We Refugees are Syrians
In the first place, we don’t like to be called “refugees.” We ourselves call each other “newcomers” or “immigrants.” Our newspapers are papers for “Germans of Arabic language”; and, as far as I know, there is not and never was any club founded by people whose name indicated that its members were refugees.
A refugee used to be a person driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held. Well, it is true we have had to seek refuge; but we committed no acts and most of us never dreamt of having any radical opinion. With us, the meaning of the term “refugee” has changed. Now “refugees” are those of us who have been so unfortunate as to arrive in a new country without means and have to be helped by Refugee Committees.
Before this war broke out we were, even more, sensitive about being called refugees. We did our best to prove to other people that we were just ordinary immigrants. We declared that we had departed of our own free will to countries of our choice, and we denied that our situation had anything to do with “so-called Syrian problems.” Yes, we were “immigrants” or “newcomers” who had left our country because, one fine day, it no longer suited us to stay, or for purely economic reasons. We wanted to rebuild our lives, that was all. In order to rebuild one’s life one has to be strong and an optimist. So we are very optimistic.
Our optimism, indeed, is admirable, even if we say so ourselves. The story of our struggle has finally become known. We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Middle East and our best friends have been killed in concentration centers, and that means the rupture of our private lives.
Nevertheless, as soon as we were saved — and most of us had to be saved several times — we started our new lives and tried to follow as closely as possible all the good advice our saviors passed on to us. We were told to forget, and we forgot quicker than anybody ever could imagine. In a friendly way we were reminded that the new country would become a new home; and after four weeks in Turkey or six weeks in Germany, we pretended to be Turkish or Germans. The more optimistic among us would even add that their whole former life had been passed in a kind of unconscious exile and only their new country now taught them what a home really looks like. It is true we sometimes raise objections when we are told to forget about our former work, and our former ideals are usually hard to throw over if our social standard is at stake. With the language, however, we find no difficulties: after a single year optimists are convinced they speak German as well as their mother tongue, and after two years they swear solemnly that they speak German better than any other language — their Arabic is a language they hardly remember.
In order to forget more efficiently, we rather avoid any allusion to concentration or internment centers we experienced in nearly all Middle Eastern and European countries — it might be interpreted as pessimism or lack of confidence in the new homeland. Besides, how often have we been told that nobody likes to listen to all that; hell is no longer a religious belief or a fantasy, but something as real as houses and stones and trees. Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings — the kind that is put in concentration centers by their foes and in internment centers by their friends.
Even among ourselves, we don’t speak about this past. Instead, we have found our own way of mastering an uncertain future. Since everybody plans and wishes and hopes, so do we. Apart from these general human attitudes, however, we try to clear up the future more scientifically. After so much bad luck we want a course as sure as a gun. Therefore, we leave the earth with all its uncertainties behind and we cast our eyes up to the sky. The stars tell us — rather than the newspapers — when Assad will be defeated and when we shall become European citizens. We think the stars more reliable advisers than all our friends; we learn from the stars when we should have lunch with our benefactors and on what day we have the best chances of filling out one of these countless questionnaires which accompany our present lives.
Sometimes we don’t rely even on the stars but rather on the lines of our hand or the signs of our handwriting. Thus, we learn less about political events but more about our own dear selves, even though somehow psychoanalysis has gone out of fashion. Those happier times are passed when bored ladies and gentlemen of high society conversed about the genial misdemeanors of their early childhood. They don’t want ghost stories anymore; it is real experiences that make their flesh creep. There is no longer any need of bewitching the past; it is spellbound enough in reality. Thus, in spite of our outspoken optimism, we use all sorts of magical tricks to conjure up the spirits of the future.
Our new friends hardly understand that at the basis of all our descriptions of past splendors ies one human truth: once we were somebodies about whom people cared, we were loved by our friends, and even known by landlords as paying our rent regularly. Once we could buy our food and ride the bus without being told we were undesirable. We have become a little hysterical since newspapermen started detecting us and telling us publicly to stop being disagreeable when shopping for coffee and bread. We wonder how it can be done; we already are so damnably careful every moment of our daily lives to avoid anybody guessing who we are, what kind of passport we have, where our birth certificates were filled out — and that Assad didn’t like us. We try the best we can to fit into a world where you have to be sort of politically minded when you buy your food.
I don’t know which memories and which thoughts nightly dwell in our dreams. I dare not ask for information, since I, too, had rather be an optimist. But sometimes I imagine that at least nightly we think of our dead or we remember the poems we once loved.
What you have read so far wasn’t written by me, wasn’t written by a Syrian at all. Except a few changes I made, Hannah Arendt wrote this text in 1943 for the Jewish periodical “The Menorah Journal”, entitled “We Refugees”. In it she described a widespread refusal among Jews who had escaped the Nazis to call themselves “refugees”. Having lost everything — their occupation, their language, their family — they were eager to adapt to their new country as quickly as possible and to become “normal” citizens. This is us now, the Syrian refugees in Germany.
A German friend has read Arendt’s text for me few months ago while I was “celebrating” two years in Germany last September 2015. My friend was reading Hannah trying to tell me “Monis, you are not the only one who feels like that”, while, deep inside, tears of fear were waving among an ocean of darkness.
Hanna wrote her fear as a refugee in the US seven decades ago, today I’m reading Hanna as if I wrote these words myself. As if any of the Syrian refugees anywhere in Europe wrote those words. Jewish and Muslim, Nazis or extreme Nationalists, no difference, as long as people are fleeing dictatorship which is based on radical, worthless thoughts — once they become refugees, they hate to be called refugees, losing their identity, trying the impossible to become “normal” citizens.
Monis Bukhari — Berlin