“If a boy asks me about my life before, I will tell him that it was difficult, but it is better now.” These are the words of Mahmoud, a nine-year-old boy from Aleppo, Syria. In 2013, he spoke to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). His family had fled from their home to find safety from the Syrian war that killed thousands of people and now had gained legal status in Sweden. Their first settlement in Cairo changed when the public became less welcoming to the refugees that had come to Egypt. The hostility seeped into the behaviour of the local children. “I wanted to leave because there is no school here and I don’t have friends... Here, they hit me all the time.” (A Syrian boy who risked his life to cross the sea, UNHCR) Integrating was difficult for Mahmoud. It was so difficult that his father sent him alone on an illegal boat to Italy, for a future better than the one that Egypt held for him. But the boat was fired upon at sea and the nine-year-old spent five days in an Egyptian detention centre before returning to his family and the bullying.
When there is a meaningful place for refugees in society, it bolsters the potential for integration. This is because the migration experience doesn’t stop with legal asylum seeker status or any such title. It continues on to the next generations. This is especially important now as it becomes increasingly unlikely that displacement will be reversed. As the United Nations writes, the number of refugees being able to return home has fallen. In the 1990s, it was an average of 1.5 million people each year, but it plummeted to 385,000 in the 2010s. Finding a place for the displaced is the job for integration. It gives refugees something to identify with in their new communities. This can decrease the emotional distress experienced from resettlement stressors.
What does hinder a successful integration process for the 25 million refugees today? As with Mahmoud’s experience, hostility towards refugees limits the opportunities they can access compared to their peers. That emphasises the difference felt as there is not a space for them to be themselves. Nour Saadi is a mother of two who was a doctor in Syria. She was also the Headmaster of the Health Centre in her hometown before her, and her family had to flee to Europe for safety from the war. They now live in Amsterdam, but neither her nor her husband have the same careers. When asked if she ever wants to return to Syria, her answer was a quick ‘yes’. She explained that the struggle to assimilate and the longing for home were the reasons.
The UNHCR defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin". This does not mean that refugees are detached from their earlier life. It is easy to focus on the struggle and persecution faced, such as Nour and her family’s lack of religious freedom. But they had built a life, with careers, relationships, and meaning. Having meaning is integral to identity. Any successful attempt at integration must hold that in mind.
One main difficulty is finding a suitable identity for new refugees. This creates the conflict between settling in a new place and wanting to return home. Although the chances of being able to pick up the new identity is slim, it doesn't mean that it can be forgotten easily. Whilst Adonis Bshara only spent his childhood in Syria, he absorbed the culture in the time he spent there. He tells James Brown, a British correspondent, that although The Netherland’s integration process is successful, he still feels like a Syrian man. However, remembering another culture doesn’t mean that integration failed.
The stories refugees hold from their homes are important – they are the shape of their lives. Adonis is not alone in this feeling. The UNHCR says that integration should allow refugees to assimilate and naturalise. These are two processes that cannot occur without considerable effort and willingness from people on both sides of the relationship. We are aware of this. But when has it occurred successfully? To naturalise in a society means to take on the role as a citizen of it, for example accepting the values and laws, and having relationships. This is something that cannot be learnt but lived. In his 2018 TEDx talk about his experiences as a Syrian refugee in The Netherlands, Mirwais Wakil says that this is the way he picked up new behaviours and cultures.
Integration must recognise the pre-migration conditions and support refugees through the difficulties that arise. One way to do this is through conversation that shows the people within the stories. Utilising conversation helps refugees connect over the experiences they have faced. Projects such as Miriam Landman’s At The Roundtable project in Amsterdam use it to help refugees adapt and promote local acceptance. It connects refugees and locals with meals, to invite them for social gatherings, or activities and allows the dialogue to open. Forming relationships helps them in the new communities. There were 2800 unaccompanied minors who sought asylum in the UK in 2019. For those without family already in the country of refuge, it becomes more difficult to see your future life.
However, being a valued citizen can also be difficult as a result of trauma. George Szirtes came to the UK from Hungary in 1956, aged 8, with his parents and siblings. Despite their wish for him to become a doctor, he did not get into medical school. In hindsight, he “suspected it might be down to unaddressed trauma.” Their flee was devastating on the whole family. His four-and-a-half-year-old brother took three months to speak again once they had entered the UK. His mother had already survived two concentration camps to which she had lost her whole family. It’s no surprise if George was adversely affected by his experiences.
The mental health impact on refugee lives is severe. From the temporary refugee camp in 1950s Austria and to refugee camps across Europe today, more people than ever are having these experiences. The Mental Health Foundation tells us that refugees in the UK are five times more likely to have mental health needs than the general population, with more occurrences of depression, PTSD and other anxiety disorders. They are also less likely to receive mental health support: only about 3% of refugees are referred to mental health services following screening, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Another way is through work. Working helps them be accepted in their new economies but also helps them find value and purpose. Mirwais’ talks about how he was suspended due to a mistake at work for two weeks. During that time, he struggled. “I drank about 18 litres of wine. I read two books. I wrote two chapters of my own book. I played countless hours of video games. I watched a TV show and almost killed myself twice.” It not only gives refugees personal value but also an economic and state one. They do not have to use their trauma to legitimise their existence to governments and communities. In terms of GDP, this does not harm higher-income countries. With middle- and lower-income ones though, the framework for integration is not as structured and it is harder to study the outcomes.
Forcibly displaced people must leave the home environment where they were raised. They lose the cultural support and social relationships that they have formed. It is not the same for all refugees, but it is often homogenised through the lenses of definitions and statistics. This makes integration less successful and the migration experience more difficult. Support that is not provided to refugees diminishes their identity. Successful integration focuses on the community valuing and respecting the individual and vice versa. To truly realise the value of refugees, they should not be seen as victims of their suffering. Instead, we should recognise the value of their stories in new communities.
Modupe Omitola is a first year Philosophy & Theology student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of his micro internship organised by Oxford University Career Services.