Insight on Syria: The Unseen Challenges of Refugee Integration in Germany

For Syrian refugees fortunate enough to reach Germany—a model among European countries for its commitment to refugees—the day-to-day realities and the uncertainty of their futures loom large.

Image of Syrian Refugee

Third in a series that asks Weatherhead Center affiliates to examine the dimensions shaping the Syrian conflict.

Weatherhead Center Undergraduate Research Fellow Hanaa Masalmeh spent a semester in Germany studying Syrian refugee integration. Her work focuses on the formal and informal structures of integration, especially on the role of women—both German and Syrian—in the integration process. This article, written by Masalmeh, is based on her research on volunteer groups in Bavaria, Germany. Names have been changed to afford privacy to the interviewees.

Every Wednesday and Friday, Barbra gets into her blue Volkswagen and drives five minutes down the road to a small yellow house near a churchyard. After carefully parking her car and grabbing her brown messenger bag, she knocks on the door. 

Barbra is a Sprachpartner, a volunteer who makes sure that Syrian refugees are learning German. Barbra also explains the basics of German culture, helps Syrians open bank accounts, file insurance claims, and apply for work. 

A young man opens the door and invites Barbra inside. “Mohammad!” Barbra says, greeting him with a hug. “Welcome, Grandmother!” the young man responds jokingly, and Barbra laughs.

Like the majority of volunteers in Bavaria, Barbra is a woman in her fifties. The Syrian men Barbra works with are in their early twenties—young enough to be her children. 

Yasin, one of Mohammad’s roommates, walks in. He’s just come from soccer practice, where he plays for a local league made up mostly of Syrians like him. His uniform is forest green and navy blue, and clashes with the yellow counters. As he deftly weaves around his roommates in the kitchen, pulling out instant coffee and creamer, it’s easy to imagine him maneuvering around the sparse green-yellow grass of the local soccer field. 

Mohammad and Yasin are two of the many Syrian refugees who have fled to Germany in search of safety. In the wake of a violent civil war, Europe has seen millions of Syrians cross into its borders, many of them illegally. When they finally reach Germany, many end up in houses like this one, living with other Syrians. 

Before the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, Syria had a population of about 13.5 million people. According to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), 5.4 million have fled outside of Syria, while another 6.1 million are internally displaced; the remainder are in hard-to-reach areas. When it comes to measuring where refugees have ended up, many are unregistered, which makes official figures unreliable. In Jordan, for example, 660,000 Syrians are registered as refugees, and nearly as many are unregistered.

“Mama Merkel” and Willkommenskultur

Germany’s historic welcome began when Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, promised to take in one million Syrian refugees, beginning in 2015. Merkel, who was leading the Eurozone negotiations at the time, saw her image shift from merciless creditor to angel of mercy, welcoming desperate Syrians with open arms. 

News reports showed Merkel shaking hands and taking selfies with Syrians; another showed a Syrian family joyously naming their newborn daughter “Angela Merkel.”

When asked about the challenges of her integration policy, Merkel usually responds with Wir Schaffen Das! or “We can handle it,” which has become shorthand for Merkel’s confidence in her country. In another press conference, Merkel said, “We have handled so much—we can handle this,” referencing the German people’s resilience after two world wars. 

Merkel also frequently references Willkommenskultur, or “welcoming culture.” The German government coined the term around five years ago to encourage foreign workers to come to Germany in the midst of a labor shortage. Now, the term has been repurposed by government officials to encourage Germans to accept Syrian refugees. 

In 2015, the German government demonstrated this Willkommenskultur by accepting Syrians according to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention—referred to simply as the Geneva Convention. The most generous of all designations, a “Geneva asylum seeker” or “Geneva refugee” receives equal treatment to nationals of the asylum-giving country, and is guaranteed permanent residency and family reunification. 

Germany met its one-million quota sometime in 2016, although the figures are disputed. Since then it has been gradually reducing its rate of acceptance of asylum-seekers, and limiting the amount of time refugees can spend in the country. Regardless of legal designation, if a refugee makes it to Germany, he or she will receive access to housing, healthcare, and education for a period of time—perhaps one or two years. Families are given their own homes, while young men like Mohammad and Yasin are assigned to live together.

Syrians are expected to begin working after mastering the German language; to facilitate this, they are provided with three years of intensive language classes and civic training, coordinated by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.

In spite of the slowdown in accepting refugees, Germany’s welcoming image endures. “We wouldn’t leave Syria for anywhere else,” one woman said, “not even the United States. Here, they help you learn the language, they really want you to find a job. The economy is good, the schools are good—we see a future for our children.” 

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A Family of Six and a Perilous Journey

Many Syrians contrast Germany’s approach with other European countries. Sarah, a forty-one-year-old woman living in southern Germany with her husband and four children, recalled her journey through Hungary as the worst part of their trip.

“We were walking through wheat fields, and they would send police dogs to catch the refugees,” Sarah says. “My children and I hid in an irrigation ditch and watched the police cars go by. Later, they caught us, and put us in prison for a few days before letting us go. We were treated like criminals. We could tell no one wanted us.”

When asked about her time in Germany, Sarah is more optimistic. “Of course, there are some difficult things, but we manage, and people are helpful. Our neighbors helped us find a house, and we made friends with the couple next door. We visit each other at least a few times a week, and their daughter loves to play soccer with my children. German is difficult, but my husband and I are making progress.” 

The German government is hopeful that refugees like Sarah will become productive members of society. Petra, head of the community center in her town, says that many Syrian refugees are making good progress. “We see them benefitting from language classes in their everyday lives,” she adds.

Meanwhile, Sarah, who speaks confident German, has started a sewing group for Syrian and German women in her town. “It didn’t really matter what kind of club—sewing or knitting or whatever,” Sarah says. “It’s just important to meet other people.” 

A Foot in the Door

While Sarah and her family were accepted under the Geneva Convention, Mohammad and Yasin arrived at the end of 2015, just as Germany shifted to a more complicated and selective process. The move was partly motivated by a fear that Germany had taken on more than it could handle, especially when it came to young men like Mohammad and Yasin. While often described as “single” men, the reality is much more complicated, and has much to do with German asylum policy.  

Even at the most generous point of the German refugee policy, Germany did not offer Syrians visas, instead accepting whoever was able to physically come to Germany. This meant that Syrians had to take dangerous illegal routes to get there. Cases of murder and abuse are well documented: seventy-one migrants suffocated inside a truck when their smuggler abandoned them last year, and thousands more have drowned. Several Syrians tell stories of getting lost in the Libyan desert, or of being held at gun or knife point by smugglers. 

For women, illegal routes are even more dangerous, as they also face the threat of sexual violence. In a recent New York Times article, a woman described how her husband allowed their smugglers to rape her when he ran out of money to pay for the family’s passage. 

Because of these risks, men are usually the ones to make the journey. “I came here first,” Mohammad says. “The idea was that I would apply for asylum under the Geneva Convention and bring over the rest of my family.” Several of Mohammad’s roommates nod in agreement. He continues, “I got here only to find out that I couldn’t bring anyone. I was too late to qualify.” 

Yasin has a similar story. “I was engaged in Syria, but it was too dangerous for my fiancée to come here, so I came first to put a foot in the door. Then I found out that fiancées are not eligible for family reunification—only spouses. I applied anyway, but her application never came through. After two years of waiting, we broke off our engagement.”

Stereotypes Hold Back Integration

Mohammad and his roommates live two or three to a bedroom. There is a bunk bed in every room, with neatly folded quilts and immaculately clean linoleum floors. Prints of sunflowers and German landscapes left behind by previous tenants still hang on the walls. 

Mohammad, Yasin, and their roommates gather at the kitchen table, above which hangs a picture of the Alps. Mohammad pours tea for Barbra, accidentally spilling some on the kitchen table. Yasin quickly grabs a red checkered cloth and wipes up the spill.

When young men like Yasin are portrayed in the news, it’s usually not in such a domestic setting. In newspaper articles, they are usually faceless; the word “mob” is often used. After the 2015 New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne, many Germans felt torn between welcoming young Syrian men and fearing them. Often accused of self-segregating and hindering their own integration, Syrian men have few social options.

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“There are no social activities for men,” Yasin says, on the same day that German and Syrian women had organized an Easter brunch. “Barbra, our Sprachpartner, comes twice a week, but that’s it. It’s hard to make real social connections.” 

“It’s very hard to meet Germans,” Mohammad adds. “And that makes it very difficult to practice German, or even to feel like we have a community here beyond our small house.” 

Even Sarah’s husband expresses some frustration. “The men are always at work. All I do is go to German language classes and then pick my children up from school. There is almost no one to talk to.” 

At a recent training meeting for German volunteers, there were only four male volunteers out of twenty. “This is pretty much typical,” says Ursula, the senior volunteer who led the session. “We find German women are much more involved.” Barba agrees. “I work with both men and women as a Sprachpartner, but I am much more socially involved with the women.” 

The expectation, it seems, is that these young men make their social connections through work. In an interview in the media, Dieter Zetsche, CEO of carmaker Daimler, hoped refugees could lay the foundation for the “next German economic miracle.” Zetsche is referring to the projected labor shortage in Germany, which Merkel is hopeful refugees can fill. 

However, in another twist of bureaucratic irony, these young men must learn German in order to work, which leaves them socially stranded, and wondering if “Mama Merkel’s” embrace includes them. 

Image of Hanaa Masalmeh

Leaving a Family behind in Turkey

As Yasin has tea with Barbra, another friend walks in. Abu Mahmoud, unlike Mohammad and Yasin, is in his early fifties. Today, he wears gray sweatpants, a gray sweatshirt, and beige house slippers. “Hello, hello!” he says, greeting Barbra effusively. 

For the young men living in this house, Abu Mahmoud is like a father, teaching them how to cook and encouraging them to work hard in their German language classes. He is often on the phone with his family, and will pull up photos of his children to show Barbra. 

Like his roommates, Abu Mahmoud is also stuck in bureaucratic limbo. “I left my entire family in Turkey. I wanted to apply for asylum, but it wasn’t safe to bring them here with me. The journey is too dangerous.” Abu Mahmoud lives frugally, sending much of his 200-euro government allowance to support his wife and five children in Turkey. 

In the flourescent light of the kitchen, Abu Mahmoud looks especially weary. He had been waiting two years for his family’s asylum application to be approved. “My children are growing up without me,” he says. “Even the youngest one, who is eight, is working to make money for the family. This isn’t a childhood.” He lapses into silence, and then gets up to make more tea. 

Closing the Door

Sometime in 2016, Germany met its quota of accepting one million refugees (although some sources put the number closer to 800,000). Now, Germany is quietly closing its borders—not with barbed-wire fences, as Hungary did, but by increasing the number of “safe countries of origin”—that is, countries where refugees can be sent back to—thereby shrinking the number of people eligible for refugee status. 

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Like many Syrians, Abu Mahmoud arrived in Germany thinking he would be accepted under the Geneva Convention, only to find that he wasn’t eligible. This is because in Germany, acceptance under the Geneva Convention is contingent upon whether or not the refugee is coming from a “safe country of origin.” Only those coming from countries not designated “safe” are eligible to apply for Geneva refugee status. Even after giving a refugee a temporary stay, perhaps one or two years, Germany can send them back to the “safe country.”

Abu Mahmoud was not eligible under the Geneva Convention because his country of origin was Turkey, whose status is under negotiation.

In 2014 and 2015, only a handful of EU countries were considered safe countries of origin. However, the list is growing. While many of these newly added countries, such as Yugoslavia, Senegal, and Ghana are not highly trafficked by Syrian refugees, the German parliament has begun its own talks on whether to classify Turkey as a safe country of origin. Should this motion succeed, it would make it nearly impossible for asylum seekers from Turkey to get their applications approved. While no official decision has been made, asylum seekers who applied from Turkey are already reporting severe slowdown in the application process. Meanwhile, Merkel’s announcement that Germany has met its quota points to another possible explanation. The opacity of the system makes it nearly impossible to tell why applications are—or aren’t—considered, and the definition of a safe country of origin only adds to the confusion. 

The question for a refugee fleeing Syria then becomes: In which country should I register? The EU’s so-called “Dublin regulations” require refugees to register in the first EU country they arrive in—usually hubs such as Italy or Greece. Once registered, that country becomes a refugee’s “safe country of origin.” But these laws have been loosely enforced. Refugees simply reapply for asylum when they reach Germany. Such was the case with Sarah. “We were caught by the Austrian border control—they were very kind, to be honest,” she says. “They took us to the local police station, had us fill out some forms, and that was it. A few weeks later we walked across the German border.” 

By about 2016, Germany had designated eight additional countries as “safe.” Gateways to Germany like Italy, Greece, and Hungary—all “safe” countries—were also heavily policed, with Germany quietly increasing EU funding to Hungary exactly at the time that Germany had reached its quota. 

This strategy to restrict migration is considered controversial. Even when a refugee from a safe country of origin is deported from Germany, there is no guarantee that their “country of origin” will take them back. 

As Abu Mahmoud waits for the result of his asylum application, he faces discouraging odds. In the EU, only 23.1 percent of asylum applications from Turkey were accepted. Meanwhile, he has only a temporary two-year residency in Germany; renewal is not guaranteed.

Quotation from Masalmeh on refugee challenges

The Catch-22 of Integration

While many Syrians end up stranded in Greek refugee camps, just as many are stranded in bureaucratic limbo. Temporary permits, while they might help stem the flow of refugees, actually create significant problems for integration. 

Under German law, the “3+2 Rule” states that anyone under twenty-one who receives an offer of job training is eligible to stay in Germany for the three years of the training, and for two years following. However, refugees must first apply to their local foreign offices to begin this training. A successful application often requires German language skills, which newly arrived refugees do not have. 

“I want to work,” Abu Mahmoud says, “but all I have is a two-year permit which might not be renewed.” He sighs. “Here, they can’t just hire you—they have to train you. And what employer wants to spend six months training me if I might not even get to stay in Germany?”

For Abu Mahmoud, such a system represents a catch-22. He cannot work with just a temporary residency, but many asylum applications use work experience to show that a refugee has properly integrated into German society. 

Language learning presents another conundrum. “I can’t work without learning German,” Abu Mahmoud says, “but it’s so difficult to put time and energy into learning a difficult language when I’m not even sure I will be allowed to stay.” 

Volunteers like Barbra also feel the effects of this system. “I am a Sprachpartner, which means I teach refugees German. It’s a difficult process to learn and teach a new language. I’ve spent a year teaching someone German, watching them grow and integrate, only to have them sent away,” she says. 

Petra, head of the community center in Mohammad and Yasin’s town, agrees. “My volunteers are expected to help refugees build their lives here, and the government simply deports these refugees on a whim. I’ve seen Syrians work hard to find jobs and go to school, only to be sent away for no reason.” 

Image of City Hall in Bavaria, Germany

Laura, who heads the county’s volunteer administration, says these deportations take an emotional toll on volunteers and refugees alike. “It’s very hard for us. We see these refugees build themselves up and then have all their hard work integrating and learning the language disappear. We volunteers also get very attached to the refugees we work with, and it’s always difficult to say goodbye.”

Laura pauses. “In the end, even if you don’t care about these people, it’s wasteful. Volunteers have to integrate them, the government has to pay for their schooling, housing, and food—and then they simply get sent away,” she says. “You either welcome someone, or you don’t.” 

As the refugee crisis continues, Syrians like Sarah and Abu Mahmoud face a complicated welcome. Among the many challenges they will face are opaque asylum policies and their own uncertainty about their place in Germany. Still, they seem determined—and thankful. "We are safe here," Sarah says, "and we want to give back and become a part of society." For Barbra, her work with Syrian volunteers is challenging but hopeful. "We are all doing the best we can," she says. "I only hope others will see that."

Hanaa Masalmeh, Undergraduate Research Fellow, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Hanaa Masalmeh is an Undergraduate Research Fellow with the Weatherhead Initiative on Gender Inequality at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She was also a 2016–2017 Kenneth I. Juster Fellow at the Weatherhead Center. She is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard College. Her research interests include the role of top-down government policy and bottom-up volunteer work in Syrian refugee resettlement in southern Germany.

Also in the “Insight on Syria” series:

Photo Captions

1. Idomeni refugee camp on Greek Macedonia border, Syrian refugees protest, Pro-Merkel rally, a girl waves a german flag, Idomeni. Credit: imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

2. Berlin city Education Senator Sandra Scheeres (R) sits down with Heleen (L), 17, and Nisreen, 17, both refugees from Syria, at the extra-curricular German-language program the two attend along with approximately 20 others at a Berlin school on November 2, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. The teenaged students, mostly refugees from countries including Syria and Iraq, were participating in an initiative by the city of Berlin to offer German-language help to young refugees during school vacations. Berlin schools are currently closed for fall break and the participating refugees, who themselves are enrolled in the 'welcome classes' at schools across the city, spend the two weeks on field trips designed to help them feel more confident in the city and to improve their German language skills. Berlin alone is home to at least 80,000 refugees. The German Federal Statistics Bureau announced today that 1.6 million people currently live in Germany with asylum status or who are seeking asylum. Credit: Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

3. Mahmud (L), 18, and Mhyar (2nd from L), 16, both refugees from Syria, prepare vegeatbles for a group lunch at the extra-curricular German-language program they attend along with approximately 20 others at a Berlin school on November 2, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. The teenaged students, mostly refugees from countries including Syria and Iraq, were participating in an initiative by the city of Berlin to offer German-language help to young refugees during school vacations. Berlin schools are currently closed for fall break and the participating refugees, who themselves are enrolled in the 'welcome classes' at schools across the city, spend the two weeks on field trips designed to help them feel more confident in the city and to improve their German language skills. Berlin alone is home to at least 80,000 refugees. The German Federal Statistics Bureau announced today that 1.6 million people currently live in Germany with asylum status or who are seeking asylum. Credit: Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

4. Hanaa Masalmeh. Used with permission by Hanaa Masalmeh

5. Refugees protest outside the Asylum Service in Athens on September 19, 2017 , to call for immediate reunifications with their families in Germany. Refugees , living in different camps around Athens demanded to travel at the legally provided deadline of six month. Germany has limited the families reunifications to 70 per month. Credit: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

6. City Hall in Bavaria, Germany. Credit: Hanaa Masalmeh