Yallah, Deutschland! On growing up Syrian in Germany and where we go from here
All opinions are the author’s own; Euphrates values individual experiences and the value of sharing them, though it is not our position to take sides.
I was born in 1994 in a German small town, a daughter to Syrian Muslim parents. My father came to Germany in 1975 and my mother joined him in 1977. Reluctantly, she had agreed to live in Germany with him for four years so he could complete his medical residency in Germany and return to Syria with better qualifications. The story I was told growing up was that one job opportunity followed the other, four years became seven, my older siblings grew older and were about to start school and eventually, my parents’ conceivably limited stay in Germany became the better part of a lifetime; their work permit became their citizenship, their children carriers of hyphenated identities. Yet regardless of the nonchalance this story conveyed, there were things my parents always felt very tense about.
I remember in 10th grade, a Syrian boy joined my school. There were not many immigrants where I grew up, so much so that when I was a child, I believed Arabic to be my family’s very own secret language. I did not realise we were just one of the very few Arab families in the area and to this day, speaking Arabic to strangers can feel peculiarly intimate to me. Eagerly, I told my parents about the boy during dinner. Baba’s fork made a sharp clanking sound when he dropped it on his plate. “What did you tell him about us?”, he asked me. Mama’s eyes had widened with worry. “Nothing”, I answered, bewildered. What was there to tell? “Where is he from?” – “I don’t know.” My father implored me not to speak to the boy until I found out who exactly he was. The next day, I noticed my classmate wearing a necklace with a cross dangling from it. My parents smiled in relief when I told them; Christian Syrians were largely apolitical and so the strange Syrian boy suddenly did not seem threatening to them anymore.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I had the chance of interviewing Erik Mohns of the Liaison Office Syria, an umbrella network uniting a wide range of Syrian diaspora organisations and groups that were founded in Germany after the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011.
The control of the Syrian government was close meshed. “It worked very, very well among Syrians, even abroad”, Mohns said. In preparation for the interview, I had researched the political circumstances around the time of my parents’ emigration. I read up about the Hama Massacre of 1982 that marked the escalation of the conflict between the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the Baath regime. In one month, between 10,000 and 45,000 Syrians were killed by government forces. State repression against all oppositional voices, not only the Muslim Brotherhood, exacerbated and surveillance intensified. As a number of opponents of the regime had gone into exile, Syrians returning from abroad were now treated with suspicion: “Syrians, who hadn’t actually said much about the Syrian government, travelled home to either be controlled or arrested”, according to Mohns.
After the interview, I asked Baba about Hama. “That was when I knew I would not return to Syria anytime soon”, he told me. Although my parents had never chosen it, my father immediately realised what their immigration to Germany now meant: exile.
Once, a couple of years before the war, I had asked my father about his identity. “I’m German”, he’d answered. “Don’t you miss Syria?” – “These criminals can keep their country to themselves. What is there to miss? There’s no sense in being attached to places.” My father found the media’s sensationalist focus on the violent images that war produces distasteful. When Syria’s demolition began, he instead obsessed over the destruction of neighborhoods, houses and mosques he used to know and frequently pointed out to me images of the staging grounds of his life in Syria that barely resembled his memories anymore. Ironically, my father now mourns the places he said he never missed.
My mother’s identity was quite the opposite. “We’re not that German yet, ya Iman” she would scold me on the occasion that I acted disrespectful. It was not that she thought German children were proportionally more rude to their parents than Syrian ones, it was simply painful for her to be confronted with any possible manifestation of an identity she had not and would not have chosen to instill in her children. Although her life was far from tragic, it was just as far from what she had always envisioned for herself and could never stop hoping would come true. It was with defeat, albeit without anger that she accepted it when I said I felt German. She would dare to visit Syria a couple of times in the forty years that my father has not. Unable to stay away from her family, she would endure the interrogations and harassment, the fear of not being allowed to return to her children. Unlike my father, it was not until well into the Syrian war that she stopped starting conversations with: “When we go back to Syria…” Instead, now she ends them with: “We’ve had a good life here, haven’t we?”
Mama often says she wishes she could have raised me to be more afraid. I wish you were more careful, she says. It took me a long time to understand that something as trivial as sitting in a university lecture hall and voicing an opinion to her already meant taking a risk, because in Syria, that was all it took for you to disappear. And there is an irrevocable impact surveillance has on you, even in exile.
Germany has now opened its borders for thousands of asylum-seeking Syrians. Refugees is all Germany can talk about and everybody else is talking about how admirable Germany is for welcoming them in. The other day, I received a text from Edinburgh: “I’m loving watching Germany on the news – the UK is shameful!” Yes, we are duly celebrating Germany for the stand it is taking, because people living is better than people dying. Yet what we are not talking about is where we go from here. What we are not talking about is that this is not the first time Germany has welcomed in refugees – or any other kinds of Ausländer for that matter. We have seen this all before: people waving Welcome-signs, volunteering to offer support, writing songs to combat neo-nazism and protesting the violence of refugee camps set on fire. But what would the Ausländer of previous decades tell us? The Tamil and Kosovo refugees, the Turkish Gastarbeiter – what happened to them after Germany’s big moments of Ausländer-welcoming glory?
These days, we have dozens and dozens of articles, news reports and radio segments asserting the great potential of Syrians to integrate into German society. Fun fact: being deemed qualified for successful integration or even certified you are in fact the ‘well-behaved’, ‘integrated’, good kind of immigrant, does not prevent anyone from racialising you. In school, I once asked one of my teachers to sign my application for a foreign exchange trip. “But this programme is only for immigrants”, she said. “So?” – “I’m not signing this.” I was baffled. “Why not?” – “It’s not like you’re a real immigrant. Your parents are educated!” A couple of months later, that same teacher also tried to explain to me the colour of my skin was darker than that of white Germans. Even when a friend of mine demonstratively held her hand to my cheek to show her skin was darker than mine, laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation, my teacher could not see it. Because how could a Kanake like me possibly have light skin?
There are many more stories I could tell, not only about myself, but also of the time my sister asked her teacher in 6th grade why she had gotten a D on her test and he asked her what an Ausländerin like her would possibly need better grades for, anyway; or when she was asked to step into her professor’s office years later, mere months before graduating as a dentist only to be told: “When will you finally understand you don’t belong here?”
Baba always said, I needed to be better than the Alman if I wanted to get somewhere. It can be both tragic and fortunate that parents teach their children how to survive in a status quo instead of teaching them to challenge it. So I believed it would matter if I tried hard enough to show what a good German I could be and someday I could say “Ich bin Deutsche” not to make a point, not to correct anyone who said otherwise, but effortlessly, simply to state a truth about myself. I no longer believe it matters. Those who deny me whenever I choose to claim a German identity will do so regardless of who I am or what I do, or to put it like a real neo-nazi would (and did): if your mother is a pig and you are born in a cow barn, you’re still a pig, aren’t you?
My facebook feed is blowing up with photos and videos of refugees dancing, singing, cheering for Germany, shouting their thankfulness. I fear for the day they strive to claim roles in this society other than a refugee’s and might realise that there are many more borders to Germany than its geographical ones. Like previous immigrants, they might realise that still, the borders of German bureaucracy only reluctantly grant them passage to education and jobs. They might realise that when German politicians speak of combating xenophobia (because racism is too scary a word to use in Germany) they exclusively mean the embarassingly loud naughty little uneducated Saxons that could not be more different from the rest of German society. They fail to see the structural manifestations of racism in Germany’s education system, its policies, its institutions and its media, let alone acknowledge it. It was the latter, not the former, the top-down racism that never stopped telling me to learn my place, not the occasional harassments on the street that had the gravest impact on my life and those of my parents. My father lives happier than me having chosen to condone we are this society’s other, shrugging it off. I often wish I had more of his pragmatism and less of my mother’s unwillingness to settle for something less than she dreams.
Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said, the lessons learned from Germany’s experience with the Gastarbeiter must be implemented now. I doubt the lessons she is thinking of are the same ones that the Gastarbeiter would claim to be true. Still, I cannot help but hope some of them at least share a resemblance.
So yallah, Deutschland! This could be our time to grow. But then again, Entschuldigung, I’m scared to believe it is.