Since being in Germany and immersing myself into this new culture, I’ve realized how fortunate I am that almost everyone I’ve encountered here speaks English. Although, the language barrier has prompted some problems when reading menus, understanding the tram and bus routes, figuring out how to run the dishwasher, and other basic tasks. Even so, I haven’t felt completely helpless by any means. Aside from a little frustration and a few wrong turns, it’s all been manageable.
It’s also been relatively painless to mesh with the German culture because most Germans are familiar with much of American culture. Nonetheless, while we still share countless differences and people always have questions for us Americans – a lot of times pertaining to current politics – I’ve found easement in being aware of our countries’ commonalities and others’ knowledge of American pop culture, current events, etc.
At the same time, I have been closely observing and learning of the refugees’ experiences migrating into this country and the challenges they encounter because Syrian and German cultures are wildly different. And contrary to the English language, very few Germans know Arabic. It’s not a mandatory language course for German students like English is.
We recently spoke with the lovely Christina Janßen, who works directly with the refugees studying at Hochschule Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences teaching German. Christina spent much of her time explaining very clearly how hard the refugees must work in order to communicate, learn, and function in a foreign country, while simultaneously successfully integrate themselves into the German society.
“They have double the workload – maybe even triple,” Christina told us. “It’s very tough, but they are all very talented, motivated, and of course, just busy getting by.”
I couldn’t help but wonder: what would it be like if I had to integrate into Syrian culture? How would I pick up on my college education in a country that’s language and general culture is vastly different than the one I’ve known my entire life? How would I learn to read, write, travel, and communicate even the basics? Would the fear of staying outweigh the fear of leaving my homeland?
Recently, one of our new Syrian friends Ahmad, who is currently studying to receive his masters in Information Technology, was explaining to us how difficult it is to retain information during class lectures because he first hears it in German, and simultaneously conceptualizes it in terms he knows best (Arabic) in efforts to fully understand every complex lesson. He said it’s nearly impossible to even take notes for he just tries to keep up.
While Ahmad’s situation is very common among refugees studying, older adults and parents who brought their children here also face many difficulties.
From recently visiting a housing development for refugees in Darmstadt, we learned that many young children are actually teaching their parents German and even English or translating for them because most came here only speaking Arabic. Since the young kids are learning the languages in school and practicing them more frequently, they’re adapting much quicker to not only the language, but the overall culture.
In fact, many of the refugees we’ve gotten to know have said the language barriers and fear of adjusting to a new culture are main reasons as to why many of their parents and grandparents choose to stay in Syria. They’ve said they would rather die in their country because it’s been their home forever and resettling at this point poses too many challenges and fears.
Not only do the refugees face many challenges in acquiring and integrating themselves into the German culture, but they also must learn to keep what makes them, them.
They must also learn to integrate their religious practices into a country where Islam is not the norm. This particular topic is now the center of a large political debate in Germany, as well as around the rest of the world, and will play a key role in the upcoming German election.
It poses the question: Is Islam a part of the German identity?
While the refugees that practice Islam do have mosques to worship at here, “there is no central authority,” as Christina explained to us. She told us that they have no one to really lead their religion like they had in Syria, which poses technical problems in terms of integration.
They also face the questions: will their religion be accepted in their new, predominantly Christian country? Will they be accepted? With that and a multitude of other questions and obstacles refugees face while resettling, they still embrace the opportunity with open arms, open minds, and a hunger to contribute to society.
Based on what I’ve learned from asylum seekers, refugees, and new friends that I’ve made from both Syria and even a few from Afghanistan, I would infer their avidity to start anew is because they truly have no other option. Their homeland was no longer livable, so they made the decision to flee danger and move to a new country despite the extreme cultural differences, language barriers, and long vetting and processes that awaited them.
I can’t help but imagine myself being faced with that situation as a twenty-something-year-old. I truly question if I would be capable of or brave enough to transition from everything I’ve ever known to a completely unfamiliar and new culture, as I know many Syrians who have.
But as I sit here and recall the dozens of stories I’ve been told over the past month, I realize, what is the alternative?
In Christina’s words, “it’s not a crisis, it’s also a grand opportunity.”