German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a plan to integrate refugees into German society, but no one knows what it is. Our columnist Jaafar Abdul Karim has a suggestion.
These days Germany's chancellor is under attack from all sides. Her approval ratings are dropping. But she's far from admitting defeat. "I have a plan," she recently told German talk show host Anne Will. Up till now, though, she's the only one who knows what that plan is. So I've taken it upon myself to propose my own plan, even though I am not the chancellor yet. I think we can do it.
Dear Ms. Merkel,
This new culture of welcoming people to Germany is great! But now we need to make it official policy. Lots of people are freaked out over all this migration, but integrating people into German society really isn't all that hard. The way I see it, we can overcome the challenge. The trick is prioritizing people's needs, much like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. We'll call it Jaafar's integration pyramid. It has five levels.
Security - Acceptance - Trust - Freedom - Home
These needs have to be met, one level at a time. Our task is to reach the highest level - both natives and refugees together. Integration won't work until we do.
It's important not just for the refugees but for German society, which you also need to take into consideration, especially the skeptics, whose numbers are growing.
People coming to Germany as refugees don't feel safe. They've been traumatized by their experiences at home and on their paths to this country. And now they're in a completely foreign world where they don't even speak the language.
Their first encounters with this new world were at German train stations, where they were welcomed and embraced. But then came the inevitable: the reality of German bureaucracy. How kind are German bureaucrats? A friendly one can work miracles, believe you me! I remember all the hours I spent at German Foreigners' Registration Office (German: Ausländerbehörde). One smile gave me the feeling: cool, I get to stay here! And I wasn't even a refugee; I came here for university and already spoke German. I had no reason to be afraid. But even I know what it's like to have that icky feeling that your life is in these people's hands.
A few days ago I was at the LaGeSo, Berlin's health and social services bureau, where refugees go to register. As hard as officials there are trying, the conditions are gut-wrenching. One child lay on the ground, freezing. A young man had been coming for 20 days and still didn't know when they'd call his number. I never thought I'd see anything like it in Berlin. The place urgently needs more staff to process asylum applications - not tomorrow, now.
Ms. Merkel, you are on thin ice, and it can break at any time. I'm worried about this winter. If all the refugees don't have a warm place to stay by then, those pretty selfies of yours will be replaced by pictures of freezing children. When the media get their hands on them, all of Germany will be feeling unsettled.
Here's another point that has to be addressed immediately: The more active we are in teaching the new arrivals how to survive here, the more secure they will be. German courses and integration courses should be mandatory for people as soon as they get here. The refugees waiting in group homes for their applications to be processed have time on their hands. We should make good use of it.
Whatever people's opinions of the situation, there are many, many refugees here, and for now they're here to stay. Some people don't like it. That's where awareness campaigns are needed, which is the duty of Germany's politicians.
The fact is: Germany is big and more than 80 million people live here. Even if 1.5 million refugees come this year, which no one can say for sure, we shouldn't lose perspective. That would mean not even two percent population growth. People's talk of an invasion, or of German values being threatened, borders on hysteria. We aren't going to run out of space in Germany. Many villages and small towns are even suffering from a decline in population, especially in the country's east. They desperately need more people to maintain their infrastructure.
What's more: if you give refugees the chance to actively participate in Germany's productivity, they'll pay taxes and contribute to the country's prosperity. There won't be a feeling of them living off the natives. But not allowing refugees to work for months when they're eager to find jobs is counterproductive. If the laws that keep them from going to work aren't changed, they won't be able to integrate into this country.
Ms. Merkel, if there's no acceptance, the refugees will be made into scapegoats. People will forget that there were already problems before the refugees reached Germany. I keep hearing people complain that there aren't enough kindergartens. That's not the refugees' fault.
"Hold on there," some people will say. "What about 'Islamic State' militants coming in with the refugees?"
It's possible they might exist and that, statistically speaking, their numbers might be rising. But it's highly unlikely they account for more than a tiny percentage, and let's not forget that extremism is a problem that already existed. In the last years young Muslims from Germany have joined the so-called "Islamic State" and contributed to the suffering of those who've now fled to Germany. Fighting the roots of this problem is a huge task. We cannot allow the refugees to be stigmatized because of radicalism, just as we've prevented Muslims being stigmatized.
The way I see it, the refugees who've just joined us are in a kind of permanent download mode, constantly absorbing what they experience and see. But right now their connection to society here is a bit like an unstable Wi-Fi network. We have to make sure the connection stays up and running.
Security and acceptance are just the beginning; we need mutual trust. Refugees and migrants are part of society, too, and they can be an asset to this country. I know there are also cases where they haven't been. But naming those cases won't help us solve the problem. It's unfair to generalize; after all, not all Germans are followers of Pegida, the anti-immigration protest movement that cropped up last year and has shocked people in this country and around the world.
Trust brings people closer together. Without trust, refugees won't find their place in this country. They will withdraw into ghettos and parallel societies where everyone only keeps to his or her own kind, as some migrants have done before them. They will still be here, but on the inside they will be logging out of Germany.
To help them find trust, who's better equipped than migrants who already live here? That's why you need to put more trust in them too. As people who know the refugees' languages and backgrounds, they're predestined bridge builders.
"The thing with selfies is, the distance [to the subject] is a little smaller than with normal photos." Your words, Ms. Merkel. Here are mine: The thing with "well integrated" migrants is, the distance between them and refugees is a little smaller than with ethnic Germans.
It's also important to mention here that the refugees have to learn to trust the German state and Germany's justice system. Many have had bad experiences in their home countries with the powers that be; for them, the concept of an independent judiciary is unfamiliar. Not that everything in Germany is perfect, but we have to replace fear "of the system" with trust.
Security, acceptance and trust are critical. But people need more than that to lead an existence that can be called human. People need to have the sense that they are free. People want to find answers to the questions: Who am I? What do I want?
The people we're now calling refugees will ask themselves these questions. It's important that the answers they receive not be dictated by the fact that they come from other countries.
Freedom means being able to determine one's own role in society. Feeling "German" is a matter of personal choice, one that's up to individuals to decide for themselves. Of course, accepting German laws, values and rules is a must. But the question of identity doesn't end there. Throughout our lives, we all carry with us the culture we grew up in. Someone who leaves Syria for Germany won't all of a sudden stop feeling Syrian.
That won't mean the disappearance of German identity (whatever that is). After all, there's no such thing as ONE identity; it's always a mix. The realm of identity should be a space in which we have full freedom of expression. That's why there shouldn't be laws forcing people to choose one citizenship over another, as there are in Germany. Multifaceted identities are an asset. Forcing people into "either/or" scenarios doesn't do justice to who they are - and it wastes a lot of potential.
And then there's religion. Ms. Merkel, you must ensure refugees have the freedom to practice their religions, so long as their practices don't break Germany's basic law. Religion is a private matter. No one should have to hide who they are because of someone else, or be governed by fear. No one should tell others how they ought to look or what sort of people they ought to be.
Many refugees will spend years searching for a new place to call home. Whether in Gießen, Hamburg or Rosenheim, they'll ask themselves at times: If peace returns to my old home country, should I stay in Germany or go back? This has nothing to do with them not feeling at home here or having problems "being German." It's the feeling of spending one's life torn between countries. On the one hand, they will never feel 100 percent German. But on the other, they will never be fully accepted in their old homelands, because they're the ones who left. Home for them will be the place where they live, love and feel understood. I know very well what it's like to feel torn between places. Initially I came to Germany just to study. I didn't expect it to become my home but it has, because I feel security, acceptance and the trust of those around me. I feel like I'm a part of Germany - and I'm rocking it.
When you feel at home in a society, you can put up with more; the occasional off-color remark doesn't call your whole existence into question. But feeling at home requires a certain confidence and the certainty of belonging. And people who've made it this far want to belong here - I know they do - even if their German grammar isn't perfect yet, and even if they hold to certain traditions that are foreign to most Germans.
Lately I've been enjoying watching Germany's national football team. What's cool about them is the mix. It's what makes our society special, too. German football offers a model of how integration can function. A lot of people can identify with it - and it's going pretty well: we're even the reigning world champions! So, Ms. Merkel and my fellow Germans: We can do this!
Jaafar Abdul-Karim, 33, is the host and lead editor of the Arabic-language youth show "ShababTalk" on Deutsche Welle. With its critical take on issues facing society, the show reaches an audience of millions in North Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf region.
Jaafar Abdul-Karim's parents are from Lebanon, though he was born in Liberia and grew up there and in Switzerland. He went to university in Dresden, Lyon, London and Berlin, where he lives today.
His column for the online portal German weekly Die Zeit is called "Jaafar, shu fi?" which is Arabic for "What's up, Jaafar?"