards refugees in Berlin and across Europe. The abovementioned tour is just one out of the many tours his initiative is offering. Mustafa and his team also offered workshops such as “In Somebody Else’s Shoes”, which was a simulation requiring participants to go through the similar decisions and struggles that a Syrian refugee had to go through – contextualised to Europe.

42By establishing parallels between Berlin (and Europe) and Syria, the initiatives developed by Mustafa and his friends did the important job of allowing the refugees to speak for themselves and to the very people among which they live. While this is a small project, it nonetheless played a critical function of wresting power away from the German media – which had provided uncritical coverage of the “refugee crisis” and thereby inevitably fed discontent among Germans and the rise of the right-wing party, the AfD.

5.3.7 Struggles with the German System and Culture

43This sub-section focuses on insights provided by two of my respondents: Mohamed, who had volunteered at AWO Berlin as a social worker for refugees, and Dana, who worked with female refugees at the Flüchtlingspaten Syrien.

44Mohamed recognised early on that his ability to speak both German (acquired subsequent to this arrival) and Arabic languages as well as his familiarity with the asylum process would be invaluable to helping other refugees better integrate into the Berlin community. For Mohamed, his volunteer work at AWO Berlin was also mutually beneficial where he himself would benefit from the additional knowledge he gained about the German bureaucracy and refugee matters. Reflecting on his time at AWO Berlin, Mohamed said that the biggest problem faced by refugees is the German system:

[T]he system here is so complicated and disorganised. There are many papers to fill and hand in, so many Syrians were confused. The Germans have so many types of schools. It was and is still difficult for them [the refugees] when it comes to attending schools in Germany. The Syrians had issues with registration at the Jobcentre and Ausländerbehörde [the German Immigration Office], and after that, they lose confidence in the future. “What can we do after. Can we work here? Will our experience be recognised here and by the employers? What about the university and the Ausbildung [training]? Can we do it?”

45During my study abroad semester in Berlin, I interned at an NGO called Kiron (that is also where I met Mohamed and Wathira), which provides educational and language training to refugees to facilitate their application to universities in Germany. One of our biggest challenges was to explain to the refugees the complex institutional, legal, and academic landscape of Germany and to get their certifications recognised by the German academic institutions. Many a time, my German colleagues and friends themselves got lost in the German bureaucratic labyrinth; moreover, as someone with an advanced proficiency in German, I myself was (still) intimidated by the bureaucracy and its often grumpy and overworked staff. Hence, it is not difficult to fathom how that problem might be significantly amplified for refugees, many of whom don’t speak German.

46The incredible complexity of the German bureaucratic system and difficulties with getting skills and previous education recognised have been among the key reasons why increasing numbers of refugees wish to return home (Deutsche Welle, 2019; Hayden & Ghandour, 2019; Nianias, 2016). Dana shared that many of the refugees she worked with are educated and are highly skilled (e.g. engineers) in Syria – yet they experience great difficulties in getting their certificates recognised in Germany:

They do work that they over-qualified for. And this irritates many [of the refugees]. Five refugees who came to us have already returned to Syria. One of them is a tailor... he was asked to do Ausbildung [training] and he said “I have no time. I have kein Bock [no interest].” After three years, he is back in Syria with his whole family. He said “I come from Aleppo; I have my job. I am a tailor and I have my customers. And now the situation is good again, so I am going back.” He didn’t want to do work as a janitor or something else. He wants to work as a tailor. He has no interest and no time to do it. Therefore, this irritates many. They say “I used to work in Syria like this. Why should I repeat everything?” I can understand that. As a man who is 45 years old with three children... and you have to work as something else. This is not something very attractive.

47The issue of Arabs’ perception of cultural incompatibility with the Germans is something which appeared very frequently in the refugees’ and migrants’ accounts. As has been shown in the preceding sections, the so-called “German strictness” with appropriate conversation topics and the degree to which they value privacy have prevented refugees’ deeper interaction with them. In addition to that, Mohamed offered another cultural reason explaining why Arab refugees might not be that proactive in engaging with Germans:

The nature of the Germans is difficult and complicated. For us Syrians and Arabs in general, if I come to your house, you are going to welcome me. They [the Germans] are supposed to be hospitable. We expect the Germans to provide us with some things and be hospitable. The Germans have it otherwise. They say or they think “Okay, they are here. So the refugees have to introduce themselves and be proactive.” Many Syrians have this problem. They couldn’t and are unwilling to talk to the Germans because of the language issue. So they do not engage and instead stay in their comfort zone and interact with the Syrians or Arabs only.

5.4 Analysing the Discrimination-Integration Nexus

5.4.1 Revisiting Esser’s Integration Theory

48In Esser’s four dimensions of social integration, he identified culturation, structural integration, interaction, and identification as crucial to a migrant’s ability to integrate into the host society (Esser, 2001, pp. 1–21). The experiences of discrimination and integration felt by refugees and migrants in Berlin as described in Chapters 4 and 5 show that all four dimensions have been affected in ways that could impact these people’s social integration.

49All five refugees I interviewed had a reasonably high proficiency in German since all of them were pursuing higher education taught in German. While their linguistic proficiency had facilitated their interactions with Germans and other migrants and had helped them secure places in German universities and to navigate the vastly different environment in Berlin, several factors stand in the way of their structural integration, interaction, and identification with Berlin and the broader German society, as has been delineated in this and the preceding chapters. Refugees and Turkish migrants still face discrimination when it comes to accessing certain spaces (e.g. Selim and his friends being turned away at the club for not being “from Berlin”), applying for jobs (e.g. Selim’s account of discrimination at the library where most non-German-sounding names were filtered away or Khaled’s friends having to remove their headscarves to improve their chances of employment), or even being associated with terrorism and criminality because of their refugee status. To the above, empirical proof from news reports and research analyses shows that these are not unique cases but are symptomatic of a much broader systemic problem across Germany. With respect to Selim’s experience of rejection at a Berlin club, news articles have reported that nightclubs have received lawsuits for alleged racist door policies, even though they insist that their policies are exclusive (Hipp & Kistner, 2013; Paul Sullivan, 2019). Studies have also documented the existence of discrimination against people with migration backgrounds, ethnic minorities, and refugees in Germany’s labour market (Goldberg, Mourinho, & Kulke, 2010; Poutvaara & Wech, 2016; Tangermann & Grote, 2018): for instance, a study by Kaas and Manger (2012) showed that a German name increases the average probability of a callback by approximately 14%. Furthermore, hiring discrimination is even more severe for Muslim migrants wearing the headscarf (Leckcivilize & Straub, 2018; Weichselbaumer, 2016).

50Additionally, and in response to Skrobanek’s finding that perceived discrimination leads to a higher degree of in-group identification, re-ethnicisation, and an increased perception of cultural impermeability between the Arabs and Germans, my interlocutors’ accounts underscore that the picture is much more nuanced: one need not necessarily be discriminated against in order to develop a perception of an Arab-German cultural divide. For example, Sam, Mustafa, and Khaled each mentioned that their cohabitation with German housemates or interactions with Germans had led them to believe that Germans are “very strict” about conversation topics and are very protective of their privacy. While this perception erases the heterogeneity and subjectivities among Germans in very much the same way that the refugees and migrants experienced, it nonetheless could condition the interactions of refugees and migrants vis-à-vis Germans in a way that is not conducive to the development of an emotional connection or “collective spirit” among inhabitants of the society. Whether or not the relationship is one of causation rather than correlation is an issue deserving future research.

51The centrality of alcohol and pork consumption as an issue in the socialisation between Muslims and Germans is another illustration of this supposed German-Arab cultural divide which stymies the “interaction” and “identification” levels within Esser’s framework (Esser, 2001, pp. 12–15). Importantly, the strategy of performing “German-ness” to fit into German society highlights the duality between public presentation and inner convictions. Even though refugees and migrants – such as Canan, Mustafa, and the female friends of the refugees – have adopted what they believed are German markers of identity, i.e. drinking alcohol, hanging out late at night, or removing one’s headscarf, the fact that this is a performative façade underlines that the “identification” with German culture or society isn’t genuine. To further complicate this issue, Khaled’s decision to marry a woman in the future despite his sexual orientation also shows that refugees and migrants might not be able to enjoy the new freedoms offered by Germany as familial pressure and sociocultural conditioning from their homeland transcends geographical distance and can still present a significant force in sustaining the duality in their behaviour (i.e. in Khaled’s case, being bisexual but choosing to pass off as heterosexual) (Goffman, 1959).

52Further nuance is offered by Ahmad’s account where his efforts at fitting in did not pan out: Ahmad’s initial group of friends consisted of religious Arabs; while he attempted to consume alcohol and smoke marijuana in a bid to fit in with the Germans, his dislike of the taste and aftereffects of the former led him to give up the “performance of German-ness” altogether. Eventually, Ahmad’s social circle came to consist of a few other non-religious Syrian refugee friends. This illustration underlines the reversibility of efforts at fitting into “German culture and lifestyle”. As mentioned in sub-section 5.3.2, away from the constant surveillance of his parents and society in the UAE and in the liberal environment offered by Berlin, Ahmad gradually discovered that he was homosexual and had begun dating men. His ability to partake in the city’s progressive culture while having a social circle comprised of mostly Arabs leads us to a key question: what should integration look like in a cosmopolitan city such as Berlin?

5.4.2 The Burden of Past and Present Disintegration on Subsequent Integration

53Perhaps one of the more significant findings of my research – which is the opposite of my presumption expressed in the preface – was learning that discrimination by older generations of Arabs figured much more heavily in refugees’ lived experience compared to other communities (i.e. Germans, Turks, etc.) in Berlin. But the bigger lesson here is learning that the poor integration and marginalisation of former immigrants, that is, refugees who fled the Lebanese war or Syrian economic migrants who had moved to Berlin many years before the 2015 wave, can have a cumulative and detrimental effect on subsequent newcomers in the host country or city.

54The post-2015 refugees faced discrimination from both Turks and older Arabs, both communities which themselves face issues of poor integration in the German society: on the one hand, the Turkish-Germans felt that they had a more legitimate belonging in Germany given their predecessors’ contribution to the reconstruction of Germany as guest workers; on the other hand, the Arab immigrants who preceded the 2015 refugees felt that the latter, despite having been offered relatively much more welfare and assistance than them, are not integrating into Germany fast or well enough (e.g. in terms of their German language proficiency). Both Turks and older Arabs also resent that the refugee crisis had brought Muslims a bad name in the country. Refugees also face discrimination from Germans who have been economically marginalised: Selim pointed out (see sub-section 4.3.2) that the unequal distribution of refugees and its ensuing disproportionate infrastructural burden in many of the lower-income districts in Berlin have generated substantial discontent among working-class Germans – in his anecdote, Selim shared that Germans have a misconception that refugees receive more welfare than Germans do.

55Therefore, based on the above, what is especially salient for public policymaking is that poor integration of the Turkish-Germans and other immigrant communities as well as their poor socioeconomic statuses simply cannot be ignored as they can cascade down and accumulate across generations, rendering the integration issue in the host society more complicated to manage.

5.4.3 Distinguishing Refugees from Immigrants and Room for Future Research

56Like Uslucan and Yalcin’s findings, this paper has articulated that migrants, as a general term comprising refugees and other non-local residents in Berlin, have experienced discrimination based on multiple factors – e.g. their religion, ethnicity, nationality, and so on. However, a key point of divergence of my findings from their work which has not been explicitly highlighted are the unique struggles faced by refugees as compared to other migrants, be it those with Turkish backgrounds, previous generations of Arab refugees, or economic migrants and so on. The insights offered by my interlocutors also shed light on room for future research.

57First, in terms of housing, of the five refugees interviewed, Mohamed was the only one who had lived in a refugee camp upon his arrival in Germany; even so, we cannot establish whether living in such a camp has affected his settlement in Berlin since the sample size is too small for any meaningful comparison to be conducted. Nonetheless future research should examine how refugee camps affect a refugee’s subsequent integration in Germany: does the geographical and societal marginalisation contribute to re-ethnicisation? Does living in a refugee camp early in one’s settlement significant affect’s one’s culturation and hence positioning, interaction, and identification with the broader German society? Second, compared to other migrants in Berlin and Germany, to what extent does a refugee’s disrupted education or obstacles with skills and certification recognition affect their structural integration in the labour and education sectors? Third, how much of a burden is the refugee label? This paper has shown that refugees resent being treated as refugees as a result of the host of stereotypes and prejudices that others in Germany would apply to them; they are also tired of receiving sympathy from others. Fourth, refugees have limited political rights compared to permanent residents or citizens in Berlin and Germany – this limits their social and systemic integration since they are unable to exercise their voting rights to influence policies that impact them. Fifth, many refugees, compared to regular migrants, had experienced trauma as they made their way to Germany. A study by Georgiadou et al. revealed that 75.3% of the 518 Syrian refugees they surveyed had witnessed or personally experienced traumatic events, 14.5% had moderate to severe depression, and 11.4% showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Thus, refugees do need special post-migration conditions and attention in order to support them in their recovery (Georgiadou, Zbidat, Schmitt, & Erim, 2018). Six, refugees – unlike regular migrants – cannot return home unless they wish to rescind their refugee protection status from Germany. This restriction on their mobility is hugely consequential because it could lead to frayed relationships with their family and friends back home – how much this affects their social integration to their homeland and their relationship to their newfound home in Berlin or Germany is another issue deserving of future research.

58While there is much value in separately analysing refugee issues apart from those of other groups in the migrant community, this separation-conflation act is a tricky one to balance. During a public lecture in March 2019 at the Deutsche-Arabische Freundschaft Gesellschaft (The German-Arabic Friendship Society or DAFG for short), Dr Rasha Alkhadra, a 43-year-old Syrian refugee, dentist, and YouTube blogger, provided a highly nuanced picture of how burdensome the refugee label can be: even though Alkhadra does not look like the “typical” refugee that Germans would imagine, she would often be reminded of her marginality in German society through comments such as “You don’t look like a refugee”, “You look modern”, “You don’t wear a headscarf”, or even “Refugees would not live where you live” – to this, Alkhadra emphasized the powerlessness felt by refugees despite their ability to shed markers of “refugee stereotypes”. Furthermore, Alkhadra criticised the isolation of refugees as a “distinct group deserving of special attention” because that would “cause more division than integration”.To her, the isolation of refugees as a separate group with “special needs” inherently fits them into a mould or category that denies them the freedom to pursue their aspirations or construct a new identity for themselves in a new home. Hence, Alkhadra does not see integration initiatives and policies as useful and productive, – instead, she proposes programmes based on common needs that cut across and include all groups and categories of people living in Berlin (e.g. skills upgrading, German language for anyone and not just refugees, etc.).


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