Yousef Wehbe, originally from Palestine, is the Head of Justice and Rule of Law Unit at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) in Germany
Living in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon gives you two choices: the first is to surrender to unemployment – already imposed by law; to isolation by joining armed groups; to criminal activity; or to extremism. The second choice is self-dedication to succeed, and I can tell you without hesitation that the second choice is an exception for the majority.
I arrived in Germany from a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon for compelling reasons related to personal and family security. During the first 15-18 months, the challenges posed by the bureaucratic procedures were very intense, and, to me, that is one of the main reasons why many arrivals develop negative – and even dangerous – attitudes towards their host countries. The sense of humiliation and complexity has very serious psychological and personal consequences, especially for those who have had very high expectations of their foreseen salvation in Europe.
As a Palestinian, I didn’t benefit from government-supported language courses, nor was I allowed to work until my asylum application was positively received. Meanwhile, I mostly had to rely on my own search for local civil society organisations and NGOs providing services for asylum-seekers in the fields of language, education and work. Kiron University was my first hope as it offered an uncomplicated and ambitious educational opportunity. Thanks to my previous professional experience in the Middle East, I found my first mini-job as a research assistant and benefitted also from a highly beneficial mentoring programme. It was these non-governmental actors – organisations and individuals – that helped me to keep my positive determination to find my way in a new life.
The sense of humiliation and complexity has very serious psychological and personal consequences
However, I always asked myself: what is ‘integration’ and when will I be considered to have integrated? Since I never got an answer – just like the majority of newcomers – I decided to come up with my own concept: ‘inclusion’ means the newcomers’ positive actions for personal and societal benefit, including elements such as an interactive exchange process between the newcomer and the society’s culture and not succumbing to stereotypes.
This is true for most refugees who are equally curious about these values we are being asked to adhere to. Understandably, newcomers have different concepts and practice of many values. For example, many newcomers from Arab countries define democracy in the context of elections while that’s only the core of the concept. This partial ‘understanding’ of democracy is based on what they have known in their home countries.
Newcomers naturally need to adapt to the existing rule of law, but they need a hand from the responsible authorities
Newcomers – if left on their own to strive for inclusion – should not be expected to succeed collectively. They have different capacities and determination, especially considering traumas they are potentially suffering from. Not everyone is ready to take the initiative and fight for a new life; there are many who will simply retreat when faced with confusing bureaucracy and strict rules. Newcomers naturally need to adapt to the existing rule of law, but they need a hand from the responsible authorities, beyond a purely procedural relationship.
The so-called “refugees crisis” demonstrated the amazing role played by civil society actors in Europe. But governments should also do their share to make necessary investments in the process of integration and inclusion. Many of the refugees and civil society organisations I have met complain about the wasted resources and efforts because government programmes are bureaucratic and no different from the official procedures that people usually strive to avoid. When developing such programmes, authorities need to consider the background of the target group, including their qualifications and psychological needs; the real needs of the newcomers; the host community’s needs and interests; as well as the allocation of qualified and knowledgeable personnel to lead these programmes.
Values cannot be dictated to newcomers by governments, with the additional warning that non-conformity is punishable by the law. Newcomers and host communities need to overcome their fears of each other by talking openly to each other about what brings them together – but also that which separates them.
This article is from Friends of Europe’s discussion paper ‘Real people, true stories: refugees for more inclusive societies’, in which refugees past and present share their personal stories and offer forward-looking, experience-based recommendations for improving integration around the world.
IMAGE CREDIT: franz12/Bigstock