Refuge and the myth of the liberal welcome

In her article for the UK-based Sunday Times, British journalist Lynn Barber tells a “story in two parts, without a happy ending” of when she housed a Sudanese asylum seeker in her “big house” in North London.

Moved to help after witnessing the “daily horror stories” of the Mediterranean — first the image of Aylan Kurdi face-down in the sand and then a “personal tipping point,” a picture of a Syrian mother desperately trying to keep her baby above the water — Barber meets an activist who says he can help arrange things. A few weeks later, all the preparations have been made for the arrival of Mohamed, who entered the UK underneath a truck.

Things go well for a while: Mohamed cooks Barber a Sudanese meal and the food is good. But then, the “big row.” Mohamed keeps turning up the central heating without asking, to the point that Barber apparently feels justified in telling him, “This is my house, I keep it at my preferred temperature, and if you don’t like it you can f*** off back to Calais.” Mohamed sends an apologetic note, and Barber feels bad. But then, after six months, Barber decides to write about her experiences so far and shows it to Mohamed. She is surprised by his reaction. “I am not a refugee!” he shouts at her. “I am a political leader! My family is very rich! We could buy you up like that. Do you want money? Is that why you write this filth? I get you money. You First World women are all the same, you are heartless. You have no feelings. You Christians are all racists.” Mohamed leaves for good shortly afterwards.

Through this article, which appeared in the Times in late May, Barber gives us one of the best — and accidental — parodies of liberal, middle-class England since the last time a Conservative politician tried to talk about British values. Barber comes across as one of those people who would never dream of saying anything racist, heaven forbid, but who in her unchecked preconceptions about Mohamed’s background, what exists on the other side of the sea and how it relates to her, is indubitably racist.

It is a welcome with caveats: asylum comes with a time limit, rights with conditions.

Mohamed becomes an indeterminate African body onto which Barber can project desires and prejudices. When he takes offense, Barber dismisses him as a freeloader, baffling and unknowable. Taking him in is not done out of pure altruism, she says, but the “need for a shake-up” in her own moneyed, humdrum piece of North London suburbia. Meanwhile, there is an expectation that Mohamed should not have money (partly because he is granted a £35-a-week (LE800) allowance from the government and can’t work in the meantime), and it is seen as suspicious when he apparently has the money to go looking for hashish or some shoes for his mother. There’s also a nudging intimation that his reason for fleeing Sudan, “when he ‘got in trouble’ (unspecified) and was advised to leave … quickly,” is suspicious, in that it is not explained — although it later turns out that Mohamed fears being followed, monitored and observed; pragmatic fears when you consider the experiences of Sudanese refugees in Cairo, or Syrians in Sweden, who are known to be surveilled and threatened by their national authorities. And yet when Mohamed tries to actually explain Sudanese politics (as Barber apparently expects him to), she says, “My eyes would begin to glaze and I would suddenly remember that I had to make an urgent phone call.”

I was thinking of these values during a recent trip to Germany, where I was interviewing Palestinian refugees from Syria. In the UK, dog-whistle racism and intellectualized xenophobia has been writ large in the form of Brexit. But in Germany, I was initially impressed by how ordinary people often seemed to feel some sort of duty to appear welcoming and open.

The first time was after I’d interviewed MR, a young Palestinian from Yarmouk, somewhere on the outskirts of a Bavarian town. We were at a picnic serving tea, cake and tepid cans of beer. Besides us, a couple of middle-aged women turned up in Bavarian dress, with the frills and plaited hair, while an aging three-piece band (available for party bookings) stood at the end of the garden playing tinny, karaoke-sounding renditions of Motown Oldies: This old heart of mine been broke a thousand times/Each time you break away, I fear you’ve gone to stay.

Courtesy: Tom Rollins

Because MR received “subsidiary protection” under the German government’s new regulations and so can’t apply for family reunification, he has been separated from his mother and one of his sisters, who are in Lebanon — likely for the foreseeable future. In-between MR’s memories of the basement in Yarmouk where they took shelter from the MiG jet, or how he has to keep explaining over and over what “Palestinian-Syrian” means because he is not quite Palestinian and not quite Syrian either, Germans from the town would come over to say hello, often with slices of pizza, firm handshakes and meaningful eye-contact. The conversations were all in German. Interaction was formal but genuine.

Later on, there was a party in the back garden of a student residence as the sun sleepily fell over crates of warm Bavarian beer and a singer-songwriter from London sung about being a “Brexit refugee.” MR’s older sister, who traveled to Germany with him, and her friend — also Palestinian, although her history belonged to an earlier migration towards Europe — were sitting to the side, smoking roll-ups and talking about the Nakbeh.

Liberal Germans appear to take “integration” very seriously, to the point where sometimes it feels like it might just be the most important word in the German dictionary. There’s the pretense of a welcome, even if on closer inspection it’s not quite the bunting and icing sugar it’s made out to be.

Too rarely do we get to read accounts from refugees, asylum seekers and migrants about their experiences with liberal Europe and its list of stock-characters that can come across as ill-informed and arrogant. 

Walking through Leipzig that same week, a friend from university, who joined a refugee welcome group after moving here, remembers fraught conversations between the Europeans in the group. They talked about how interactions with new arrivals should be conducted in German, and the need to encourage foreigners to assimilate from the very beginning. Interior Minister Thomas de Maziere drew on similar ideas earlier this year in a newspaper column for Germany’s much-read tabloid Der Bild. Germany needs a Leitkultur (dominant culture), de Maziere wrote; basically one that can respond to or survive the influx of large numbers of Muslim refugees. And what defines this culture? — Handshakes, classical music and no niqābs.

Like MR’s legal status, it is a welcome with caveats: asylum comes with a time limit, rights with conditions. MR says his German teacher often tries to talk about democracy in their German language lessons, but also tells me his asylum caseworkers didn’t give him the time of day when he was going through the more convoluted asylum process as a stateless Palestinian. “I tried to speak to them in English, even though my English is miserable,” MR remembers, “and the person in charge told me: ‘You have to speak German — you are in Germany now.’”

I remember thinking that, had we been in England, in a small, fairly conservative town like this one, you’d seldom see these kinds of social interactions between locals and newcomers in public. And Germany can seem like a model for something like that, if you forget the deportation crews that arrive by night, detain young Afghan asylum seekers and carry them off to Kabul-bound chartered flights, or the migration deals with North African police states; if you forget the man in the Saarland who looked down from his living-room window on to the bus-stop I was standing at and gestured in no uncertain terms that he’d like to strangle the Syrian man who stood there too.

Too rarely do we get to read accounts from refugees, asylum seekers and migrants about their experiences with liberal Europe and its list of stock-characters that can come across as ill-informed, arrogant and patently ridiculous: the effete journalist who dabbles in Orientalism; the language teacher anxiously stressing the importance of democracy; the London singer-songwriter calling himself a refugee in front of refugees. Better than obsessing over its self-image, Europe might learn something if it listened more.

Tom Rollins  @rollinz
Tom Rollins is a Cairo-based freelance journalist.

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