Whenever I visit a refugee hostel or am recognized on
the street, I am immediately surrounded by people. I speak Arabic, and they
have a lot of questions: Why haven’t I heard anything from the BAMF [Federal
Office for Migration and Refugees]? Why have I only been granted residency for
one year, not three? Why can’t I bring my family over to join me? Why aren’t I
allowed to change my place of residence? Why can I still not find a job or an
apartment, although I’m trying everything I can? Why, why, why?
My last visit to a refugee hostel was
in Hamburg. Then, too, I was bombarded with questions, but this time I had a big
question of my own. This hostel was where Ahmad A., the alleged knife attacker,
lived. What I wanted to know was: Who was this 26-year-old who had killed an
innocent person in a supermarket in Hamburg’s Barmbek district and seriously
injured seven others?
On entering the hostel, I was
reminded of my student halls of residence. One 12-square-meter room after
another, with a shared kitchen in between. Ahmad was "very religious and
extreme in his views," I was told by the man who lived next door. Once,
Ahmad had stormed into his room and forbidden him to listen to music. It was a
sin, he'd said. In the last few weeks Ahmad had shouted the call to prayer from
the window of his room almost every day to remind the other residents of the
hours of prayer. Some hostel residents say Ahmad even had an IS flag in his
room. Others tell me he sometimes smoked cannabis and was mentally unstable.
"We always knew he belonged to Daesh," one woman says. Daesh is
another abbreviation for IS. "He sometimes went around in an Islamic jalabiya,
but I never dared say anything." One young man looked at me and said,
"We complained about Ahmad many times to the hostel management, but no one
listens to us. They don't take us seriously. To them, we're just a number."
The hostel management later confirmed to me that Ahmad A. had been brought to
A fundamental problem
However, the residents didn't always speak openly about him amongst themselves. Some didn't dare to share their observations. They were afraid others would harass them – "Why did you say that about Ahmad?"
At the hostel I met dozens of young
men who have nothing to do all day long. One was listening to music, others
were coming back from shopping. Some of them were cooking together, or playing
basketball. Some were returning from work; several of them were working
illegally, as kitchen helps, for example. Some were attending a German language
class. Others, though, have essentially given up. They sit in the refugee
hostel all day; they eat, drink, WhatsApp with their families. Then they go to
With every hour I spent in the hostel
I felt less and less motivated to do what I was there to do, namely report on the
knife attacker. My observations there made clear to me that something else was wrong:
That the alleged attacker was not the only problem. There is a much bigger
problem, a fundamental one.
Many see themselves as victims of German policy
Many refugees thought that after two
years everything would be fine: language, apartment, work, family reunification.
That idea has since been crushed. The processing by the authorities is still dragging
on. Some of them still don't have a residence permit. They're struggling with
the German language. The German course teaches them the basics, but in order to
speak really well they need to have contact with native speakers and practise a
lot. Finding an apartment is not easy, even for German citizens. In some
cities, getting an appointment with the authorities is like winning the lottery,
and the processing takes ages. At the same time, with every passing day their
fears grow for their families back home. Many don't know what their lives will
be like in six months' time.
Between the waiting and the worrying,
many feel they haven't really found their feet in Germany. They may be
physically here, but they don't know what will happen next; whether they'll be
allowed to stay. Many of them see themselves as victims of German politics.
They can sense the gridlock at the top. Now its up to them to perform: learn
the language, find a job, an apartment, integrate into German society. And they
have to have patience – a lot of patience. Some have managed all of this, but
they are the exceptions.
It's an alarming development when
many young people feel they've been abandoned. The state must take care not to
lose these people. Many feel they aren't getting enough support. They have no
prospects, but they're looking for something to hold on to. Things happen that
we don't see and are no longer doing anything about. Groups form according to
nationality (Afghans against Arabs) or political allegiance (for/against Assad
in Syria). We pay no attention to these conflicts until they result in
altercations and violence. We used to see photos from the LaGeSo [State Office
for Health and Social Affairs] in Berlin; pictures of crowds of people,
waiting. We were outraged. Now these people have become invisible, yet many are
still living in refugee hostels.
People don't trust the authorities
The hostel residents have made
serious accusations, particularly against the authorities. Again and again I heard:
The authorities don't want us, that's why they obstruct us and don't listen to
us! This is a feeling that cannot be allowed to develop. These people already distrusted
the authorities in their homelands. Now they say they feel the same over here.
The fact that they reported Ahmad to the hostel management on numerous
occasions and no one reacted to their complaints, for example, makes them
angry. Why did no one react? Why didn't the police watch him more closely when
they knew he was an Islamist? These failures don't justify Ahmad A.'s murderous
actions; preventative measures might, however, have forestalled them. And could
forestall others in future.
Distrust of the authorities and the sense
of victimization is also heightened by the fact that the two sides literally do
not understand each other. The police asking questions about the alleged
attacker on Saturday spoke to the refugees in German. Some understood them;
others didn't, and so couldn't give the police any information. Were there no
interpreters, or an Arabic-speaking police officer, who could have been
assigned to the job?
There needs to be much more
educational outreach in the refugee hostels: informing residents about Germany,
the way the authorities work, the political system, and so on. Official agencies
need to employ mediators, i.e. Germans with an Arabic migrant background who
are familiar with the language and culture. This creates trust. Both sides need
to do more: The authorities need to work better, and the refugees need more
Like being at a PEGIDA rally
Many refugees at the hostel were also
distrustful of the media: "In the beginning everyone was reporting about
us. Now they only report on us when there's something bad to report." As
Arabs and Muslims, they said, they're seen as bad people per se, or even as terrorists. "Why should I talk to you? In
the end you're only going to write that Islam is bad!" one resident said
to me. Being among the refugees was a bit like being at a PEGIDA rally. At
rallies held by this anti-Islamic movement, journalists are often shouted at
and called "liars" or "fake news," and people refuse to
talk to them.
One solution could be: Don't only
report when there's an outcry, or when something very negative or positive
happens. Instead, the media could report on what daily life is like for the
refugees, the challenges it presents. It could continue to give the new
arrivals a voice, so that they feel they are being noticed and heard. As a
journalist, I feel I share this responsibility.
History is repeating itself: Lebanese and Palestinians came
in the Eighties; in the Nineties it was refugees from the Balkans. Many have
stayed, and not all have integrated. Someone who is a refugee today could be a
German citizen tomorrow. If we want our fellow citizens to be integrated, we
need to learn from our history and take their concerns seriously. We must
listen to them, listen carefully, and do so continuously, long-term. Otherwise there
is a danger that a parallel world could soon establish itself not only in the refugee
hostels, but in the minds of the refugees and future German citizens as well.
Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins