Language plays an integral role in refugees’ lives in their identity and culture. Assimilating to the language of the residing refugee’s country is commonly considered a requirement in order for them to fully integrate. However, how true is this? Is language assimilation a precondition for integration? Retaining autonomy and maintaining culturally identified with one’s native tongue is surely just as important, if not more important?
Germany stands at the forefront of European countries as regards refugee immigration. As of 2022, Germany is the second highest country to host international refugees in the world – 2,234,932 refugees. This has largely been as a consequence of the Syrian Civil War and the War in Ukraine, with as of February 2023, 1,055,323 Ukrainians crossing German borders. To cater towards the 7-point human needs list, and to help the refugees in culturally adjusting, the German government has made it mandatory for refugees seeking asylum to learn the German language. Supposedly all 7-points on the human needs list should be taken into consideration by language-learning. These are: the safety, security and survival of the refugee (1); an intrinsic understanding and empathy with the refugee (2); connection and acceptance (3); contribution and participation of the refugee in society (4); a self-identification and esteem of the refugee in society (5); their self-determination and freedom (6); and their self-actualisation and transcendence (7). As an asylum-seeker, attendance at the language courses is compulsory to receive social benefit; €354 per month. With a newfound sense of German as a language, refugees might then better integrate into the job market and society.
On the one-hand, the integration courses seem to be successful, at least in their intent to bolster the workforce. Herbert Bruecker of the Institute for Employment Research (IAB), “What surprised us is that about a bit more than 50 percent of the refugees are working in skilled jobs, which usually require vocational training certificates or higher certificates, although only 20 percent of the refugee population have such types of certificates''. The recent influx of Ukrainian refugees might also solve Germany’s long-standing workforce issues where there is a mismatch between skills required and skills offered; some however dispute this, citing the problems too far-reaching to ameliorate. Indeed the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the challenges. However, in terms of cultural integration Merkel’s quick action ensured that services such as German language courses, counselling, and job support rested in place, digitally. Integration into the workforce through language-learning was able to continue, despite the disruption of the pandemic. Cultural integration therefore might seem successful, at least as regards employment. The refugee’s survival (point 1 of the 7-point human needs list) is addressed through language-learning, as it guarantees them a monthly income and contributes to their success in job-searching. Contribution in society (point 4) might also be addressed, as language-learning encourages participation in German society, social recognition and social contacts in the host country.
On the other-hand, from a linguistic and cultural perspective German language-learning comes with immense difficulty. With three genders, grammatical complexities which share no common ground with other languages and difficult pronunciations of words, language-learning seems like a mountain to climb for some. Indeed, a considerable 60% of Ukrainian refugees in Germany find language barriers their biggest trial. On a cultural front too, the mountain seems to grow even larger. Micro-communities of refugees form and little German is spoken, as is the case with Ali Alrubaye – an asylum seeker from Iraq, “I can't really practise my poor German, because I usually speak Arabic with the other residents the whole day”. In this respect, the German language seems somewhat forced. It feels almost as something imposed by the government and only used in a controlled environment and which in many respects refugees find difficult to integrate into their personal lives, outside of their work. Rather than multiculturalism flourishing, it may seem the case that there is a divide between cultures. This might work counter to the human needs list, especially as regards points 5 and 6.
The success of refugee integration may be adjudicated in other respects. In the 7-point human needs list, understanding, connection and identity stand out as prominent requirements. These needs might be brought out through indirect means. Multiculturalism can flourish through literary and cinematic means. Cultural autonomy and assimilation to the (German) culture and values of the country of the residing refugees may work hand-in-hand in this respect, and especially as regards language. A well-known example is the German television comedy-drama series “Türkisch für Anfänger” ("Turkish for Beginners"). The show focuses on the German-Turkish patchwork multicultural family Schneider-Öztürk, their everyday lives. During its run of 52 episodes, the show covered topics including typical problems of teenagers and cross-cultural experiences. Its success stems from its own simplicity in showing German-Turkish clichés. This might serve as inspiration for refugees looking to culturally collaborate.
Authors such as Khider Abbas and Rafik Schami are examples of refugees, Iraqi and Syrian respectively, who have, through their writing, inspired refugees in almost all respects as regards the human needs list. They, through their own experience may encourage others of an immigrant or refugee background to adopt a similar approach to the fictional protagonists portrayed in their novels who are also of an immigrant background. The protagonists, such as Tuma in the book, “Erzähler der Nacht” (Damascus Nights) – a Syrian immigrant residing in the United States and then returning in Damascus, exemplify the possibility of multicultural coexistence and act as inspiration for many refugees in their own cultural niches. Others of non-immigrant or refugee background may further their empathy, understanding and deepen their connection with refugees having read novels such as Schami’s which empathise with refugees’ plight. Indeed as the New York Times reports, Schami’s influence has encouraged an “exciting new form of narrative but a politically complex multicultural vision that is changing the spirit of modern writing”. Refugee integration as regards the 7-point-human needs list may therefore be furthered on a personal basis through literature. It encourages an inclusive approach from non-refugees whilst also inspiring refugees themselves to take on a similar approach to the protagonists portrayed in their outlook upon integration into a new society.
Language does not have to be phonetic; it might encompass other mediums of expression. The last two points on the human-needs list – self-determination and self-transcendence may hence be reflected through other mediums of language; through art and food for instance. Both of these mediums transmit a language of expression in which refugees and non-refugees alike, can participate and in which they can engage. A fusion in food has been brought out through an edition and editing of the German Spätzle – a pasta dish. Through the influence of Syrian refugees, spices such as cardamom, cloves and cinnamon have been added to the plain German cheese edition, whilst also with yogurt-based and tomato sauces. Similarly, the Turkish-German Döner Kebab has been mixed with pickled vegetables, hot sauce and special spices to create a unique Syrian-German blend. In terms of the arts, the impact of refugees has been profound and multifaceted. For instance, at the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin, a number of plays have been produced which delve into issues such as integration and discrimination whilst incorporating actors from a multitude of cultural backgrounds. The dance company, TOTAL BRUTAL, incorporates Syrian and Palestinian dancers who blend Western and Middle Eastern dance styles together. In the music industry, refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have come together to form the band “Refugees from Refugees”, which creates music with traditional Middle Eastern and South Asian music, blended together with contemporary Western styles. DJs such as Acid Pauli, and Niconé have collaborated with musicians from refugee backgrounds to incorporate their voices and instruments in with their electronic music. Through fusion between cultures an acute sense of freedom and togetherness is hence brought out, whilst a self-actualisation of talent is exemplified. The universal language of food and the multifaceted languages of art give refugees a new blended identity. It also gives non-refugees a medium to empathise with refugees and participate in their culture and values.
Language as a multifaceted medium of communication plays a vital role in the lives of refugees in their expression of identity. Assimilation to the host country’s language is important for integration, however, should by no means be a sine que non, despite the intrinsic benefits, as there are other ways of multicultural exchanges. Cultural autonomy must not be forgotten. The German government has been successful with its language courses. It has bolstered the workforce and promoted greater participation in society. Nevertheless, language-learning can be challenging. Literature, film, music and art can provide an additional complementary means of integration and of promoting multiculturalism whilst also encouraging understanding, connection, and a newfound sense of identity. Multiculturalism can flourish through literary means, and authors such as Khider Abbas and Rafik Schami have had considerable influence inspiring empathy and understanding. Language-learning is just one aspect of integration, and other indirect means of language, in particular cultural exchanges, can encourage a synergism of cultures, foster a sense of inclusion and promote the 7-point human needs list.
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Freddie is a first year European and Middle Eastern Languages student at Oxford University. He researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.