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Germany has a problem

Jaafar Abdul Karim
August 8, 2017

The hostel residents had warned repeatedly about Ahmad A., but nothing was done. Now they feel misunderstood and distrust the authorities. It's an alarming development.

Journalist Jaafar Abdul Karim
Image: Jaafar Abdul Karim

Whenever I visit a refugee hostel or am recognized on the street, I am immediately surrounded by people. I speak Arabic, and they have a lot of questions. Why haven't I heard anything from the BAMF [Federal Office for Migration and Refugees]? Why have I only been granted residency for one year, not three? Why can't I bring my family over to join me? Why aren't I allowed to change my place of residence? Why can I still not find a job or an apartment, although I'm trying everything I can? Why, why, why?

My last visit to a refugee hostel was in Hamburg. Then, too, I was bombarded with questions, but this time I had a big question of my own. This hostel was where Ahmad A., the alleged knife attacker, lived. What I wanted to know was: Who was this 26-year-old who had killed an innocent person in a supermarket in Hamburg's Barmbek district and seriously injured four others?

A block of trailers where Ahmed A. lived in Hamburg
Ahmed A. lived in these trailersImage: J. Abdul-Karim

On entering the hostel, I was reminded of my student halls of residence. One 12-square-meter room after another, with a shared kitchen in between. Ahmad was "very religious and extreme in his views," I was told by the man who lived next door. Once, Ahmad had stormed into his room and forbidden him to listen to music. It was a sin, he'd said. In the last few weeks Ahmad had shouted the call to prayer from the window of his room almost every day to remind the other residents of the hours of prayer. Some hostel residents say Ahmad even had an IS flag in his room. Others tell me he sometimes smoked cannabis and was mentally unstable. "We always knew he belonged to Daesh," one woman says. Daesh is another abbreviation for IS. "He sometimes went around in an Islamic jalabiya, but I never dared say anything." One young man looked at me and said, "We complained about Ahmad many times to the hostel management, but no one listens to us. They don't take us seriously. To them, we're just a number." The hostel management later confirmed to me that Ahmad A. had been brought to their attention.

A fundamental problem

However, the residents didn't always speak openly about him amongst themselves. Some didn't dare to share their observations. They were afraid others would harass them - "Why did you say that about Ahmad?"

At the hostel I met dozens of young men who have nothing to do all day long. One was listening to music, others were coming back from shopping. Some of them were cooking together, or playing basketball. Some were returning from work; several of them were working illegally, as kitchen helps, for example. Some were attending a German language class. Others, though, have essentially given up. They sit in the refugee hostel all day; they eat, drink, WhatsApp with their families. Then they go to sleep.

With every hour I spent in the hostel I felt less and less motivated to do what I was there to do, namely report on the knife attacker. My observations there made clear to me that something else was wrong: That the alleged attacker was not the only problem. There is a much bigger problem, a fundamental one.

Many see themselves as victims of German policy

Many refugees thought that after two years everything would be fine: language, apartment, work, family reunification. That idea has since been crushed. The processing by the authorities is still dragging on. Some of them still don't have a residence permit. They're struggling with the German language. The German course teaches them the basics, but in order to speak really well they need to have contact with native speakers and practice a lot. Finding an apartment is not easy, even for German citizens. In some cities, getting an appointment with the authorities is like winning the lottery, and the processing takes ages. At the same time, with every passing day their fears grow for their families back home. Many don't know what their lives will be like in six months' time.

Jaafar Abdul-Karim talks with one of Ahmed A.'s former roommates
Jaafar Abdul-Karim talks with one of Ahmed A.'s former roommatesImage: J. Abdul-Karim

Between the waiting and the worrying, many feel they haven't really found their feet in Germany. They may be physically here, but they don't know what will happen next; whether they'll be allowed to stay. Many of them see themselves as victims of German politics. They can sense the gridlock at the top. Now its up to them to perform: learn the language, find a job, an apartment, integrate into German society. And they have to have patience - a lot of patience. Some have managed all of this, but they are the exceptions.

It's an alarming development when many young people feel they've been abandoned. The state must take care not to lose these people. Many feel they aren't getting enough support. They have no prospects, but they're looking for something to hold on to. Things happen that we don't see and are no longer doing anything about. Groups form according to nationality (Afghans against Arabs) or political allegiance (for/against Assad in Syria). We pay no attention to these conflicts until they result in altercations and violence. We used to see photos from the LaGeSo [State Office for Health and Social Affairs] in Berlin; pictures of crowds of people, waiting. We were outraged. Now these people have become invisible, yet many are still living in refugee hostels.

People don't trust the authorities

The hostel residents have made serious accusations, particularly against the authorities. Again and again I heard: The authorities don't want us, that's why they obstruct us and don't listen to us! This is a feeling that cannot be allowed to develop. These people already distrusted the authorities in their homelands. Now they say they feel the same over here. The fact that they reported Ahmad to the hostel management on numerous occasions and no one reacted to their complaints, for example, makes them angry. Why did no one react? Why didn't the police watch him more closely when they knew he was an Islamist? These failures don't justify Ahmad A.'s murderous actions; preventative measures might, however, have forestalled them. And could forestall others in future.

Distrust of the authorities and the sense of victimization is also heightened by the fact that the two sides literally do not understand each other. The police asking questions about the alleged attacker on Saturday spoke to the refugees in German. Some understood them; others didn't, and so couldn't give the police any information. Were there no interpreters, or an Arabic-speaking police officer, who could have been assigned to the job?

Refugee home: room belonging to Ahmad A.
The sealed door to the room where Ahmad A. lived at the refugee centerImage: J. Abdul-Karim

There needs to be much more educational outreach in the refugee hostels: informing residents about Germany, the way the authorities work, the political system, and so on. Official agencies need to employ mediators, i.e. Germans with an Arabic migrant background who are familiar with the language and culture. This creates trust. Both sides need to do more: The authorities need to work better, and the refugees need more patience.

Like being at a PEGIDA rally

Many refugees at the hostel were also distrustful of the media: "In the beginning everyone was reporting about us. Now they only report on us when there's something bad to report." As Arabs and Muslims, they said, they're seen as bad people per se, or even as terrorists. "Why should I talk to you? In the end you're only going to write that Islam is bad!" one resident said to me. Being among the refugees was a bit like being at a PEGIDA rally. At rallies held by this anti-Islamic movement, journalists are often shouted at and called "liars" or "fake news" and people refuse to talk to them.

One solution could be: Don't only report when there's an outcry, or when something very negative or positive happens. Instead, the media could report on what daily life is like for the refugees, the challenges it presents. It could continue to give the new arrivals a voice, so that they feel they are being noticed and heard. As a journalist, I feel I share this responsibility.

Many refugees have come to Germany and may well stay. History is repeating itself: Lebanese and Palestinians came in the Eighties; in the Nineties it was refugees from the Balkans. Many have stayed, and not all have integrated. Someone who is a refugee today could be a German citizen tomorrow. If we want our fellow citizens to be integrated, we need to learn from our history and take their concerns seriously. We must listen to them, listen carefully, and do so continuously, long-term. Otherwise there is a danger that a parallel world could soon establish itself not only in the refugee hostels, but in the minds of the refugees and future German citizens as well.

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?"


Talk: How can integration be achieved?

Journalist Jaafar Abdul Karim
Jaafar Abdul Karim Host of DW JaafarTalk@jaafarAbdulKari