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Module 5 – Voices of Refugees

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Future Hopes and Perspectives Reported by the Refugees

Many of the refugees interviewed voiced similar experiences. Their individual differences in experiences and challenges seemed to reflect different stages of development in life. Some responses centered on the needs for educational and vocational training in order to enter the workforce, some emphasized the importance of forming safe relationships with those who could help them “get a footing” in a new environment, and others focused on caring for families and being concerned about their children’s futures. Most of the refugees interviewed struggled with ways to engage with difference while maintaining an individual sense of self, and all reported similar wishes for peace in all countries for all people. 

The following personal stories reflect the consequences of war and violent conflict, human rights, and the search for safety and shelter. They also present examples of listening to life experiences from a humanitarian perspective and through a relational-cultural lens—a lens where relational development, the neurobiology of connection, and social responsiveness are central to wellbeing.

Experiences Reported By Refugees

The refugees easily recalled their arrival in Germany and their struggles to acclimate to unfamiliar surroundings with a different culture and a new language. All were homesick for their homes and concerned about the wellbeing of family and friends left behind. They talked about feeling “strange” and how frightening it was to experience racism and acts of hostility because they were refugees. 

Asem Alsayjar

Asem asked to share his venture from Syria to Germany. He provided insight into what others may experience when they flee a war torn country as well as the impact of policy decisions determining the pertinent rules of each country on those refugees. For 45 days, Asem journeyed from Syria to Germany on foot, boat, train, and bus. His journey was dangerous. He traveled without legal documents. He relied on fellow travelers and human smugglers to reach Germany. He stayed in overcrowded, unsanitary refugee camps. He spent time in jails after being apprehended by police. He hid in forests to avoid thieves. He often lacked food and water and related: 

We walked about seven to eight hours. I don't remember the details now, but it was about seven or eight hours till we reached a small forest again and met two people who we were told to follow them. They spoke their language, Serbian or something like that—not English nor Arabic nor German. We weren't able to understand any word that would mean go, go, go. We weren’t able to understand any word, and it felt dangerous. It was dangerous. You couldn't know what will happen. There were also kids with us.

Although he recalled misadventures while underway, he also identified times where he received support, information and safe places to rest. One experience he shared is:

We found a hostel, a small hostel with a nice man. He is still a friend of mine. He spoke with me about the situation in Belgrade. He spoke about his experience with refugees. He told there was no room for me in this hostel, a… He said: “I will go with you.” “I will help you.” It was very, very amazing to have his help, but it was what we always wanted on this trip when were in a foreign land with foreign languages and with foreign people. You don't know if you will be able to stay alive or not.

After being transferred to different refugee camps in Germany, he finally arrived in Schwerin. Because of his ability to speak German, he was approached by a government official and received a job supporting refugee resettlement by translating and providing needed information to refugees. [See video]  [See Transcript]

Refugee Students at the Alice Salomon Hochschule

The students who requested to remain anonymous came to Germany from war torn regions in Iran and Afghanistan. Initially, it took time for them to adjust to a new country. Student A talked about being afraid. She said: 

At first I was afraid to leave the house on my own. Everything was foreign, strange—how people walked, how the streets looked, how the shops looked. Slowly but steadily, I immersed. I had to work and learn the language all at the same time.

For both students, attending school was an important way to learn how to navigate in a foreign community and it provided opportunities to meet people. Student B shared:

School is my second family. This school is a new chapter of my life. At first, I was just auditing classes and I will never forget my first day in this school. It was a great feeling to feel like a student—very important for me.

Both students talked about their perceptions of their German hosts. They experienced people they met as relaxed, easy going, friendly, and open minded. Student A valued being able to spend time in nature without being “observed”. Student B appreciated the lack of social pressure: “People let you be.” Both students reported experiencing “a much easier life” in Germany. [See video]  [See Transcript]

Ghadia Ramah, Legaa Alnajjar, Salam Soliman, Rama Akid: The “Sunday School” Teachers

Each of the “Sunday School” teachers when they arrived in Germany realized that their lives would change dramatically. Rama shared: 

It was quite new for me to be responsible and very different from how I lived before. I had to make decisions. I had to think on my own, and I had to take care for myself and my younger brother…… I see myself between the new life and the old life. My new life destroyed my old life, and I am starting from scratch and rebuilding it all new. I am always standing in the middle. 

They had studied in their homelands and some of them had years of professional experience. They questioned how they could apply their wealth of knowledge and experience in a new work environment. They discussed how difficult it was to find access to the job market. Ghadia said:

If I was a little bit younger, it would be better. For me and for my husband, too, it is not easy—so not easy really. In Syria, we had a big house. We had a big car. We had a garden. When I came to Germany, I was 40 years old. I knew a little German, and a little English. All my past seemed gone, and here I had to start from zero.

Although they expressed feeling more settled in Germany, they shared ongoing concerns about their families. They wanted to teach their children how to live in Germany while they were also learning new social norms. However, it was also important for them to teach their children Arabic and their native traditions, so if they returned to their homeland they would be able to adjust to their native culture. Salem shared: “I have fear about my children. They are learning the German tradition and should I teach them the Arabic tradition? My children are confused being between Arabic and German cultures.” 

In addition, they expressed the need to care for family members who were still living in their homelands. Some of the women wished their family members could join them in Germany. However, they were aware of the refugee policies that affected movement from one country to another. For example, Rama stated:

I wish that my family could come here to be safe, but they're still in Syria. I live here, but my thoughts are still with them. I look at the news, and I see that they are still bombing it. I know my father is working very close to the places where they bomb. I tried to call him, but he doesn't answer and I'm worried… All the countries are closing their borders. I can't go to Lebanon, and my parents can't go to Turkey. There's always trouble with these borders between the countries.

It was apparent that these concerns weighed heavy in their daily lives and they experienced anxiety about what the future might hold for them, their children and their family members. [See video]  [See Transcript]

Challenges Reported By Refugees

A common challenge they faced was clearly communicating their thoughts and feelings in a different language and culture. This often led to feelings of isolation and insecurity. They shared how important it was to develop new friendships and engage in their new communities. They spoke about the fears and insecurities of adapting to a new life in Germany while grieving the losses of the communities they left. They expressed the desire to be reunited with their families from their homelands. They worried about how their families were fairing with ongoing war and conflict. 

Asem Alsayjar

Asem experienced many challenges while fleeing Syria. Unable to secure proper documentation to travel between countries, Asem had to find alternative methods to reach Germany. As a result, he encountered dangerous people and said: “I spoke of the smugglers. These are the worst people you could meet in your life. They didn't care about your life. They didn't care. They cared only about money.”

He lived with uncertainty. He felt hopeless at times. At one point, he was running out of money and he called his mother: 

I phoned my mother, and I started to cry. That was the first and the last time I did. I really cried, and she told me to be patient. She would try to help me, but how? They also had money issues, and they wouldn't be able to send the money to me in Serbia.

His story demonstrates the challenges of making existential decisions while fleeing war zones, crossing international borders, dealing with limited financial resources, relying on others who may or may not have your best interests in mind, missing family and friends left behind, and knowing you may or may not arrive at the destination you planned. [See video]  [See Transcript]

Refugee Students at the Alice Salomon Hochschule

The students addressed the challenge to learn German and how language is connected to their ability to make friends. Student A shared: “Everyone's nice at the university, but I don't have the abilities to speak native German, so that has an influence on my friendship building.” Student B added: “It's hard to make friends. Grammar is hard. We learned a totally different grammatical system… Sometimes they say long sentences, and I say short ones. I don't know when to say which.”

Another challenge was how to fit in to their new environment. Student A described the process of integration as “… finding my place in society, finding my position, my belonging, and to understand how to read people, how to make friends, and how to understand subtle inclinations.” Student B finds it challenging to sort out beliefs and values he would like to keep and those he wishes to change. He said: 

I gave up most of my thoughts or ideas. At first I wanted to keep a belief system, but it didn't work, I lost it over time. I gave it up. I wanted to keep some values, but I then didn't want to keep them. I changed.

[See video]  [See Transcript]

Ghadia Ramah, Legaa Alnajjar, Salam Soliman, Rama Akid: The “Sunday School” Teachers

The women spoke about the challenges they experienced with adjusting to new social norms and traditions. They struggled with the tensions between maintaining their beliefs and freedom of expression as well as the desire to have a sense of belonging and acceptance with new neighbors and coworkers. They questioned the meaning of integration and expressed the need for mutual willingness within communities to learn with and from each other. Ghadia pointed out: “Integration means exchange. I’m learning from the Germans and the Germans are learning from me.”

They talked about painful experiences of discrimination. Rama shared an experience when she wanted to go sign up at a gymnastic training center:

The boss (at the center) denied me because she said that I'm not allowed to work with my scarf. She said it's because of security reason. So I did some research on the Internet and saw that it's not true, not necessarily. But she said I was in Germany, and it was her decision, and I had to accept that. She didn't want to have customers complaining about my scarf. It was very difficult for me. I always try to be strong. But at that moment, I really cried a lot.  [See video]  [See Transcript]

Future Hopes and Perspectives Reported By Refugees

They all shared an emphatic appeal for peace. They invited people to keep their minds and hearts open to difference and diversity and to practice mutual respect, understanding and acceptance for individual identities and diverse cultural backgrounds. 

Asem Alsayjar

Although Asem did not directly discuss his wishes for the future, he was able to share an important lesson he learned. He reminisced: 

There are many things in the world which we don't know, many signs of life which we don't know. I discovered some of them on my trip, on my journey. There are still many of them that I can discover also. Be courageous and patient. [See video]  [See Transcript]

Refugee Students at the Alice Salomon Hochschule

Both students seemed relaxed and optimistic about their future in Germany. Student A shared her wishes for the future: “I would love to be successful professionally, and I would love to have a family—to start a family of my own.” Student B wanted his son to have a good life. He said: “I wish the best for my son. … My son is the most important—that he goes to school and does well.” [See video]  [See Transcript]

Ghadia Ramah, Legaa Alnajjar, Salam Soliman, Rama Akid: The “Sunday School” Teachers

The women talked about wishes for the future with strength and hope. They wished for peace. Salam said: “Stop the war. That is all we want. War hurts all involved.” 

The women were acutely aware that children and the elderly were especially vulnerable to the effects of the ongoing conflict and violence. Ghadia said: 

(I want) peace, peace and peace. My mother is old and ill and living in Syria. She really needs medication, and I am afraid that I am unable able to bring the medication to my mother—just a simple medication. 

[See video]  [See Transcript]

Asem Alsayjar

The interview with Asem provided a safe opportunity for him to tell a part of his story. He shared that he could have given up on his journey to Germany. He thought about it many times. Yet he knew that when having no real good choices, he should simply do his best and keep going. The primary message he wanted to share was “Challenges Teach”. [See video]  [See Transcript]

Refugee Students at the Alice Salomon Hochschule

The students stressed two points. The first point was to ask people to think about how it might feel to be oppressed and to be willing to offer support and community. The second point was made by Student A who said:

If we are all together, we can do something to help to make the world better—jointly, unitedly; to feel a united, global brotherhood and sisterhood; to be happy together and sad together and support each other. That reality is much different from what a singular fate might look like, but we are all connected and we all suffer. 

[See video]  [See Transcript]

Ghadia Ramah, Legaa Alnajjar, Salam Soliman, Rama Akid: The “Sunday School” Teachers

Rama wanted people to know that wearing a headscarf does not mean that she belongs to ISIS. She stated: “I came here escaping from ISIS… I’m not aggressive. I don’t want to do any harm. I just want to live in a safe place and I really would like to be a useful person in this society.” 

Ghadia wanted to reminded us about the core tenets of Islam: 

Islam means caring about people, being good to people… It's about the Earth. It's about everything… Finally, we are all human beings. If you are Muslim or Christian or Jewish, we are all human beings; and everybody can benefit from their shared thoughts.

The refugees expressed gratitude for the opportunity to share their voices and to know that people in the U.S. were interested to learn about the transformative challenges and opportunities refugees and host communities have been facing in Germany. [See video]  [See Transcript]

Refugees’ Messages For Others

 

Asem Alsayjar

The interview with Asem provided a safe opportunity for him to tell a part of his story. He shared that he could have given up on his journey to Germany. He thought about it many times. Yet he knew that when having no real good choices, he should simply do his best and keep going. The primary message he wanted to share was “Challenges Teach”. [See video]  [See Transcript]

 

Refugee Students at the Alice Salomon Hochschule

The students stressed two points. The first point was to ask people to think about how it might feel to be oppressed and to be willing to offer support and community. The second point was made by Student A who said:

If we are all together, we can do something to help to make the world better—jointly, unitedly; to feel a united, global brotherhood and sisterhood; to be happy together and sad together and support each other. That reality is much different from what a singular fate might look like, but we are all connected and we all suffer. 

[See video]  [See Transcript]

 

Ghadia Ramah, Legaa Alnajjar, Salam Soliman, Rama Akid: The “Sunday School” Teachers

Rama wanted people to know that wearing a headscarf does not mean that she belongs to ISIS. She stated:

I came here escaping from ISIS… I’m not aggressive. I don’t want to do any harm. I just want to live in a safe place and I really would like to be a useful person in this society. 

 

Ghadia wanted to reminded us about the core tenets of Islam: 

Islam means caring about people, being good to people… It's about the Earth. It's about everything… Finally, we are all human beings. If you are Muslim or Christian or Jewish, we are all human beings; and everybody can benefit from their shared thoughts.

 

The refugees expressed gratitude for the opportunity to share their voices and to know that people in the U.S. were interested to learn about the transformative challenges and opportunities refugees and host communities have been facing in Germany. [See video: The “Sunday School” Teachers; See Transcript: The “Sunday School” Teachers]