A young Iranian refugee's pathway to adjustment and integration in Germany in the face of often negative public perceptions. Photo by Philipp Meuser
A young Iranian woman is looking for directions in Hamburg, Germany. She asks strangers on the street for help, but to no avail. Fatemeh Abdollahzadeh has just arrived in Germany. All she can speak to make herself understood is English. But everyone responds in German, and Abdollahzadeh still does not know the language. She feels surprised that people refuse to answer her in English. Her status as a foreigner prevents communication and assistance, and adds to her feelings of isolation and discrimination.
"They were not nice," Abdollahzadeh said. "They don't make it easy for foreigners in this country. They could've helped me, but they didn't want to."
Abdollahzadeh was 18 when she came to Germany as a refugee in 2014. As much as she now calls Germany home, she believes that as a refugee in a new country, she has not received enough support and help from the society and the people around her. Germans often have misconceptions about refugees, she said, and fail to understand their experience. Hence the often negative perceptions, the diminishing looks and the failure to perceive them as someone of value.
If Germans understood the plight of the refugees, she said, they would help and welcome them more. Perhaps they would actually perceive refugees as an asset to the country.
"We need foreigners, we need refugees," Abdollahzadeh said. "They come here with different backgrounds and can help make Germany a better country."
Abdollahzadeh was forced to leave Iran to escape religious persecution. Her family had abandoned Islam and converted to Christianity. Abdollahzadeh was baptized, but had to practice her faith in secret because in Iran, Islam is significant to politics and society. The police are constantly on the lookout for non-Muslims.
"One day my mom told me I have to leave Iran forever," Abdollahzadeh said. "And I did it with just one backpack."
Abdollahzadeh said her mother paid someone to facilitate taking her to London. However, the final destination unexpectedly changed to Hamburg. Her mother, now a widow, stayed behind to keep her job. Abdollahzadeh said they will not be able to reunite in the near future, since it will take another three years for her to obtain a German passport.
Although Abdollahzadeh was alone in Hamburg, her mother had given her a family friend's phone number, someone Abdollahzadeh calls an "uncle," who had not been informed about her arrival. But he agreed to help. They met at an Iranian restaurant. Abdollahzadeh was no longer alone in a foreign country, but that didn't make her adjustment any easier, because the attitudes toward refugees are difficult to change.
We need foreigners, we need refugees. [They] can help make Germany a better country. Fatemeh Abdollahzadeh, 20-year-old Iranian refugee in Hamburg
Surveys reveal that Germans have mixed feelings about refugees. According to a March 2016 Forsa Institute poll for Stern magazine, 49 percent of Germans think the number of foreigners and refugees is high enough and the government should not add to it. In Hamburg alone, more than 6,000 refugees obtained asylum in 2014, about half the number of initial applicants, according to the city of Hamburg's online website. In 2015, the numbers increased noticeably, with more than 60,000 applicants and 22,000 being granted asylum.
Eighty-five percent of respondents to the Forsa Institute poll said they have no understanding of the violence being perpetrated against refugee homes and camps. But 27 percent said they would take part in protests against the violence. The survey also reported that in Germany, fear of social inequality, crime and terrorism has been on the rise.
In January, a structure in Hamburg's wealthy neighborhood of Harvestehude was reconfigured to accommodate families of refugees. Local residents met the initiative with a strong reaction.
"Our kids should be together in schools, so they are mixed and can get to know each other.” - Inge Poppitz, Harvestehude resident
"I am absolutely fine with [refugees], too, because I understand that in every person’s life anything can happen and you never know what happens the next day." - Larisa Dovzhanitsa, Harvestehude resident
"Some people say the government should take the money they spent on that house and build something bigger and better somewhere else in town," said Larisa Dovzhanitsa, a Harvestehude resident who is originally from Russia.
Inge Poppitz, a retired teacher who also lives in Harvestehude, said other residents worry that the refugee housing will diminish the price of real estate, and the area will lose its upscale status.
However, Poppitz said she finds dedicating special housing to refugees in the area has actually contributed to its prosperity. She said she actually wishes there were more opportunities for integration. "It's a bummer that the playground [outside the structure] is not open to everyone and it's behind a fence and no one can go there," she said. "And our kids should be together in schools, so they are mixed and can get to know each other."
Dovzhanitsa is also among the Harvestehude residents who were welcoming to families of refugees moving to the area. "I am absolutely fine with them, too, because I understand that in every person's life anything can happen and you never know what happens the next day," she said. "Nothing bad happens here and has ever happened. All these negative situations happen only on TV."
For Hamburg resident Annja Haehling Von Lanzenauer, successful integration and a change in perspective on the part of Germans boils down to social education. "Sometimes people don't want to know because they feel safe in their prejudice," she said. "But once they face it, their view on things often changes. When they make contact and build a relationship, the prejudice is gone."
To do her bit, Haehling founded Sprachbrücke-Hamburg e.V., a volunteer-based initiative that helps foreigners, including many migrants and refugees, practice German through conversational exchanges with native speakers. If Abdollahzadeh had felt rejected and alienated because she couldn't speak German, Sprachbrücke elevates the language challenge to an opportunity to, quite literally, make different cultures communicate.
And it works. On the one hand, refugees are able to improve their grammar and conversational skills and become more comfortable with small everyday tasks and interactions in German. Haehling mentioned a woman who would run away when people on the street asked her questions, because she feared she would speak poorly and make mistakes. After joining Sprachbrücke's conversation groups, she now feels comfortable making small talk with strangers who, in turn, are less likely to look down on her because of her limited language skills.
"It's important for refugees to not be looked at weirdly if they don't know something and could be misunderstood," Haehling said. Many refugees also have a problem with being identified as such, because it causes people to respond to them with a basic level of conversation.
"'Refugee' makes them [feel] small," Haehling said. "They often tell me that people will instantly use an informal way of addressing them when they are refugees. They are being spoken to very loudly, and not in full sentences."
On the other hand, Sprachbrücke is an educational opportunity for Germans as well. Haehling said the initiative has helped dispel preconceived notions and debunk myths about the refugee experience.
"It's important to listen to them, not see them as a mass of people but consider their individuality," Haehling said. "I hope that we can learn a lot from the people who come to us. That we broaden our horizons and realize that the German values are not the only important values in the world."
Education changes everything. Sometimes people don't want to know because they feel safe in their prejudice. Annja Haehling Von Lanzenauber, founder of Sprachbrücke-Hamburg e.V.
Abdollahzadeh now tells her story in fluent, confident German. She is auditing biomedical engineering classes at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences through a pilot program that brings refugees to university classes—a testament to the long way she has come since landing in Hamburg in 2014.
Yet, her adjustment to a new country is by no means over. As much as asking for directions to strangers is no longer a problem, Abdollahzadeh often feels that some Germans are not yet fully ready to welcome and help refugees. She said some are afraid of meeting different cultures.
"Out of a hundred percent of Germans, in my opinion, eighty percent are ready for new cultures and twenty percent don't want to have foreigners in their country," she said. "I know many Germans who say that they don't need strangers in Germany and that they could only have Germans here and have a good country."
Abdollahzadeh mentioned a friend who defiantly tells her that she will buy her a plane ticket to go back to Iran.
"I hope there will be a time in Germany where people will really understand what it means to be a refugee, and what it means to leave a country, and come to a new country, and learn a new language and start a new life," Abdollahzadeh said. "I hope people will understand that."
Text by Enrica Nicoli Aldini and Alina Kurpel Videos by Mona Klarkowska
Project of the International Media Center at Hamburg University of Applied Sciences in cooperation with Saint Petersburg State University and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.