Panel members at the event (© Wolfgang Borrs)
Panel members at the event, which was jointly organised by ifa, the Leibniz Centre for Modern Oriental Studies (ZMO), the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and Qantara.de

"The biggest difference is the freedom"

What does it mean to arrive in a new country? How does being forced to flee your homeland affect your sense of identity? What prospects and opportunities await refugees in Germany? On 13 December 2016, representatives of civil society, politics and the media came together with Syrian refugees who had been granted ifa fellows at the Sharehaus Refugio in Berlin to discuss these questions.

From Neda Pouryekta

The event titled "Arrived? Developing a sense of identity and self-organisation in the context of escape", marked the culmination of a successful pilot project organised by ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen). In the autumn of 2016, for the very first time, three Syrian refugees joined the CrossCulture Programm. In Berlin they talked about their experiences as they made their way to Germany and their new lives here. Proceedings were kicked off by Hussam Al-Hassoun from Aleppo, a historian and CCP fellow at the Leibniz Centre for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin. He explained how he he never imagined for one minute that he would ever have to leave his homeland. He was a PhD student at the University of Damascus in the faculty of Modern and Contemporary History. But in the end, the upheaval and war in his country forced him to flee. His final destination was Germany, where he initially lived in refugee accommodation in Berlin. He found these early days very difficult, but never gave up hope and never stopped believing in himself. He was delighted by the news that he had been awarded a CCP scholarship at the Leibniz Centre for Modern Oriental Studies (ZMO) seeing it as a reward for his efforts.

"A lot of things are very different here in Germany", says Al-Hassoun. "The biggest difference is the freedom, the freedom you have as a researcher. In Syria, we were always afraid we would lose our work, because there are certain lines you are not meant to cross, and these lines are like traps". Certain books are banned and it is forbidden to cite them. "It can lead to you losing your job or even being sent to prison", explains Al-Hassoun. Today he has more opportunities and an international network of colleagues, which allows him to say: "I'm making a new start".

Identity crisis at the root of extremism

After Al-Hassoun had finished recounting his experiences, Loay Mudhoon, head of the internet portal Qantara.de, interviewed CCP fellow Salma Alaabed and independent journalist Kristin Helberg. Salma Alaabed talked about some of the daily difficulties she encountered, such as learning German, a skill that is so essential for living in Germany. However, she also stressed just how much she appreciated Germany's openness, saying how different it is from the closed society she was used to in Syria. She believes that loss of identity can lead young refugees in particular to become radicalised and join extremist organisations, so she argued for the establishment of special training programmes for refugees. During her CrossCulture internship at Qantara.de she saw how editorial articles can be used to break down stereotypes and build bridges between different cultures.

Living and dying – feelings of guilt

The meeting was rounded off with a panel discussion on the subject of self-organisation, moderated by Beate Apelt, Head of Division East and Southeast Europe/Middle East and North Africa at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. Participants in the discussion included Urban Beckmann, head of the Dialogues Department at ifa, Medea Daghstani, CCP fellow at the Friderich Naumann Foundation, Jamshid Hussein, sociologist and social pedagogue at Lebenswelten e.V. and Mohamad Hajjaj, member of the Berlin Senate State Advisory Board for Integration and Migration. Daghstani explained that many Syrians experience feelings of guilt over the fact that they are simply carrying on living while their loved ones are dying in Syria. She went on to say: ‘It is also difficult to come to live in a new society where you don't speak the language and are faced with an uncertain legal situation and long-drawn-out bureaucratic processes’.

At the end of the event the 130 guests were able to sample some Syrian specialities, talk to panel members and delve deeper into the issues discussed.

Foto: Wolfgang Borrs
Eva Sodeik-Zecha, Head of the CrossCulture Programme, welcomes the guests at the Sharehaus Refugio in Berlin. (All photos: Wolfgang Borrs)
Foto: Wolfgang Borrs
Historian Hussam Al-Hassoun came to Germany from Syria.
Foto: Wolfgang Borrs
(L to R) Kristin Helberg and Salma Alaabed talking to editor-in-chief Loay Mudhoon.
Foto: Wolfgang Borrs
Extended discussion group with (L to R): Urban Beckmann, Mohamad Hajjaj, Beate Apelt, Jamshid Hussein and CCP fellow Medea Daghstani.
Foto: Wolfgang Borrs
More than 130 delegates attended the event at the Sharehaus Refugio.