Nearly four years after the Syrian refugee crisis began, conversations with young refugee women illustrate both the achievements and cultural clashes attached to refugee integration. They also speak to the challenges still facing refugee communities after they have arrived in their new homes.
At age 10, Nimaah* travelled on foot from Greece to Germany. It was the final stretch in a journey that began when her family — her parents, four brothers, and one sister — fled from Kobane, Syria to continental Europe in 2015. Today, Nimaah lives in a refugee “campus” in East Berlin, in a Soviet-style dormitory with her family and 500 others. Nimaah is one of millions supplanted by the Syrian Civil War, in whose aftermath roughly 1.4 million refugees sought refuge in Germany alone, while millions more live scattered around Europe and the Middle East.
According to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, young women and girls like Nimaah and her peers are a particularly vulnerable subset of the broader refugee community, facing unique challenges both during transit and afterwards. Even those who find physical security in countries like Germany face a gruelling process of social and economic integration.
Nimaah, her family, and her fellow classmates are still navigating the difficulties associated with assimilation. These refugees are in the thick of a years-long transition process, going to school and working alongside native Germans but still living in a separate refugee commune. Many of the 100,000 refugees residing in Berlin are in similar arrangements. The HPR spoke with Nimaah and two other girls with whom she lives and attends school to discuss the challenges these young women face years after fleeing to new homes.
Safety and Settlement
Huda* spent her earliest days in Germany living in a school gymnasium. When she was 12 years old, Huda made a journey similar to Nimaah’s, leaving Iraq and then travelling from Turkey to Austria before finally trekking north to Berlin — all on foot. For a time, Huda spent her days in a makeshift camp. While some slept in gyms like her, other refugees lived in large, empty shipping containers that housed entire families. “Those were awful conditions,” Huda recalled. Her immediate family members were the only people she knew in Europe, having left many relatives and friends behind in Iraq. She did not speak a word of German when she arrived, and she strongly disliked German food. Still, she felt a sense of relief coming to her host country: “Here, my family is safe,” she explained.
Nimaah, too, has found refuge in her new home. “I love Germany” the 13-year-old exclaimed, “because I live in safety with my family.” When the violent protest broke out in Daraa, Syria that would later envelop the nation, Nimaah was just six years old. She can barely remember a time of peace in her home country. Now, her life in Berlin is dotted with markers of normalcy. In her free time, she goes to local museums, movie theaters, and the Berlin Zoological Garden. At the refugee center, she and other girls participate in modern dance classes and choreograph their own performances.
Along with the other refugees in the center, she attends a local German school where she is part of a wilkommensklasse, or “welcome class,” through which recently immigrated children learn the German language. Refugee children are integrated into the larger school as they share a handful of non-intensive classes, as well as lunch and recess, with their German peers — a common arrangement throughout the country. All three girls enjoy the simple ritual of going to school, playing pick-up football with their male classmates in the afternoon, and returning home — always before dark, at their parents’ insistence.
New World, Old Rules
If she had remained in her home back in Syria, Fatema* suspects she would have been married off years ago. Today, almost 15 percent of young Syrian women are married before the age of 18. Meanwhile, Fatema is finishing her final years of high school and plans to attend university soon. At 17, she has spent most of her teen years bouncing between European countries and, eventually, making a new home alongside the other girls in Berlin.
Fatema and her family fled from Herad, Syria over four years ago, and found themselves stranded first in Bulgaria, and then in Slovenia, for months at a time when their funds were depleted. Eventually, she made it to East Germany. Like many of the girls, she has newfound vocational aspirations: She plans on becoming a doctor, a goal borne out of a desire “to help other people” given her own experiences in transit.
The younger girls noted the novelty of their educational upbringing in Germany. Huda told the HPR of her plans to complete an apprenticeship and continue with more advanced studies when she finishes high school. “I have so much to learn here … Back in Syria, I would be expected to stop going to school and get married.” Now, she said, “being a young adult woman means that I can form my own opinions and decide on my career.” Her friend added that the most most notable difference in the German education system is sharing a classroom with a group she would otherwise barely associate with: boys.
One of her mixed-gender classes is led by Abdel Hadded, an instructor at the center responsible for organizing the youth and teaching refugee children the German language. Hadded, who is of Lebanese and Palestinian descent, has lived in Berlin since his family migrated in his youth. With many of his Lebanese relatives living in refugee camps today, Hadded was inspired to work with the refugee community in Berlin. In conversation with the HPR, Hadded explained that “most of the girls did not attend school at all or went to school until the sixth grade and then stopped. Most of them are expected to marry by 14 or 16, so their education was seen as a dead end. They had no hope.” For many of the teenagers at the campus, Hadded’s class is their first exposure to a learning environment that incorporates young women.
Culture Clashes Reverberate
While the girls express enthusiasm about these genderinclusive classrooms, there are differing ideas about the role of girls and women within the camp, according to Hadded. He recalled times when boys have claimed, for example, that “the woman is only there to be a wife and mother” in an attempt to exclude the girls from their academic activities. Hadded said that when it comes to the adults, “Some live in the West. Others believe they are still in Afghanistan or Syria.” While some families have “westernized,” a large fraction operate according to more “strict” rules of behavior, which include sheltering their daughters from some elements of German society.
Because of these cultural differences, many of the refugee girls remain detached from their Berlin-born peers. Although they interact with their German peers at school, the language barrier continues to make forming strong relationships difficult. In addition, the girls’ parents often forbid them from attending parties or going out with friends. In Hadded’s words, “Most of the refugees girls are not allowed to have a boyfriend. They don’t eat pork. And they don’t drink beer … and those are big parts of German culture.”
For girls like Huda, it can be difficult to reconcile these clashes in culture. While she said that, in Germany, “women’s worth is more respected” than in her birthplace, she refuses to abandon many of the traditions Syrian women adopt. Her Muslim faith is of great importance and, like many women from the Islamic world, she wears the hijab. But in Germany, the hijab is controversial, with some lawmakers calling to criminalize it in public spaces. Although the German parliament has not enacted any national restrictions on such clothing, Berlin recently joined several other German states in barring teachers from wearing the hijab in schools. Such developments exacerbate the challenge of upholding religious commitments while also attempting to integrate into a distinctly secular society.
Huda explained some of her own uncertainty about adjusting to the expectations for women in Western society. In Iraq, she said, few women were expected to have professional jobs. Having grown up with those assumptions, she now finds herself at something of a loss: “I don’t know what I want to do later. I have no plan,” she said. Although nearly one out of every five refugees in Germany is employed today, of the 300,000 employed refugees, only a small fraction are women. While the majority of male refugees have the German-language skills necessary for the job market, only 30 percent of their female counterparts can say the same. These statistics speak to the added challenges female refugees face.
Furthermore, the girls also discussed feelings of stagnancy and uncertainty about the future. Learning the German language continues to be difficult for all three. Huda notes that after three years in Berlin, her family still cannot move out into their own apartment; for the indefinite future, they share two rooms and a bath between six people in the dormitory. In the same vein, at just age 13, Nimaah expressed her dislike for the “German bureaucracy,” which she noted consists of “countless papers.” According to Hadded, their families “are disappointed. They don’t know what will happen after three or four years. They don’t understand when or if they will be citizens.”
A Precarious Peace
The uncertainty the girls sense is made more palpable within a political climate that increasingly discourages refugee integration. While Chancellor Angela Merkel and her party have been steadfast supporters of refugee integration, the far-right Alternative for Germany party has openly used anti-refugee rhetoric and continues to be one of the most popular political parties in Germany. Members of the party have criticized refugee integration using Nazi-era terms like umvolkung, which refers to the dilution of the Aryan race. Additionally, broader swathes of German society believe that certain cultural differences may be irreconcilable. A recently published study found that 47 percent of Germans surveyed believe that Islam “fundamentally clashes” with German values.
Thus, Nimaah, Huda, and Fatema delicately balance divergent cultures which often come into conflict. The girls are nonetheless staunch in their appreciation for their adoptive home. Fatema explained her enthusiasm, saying “I love the different cultures, mutual respect, and freedom in Germany.” All three of them look forward to the day that they are fully at home in Berlin. As time goes on, they will spend more of their time in German-speaking contexts, integrate more fully into their schools, and eventually live more closely alongside their German neighbors, if all goes as planned.
In the meantime, as the girls noted, uncertainty abounds within the refugee community about the time frame and implications of this integration. No one is certain how full integration will affect the integrity of their faith, values, and customs. Nonetheless, their teacher reminds them to resist fear and isolation. Whenever question arise, Heddad emphasizes the same mantra: “Why did you leave the country? Because of the war. You want peace. To have peace we need to have relationships,” within the refugee community but also with these German hosts.
*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the individuals interviewed. Interviews were conducted in Arabic with Hadded’s translation.
Image Credit: Unsplash/ilham akbar fauzi