By Rima Rammah
Rima Rammah is from Syria and lives in Germany. She has a Bachelor's in law and a Master's in International Relations. She is interested in refugee rights and writes short academic papers on the topic.
A decade of brutal warfare has wiped out my childhood memories, leaving me with nothing but recollections of destruction and the deeply ingrained social norms that have stifled my personality. Even as I navigate the asylum procedures and struggle to define myself as a person, I still feel like I am just a mere statistic, devoid of identity. However, back in my country, I wasn't even considered worthy enough to be recognized as a number.
One of my most profound interests lies in the plight of refugees from diverse nationalities, and I am determined to work towards alleviating their struggles. Upon completing the asylum stage, I plan to augment my legal education in Germany by specializing in refugee issues. This is not merely a dream, but a tangible goal that I am committed to achieving.
Currently, I am in Germany, not only to relish in the rights and freedoms denied to me in my country but also to challenge my society's perception of women as being vulnerable. However, any refugee faces a host of obstacles, including language barriers, integration, navigating new systems, and, most recently, discrimination between refugees. While I have not experienced discrimination personally, I have witnessed numerous accounts of such injustices, which I have attempted to highlight in my article. Every year, thousands of individuals flee from their homelands in search of safety and a better future. These refugees hail from various corners of the world, driven by numerous reasons such as political instability, persecution, war, natural disasters, and other traumatic events.
As refugees, we carry with us the harrowing memories of the conflicts and atrocities that we have witnessed in our countries. We hope to find solace and safety in foreign lands, away from the turmoil that has plagued our lives. Yet, despite our noble intentions, we often encounter obstacles that we had not anticipated. One such hurdle is the issue of racial discrimination. Many refugees, including myself, were caught off guard when they discovered that their true identities could expose them to unfair treatment and racial prejudice in countries they sought refuge in. It's disheartening to experience such discrimination, especially when one is already grappling with the challenges of settling into a new culture and social environment.
"We hope to find solace and safety in foreign lands, away from the turmoil that has plagued our lives."
In my experience, everything usually goes smoothly until someone asks me the question, "Where are you from?" It's a question I struggle to answer, as I feel worried that people’s attitude towards me could change if I tell them about my background. Many people assume I'm from Ukraine or another European country because of my appearance, which doesn't necessarily indicate that I'm from a Middle Eastern country. While it's ironic that this assumption sometimes protects me from discrimination, it also creates a feeling of internal anxiety, as if I don't truly know who I am. There are situations where I prefer not to reveal my Syrian background to avoid any potential negative reactions.
There has been a surge in troubling instances of racial discrimination, as noted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2022. Unfortunately, I have also experienced such discrimination firsthand. For instance, when I sought aid at a center for refugees, I was instructed to join the queue for Ukrainians, even though I was not Ukrainian. Despite my attempts to inform the employee that I am from Syria, he did not give me the chance to do so and rushed me through. Once inside, I clarified my nationality to the employee, who proceeded to say, "you don't look like you're from Syria; you're different." His words left me wondering how Middle Eastern people are perceived and whether there are specific characteristics attributed to Arabs. As I left the building, I noticed the irate faces of those who had been waiting for hours, and I found myself apologizing inwardly. Although I am uncertain why I felt the need to apologize, I acknowledge that every day, I am forced to renounce my original identity, and in each of these moments, I feel the need to apologize for myself. Despite the efforts of human rights organizations, refugees continue to suffer from racism and are not treated equally. This has become increasingly evident since the onset of the war in Ukraine in February 2022.
During my tenure as an asylum applicant in Germany, I had the privilege of witnessing numerous acts of kindness from locals. This was especially true during my direct involvement with the AWO organization, which provides assistance and shelter to the elderly. The elderly residents of the shelter interacted directly with refugees living in the nearby camp, and on occasion, invited them to share breakfast at the same table. It was during one of these reunions that I first met some of the elderly individuals, whose welcoming demeanor inspired me to conduct interviews with them.
The initial interviewee was a lecturer and researcher at the University of Business Administration in Germany. They provided responses to two questions, the first, what do you think of Germany's policy towards refugees? And the second, how do you feel when you are in direct contact with the refugees? During his reply, he recounted his experiences during WWII and the suffering he endured. He revealed that he had also witnessed the atrocities and inhumane treatment inflicted during the war, which enabled him to empathize with the plight of refugees. He lived in the eastern part of Germany, close to the Polish border, where his father passed away three weeks before the war's conclusion. He then went on to express, "I cannot recall every detail of those events, but I feel their impact within me, deep in my core."
He expressed to me, "During our time as refugees, no one wanted to talk to us. My mother had asked for potatoes to feed our family, but we were denied, being told that we had no right as refugees to receive such provisions." He went on to state that Germany, as one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, should offer assistance to refugees on the grounds of a basic reason, humanity.
"He went on to state that Germany, as one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, should offer assistance to refugees on the grounds of a basic reason, humanity."
The second interview was with a woman, a doctor from Israel who has been living in Germany for a long time. She spoke in particular about racial discrimination between Ukrainian refugees and the refugee crisis in 2015.
During our conversation, she brought up the hotel located next to the camp where I reside. She asked me, "Why do you have to live in the camp when Ukrainians are living right next to you in the hotel?" I was at a loss for words and could not respond. She went on to explain that Ukrainians are able to work immediately upon arrival, whereas other refugees have to go through a lengthy asylum process that can take years.
When I asked the third woman the same questions, she expressed her concerns about how many issues were receiving more attention than the problems faced by Germans. She pointed out that although she supports sheltering refugees, there was a pressing need for workers to assist in shelters for the elderly, especially for individuals with special needs who require intensive care and are often isolated from society.
After living in the Stuttgart camp for three months and I am still in the asylum process, I can confidently say that the individuals residing there have fled from various forms of violence and racial discrimination, with some even risking their lives to seek safety. Having heard their stories, I firmly believe that they should be welcomed and treated with equality in the best way possible.
"I firmly believe that they should be welcomed and treated with equality in the best way possible."
One thing that concerns me is the sense of resentment that some refugees harbor towards others, particularly those who fled from Ukraine, because they feel discriminated against in several aspects. This feeling of comparison may lead to significant problems in the future if left unaddressed. As for me, I feel the need not to disclose my Syrian background or to conceal my true Arab identity in my physical appearance whenever its possible. This is because I cannot bear the way people's attitudes towards me shift once they learn that I come from Syria.
Unfortunately, I also find myself concealing my true identity sometimes, due to the deep-seated prejudices towards people from the Middle East. For this reason, I understand why someone would choose to hide their original identity behind their physical appearance. Discrimination and bigotry can be daunting and isolating, and those who have experienced it firsthand may feel that they have no choice but to conceal their true selves. For this individual, it may be a painful decision to hide their cultural heritage and background, but they may feel that it is necessary in order to protect themselves from discrimination or prejudice. While it is unfortunate that such prejudices exist, it is important to acknowledge the reality of the situation and to support those who make the difficult choice to hide their identity in order to avoid social discrimination.