Europe is not facing a refugee crisis. Refugees are uncovering a crisis of discourse, says Christoph Trost.Around a shabby table in a sports centre of a university, an interpreter, a civil servant and a humanitarian worker—myself—have dinner with the residents of a temporary refugee camp. Rock-hard bread, cheap cheese, plastic knives. Germany in October 2015.
Since this summer, the civil servant—I’ll call her Anne—has been reuniting families and organising toilet paper and blankets for refugees. “Why do you speak Arabic, by the way?” she asks the interpreter. Alix explains her origins: “I was born in Jordan into a Palestinian family. Twelve years ago, my family moved to Germany.”
“Oh dear, you speak German so well. But in fact you’re German on paper only.”
Blood makes the NationThis is in the heart of Germany—a rural region, often forgotten by the national press. We are neither in the far east that shines with xenophobic protests and burning refugee shelters, nor in the western cities, brimming with a lively migrant culture. The sports centre with Anne and Alix is somewhere in between, somewhere in mediocrity and rural tranquillity.
Calling someone a paper German—negating her German-ness and claiming blood to define German-ness—with a bright smile is not the same as being a radical xenophobe. The struggle for Germany and its many new citizens isn’t so much the violent fascists throwing Molotov cocktails at refugee camps—that’s a matter of mere law enforcement. It’s the subtle racism of the common man, even the men and women working with refugees every day.
Debating racism is a tough one. In German public discourse, the word race—Rasse—has been absent for over 60 years. Its sharp S, its SS in fact, carries a bad connotation. Yet, the concept of race persists, like Anne’s claim that race defines German-ness. A debate on belonging hasn’t reached the hinterland. Even the most liberal administrators or humanitarians in rural camps welcome refugees often with ignorance and a subtle racism.
The struggle for Germany and its many new citizens isn’t so much the violent fascists throwing Molotov cocktails at refugee camps—that’s a matter of mere law enforcement. It’s the subtle racism of the common man
Not long ago, the guy who opened the kebab shop down the road was the only visible foreigner in most towns and villages of central Germany. And suddenly, since this summer even the most remote area is confronted with Homs, Damascus and Mosul on a daily basis.
Refugees who reach Germany are distributed all over the country, based on a complex quota system. Population size and economic strength determines how many refugees will be settled in each district—even in those districts that haven’t been exposed to foreigners.
Welcome, dirty ArabsA mayor—Social-Democrat—of a small town asked me to translate a welcome letter into Arabic and English. His town will be hosting three Syrian families soon. The letter started with sweet welcoming words, until the third paragraph: “perhaps you have wondered about our culture. Point one: men and women are equal in Germany. Point two: cleanliness is very dear to us here. Point three: many religions exist here.”
Men and women are not equal in Germany. Actually, this town’s council consists of eight men and one woman. Nor do we have many religions here—at least not as many as in downtown Damascus.
To be fair, a note about cleanliness can be found in any lease of any landlord—but not in a welcome letter. Men and women are not equal in Germany. Actually, this town’s council consists of eight men and one woman. Nor do we have many religions here—at least not as many as in downtown Damascus. The mayor thinks all Arabs beat women, kill Christians and are dirty, yet he stands up actively against neo-fascist groups.
This ambivalence is not rare in the countryside and only shows that it takes more than activism against the far right to welcome refugees. Anyone being welcomed by this “welcome letter” would have been reluctant to seek dialogue. With these assumptions ingrained in local decision makers’ minds, integration has a long way to go—and I mean integrating Germans from the hinterland into a global society.
Neither Anne nor the mayor would vote for the nationalistic AfD party or would join the xenophobic protests to protect “occidental culture”. Certainly, they could recite the first paragraph of our Constitution: “Human dignity is untouchable.” Yet, both fail to give this powerful credo any meaning.
Refugees: Violent to the coreSmoke-filled hall, lots of beer and Harleys. A biker party in a village in Germany’s east. I meet a friend from my high school; he works for the riot police force now.
The German police has complained for long: understaffed, underfunded and criticised by the public too harshly. On a daily basis, they show up in riot gear at refugee camps. Conflicts over religion or over a loaf of bread or domestic violence do happen—and the police is fed up. My former classmates is convinced, “They’re too many, it’s impossible to handle. Daily I’m in the camps.” He also knows our Constitution, but fails to see the core of these incidents—the lack of dignity.
Stuffy halls, no privacy and nothing to do: the breeding ground for conflict. (It takes up to six months for successful refugees until they’re allowed to work, not counting the time it takes to find work.) The humanitarians managing the camps and the civil servants providing the infrastructure have failed, and then the riot police is called in. Certainly, there are hotheads among the residents. But well-managed camps do exist, where the administration gives agency to the residents, where volunteers are allowed in to give German classes, where humanitarians and administrators actively listen to the residents. Blaming all refugees for being violent is like blaming Volkswagen owners for exhausting too many fumes. The decisions for an atmosphere of dignity and security in the camps are mostly taken at a higher level, not only by the residents.
Blaming all refugees for being violent is like blaming Volkswagen owners for exhausting too many fumes.
Anne’s ancient understanding of blood defining the nation, the mayor’s undignified welcome and the policeman’s failure to see what it takes to live with dignity illustrate the clashes that occur daily in Germany. Administrators, representatives, policemen and many others in the hinterland of Germany are suddenly confronted with global citizens who have left their homes, navigated across seas and fences, with their complicated personal histories in their bags—and who only want a life in dignity.
Europe is not facing a refugee crisis. Refugees are uncovering a crisis of discourse, an ugly side of Germany far away from Merkel’s benevolent “We’ll manage this.”