A Syrian in Germany Finds Lessons in the Past and Present

Refugees share an uneasiness with their hosts about their country’s history

A Syrian in Germany Finds Lessons in the Past and Present
A Huguenot church in Erlangen, Germany. (Martin Siepmann/Getty Images)

On May 17, 1686, some 15 French Calvinists, known as Huguenots, arrived at a small settlement outside Nuremberg in what is now Germany, fleeing Catholic persecution in their native France. They were the first of many such refugees welcomed by the margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, Christian Ernst. With the arrival of more Huguenots, as well as Lutherans and other Protestants from different parts of the Holy Roman Empire, the settlement slowly grew. It became a new city, founded by and for refugees, and came to be known as Erlangen.

Almost 200 years after the last French-language church service was held in Erlangen, a new wave of refugees, numbering many more than the Huguenots, and fleeing a different kind of persecution, was coming to Germany. They entered the country hoping to embark on a new life, both safer and more prosperous.

Like the margrave, Germany’s chancellor at the time, Angela Merkel, made a historic decision in 2015 to open the doors wide for those who had come seeking asylum, mainly from Syria. Also like the margrave — whose lands were still reeling from the atrocities of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) — Merkel must have seen that welcoming these young and skilled newcomers could benefit their new country of residence, with its increasingly aging population and growing need for able-bodied men and women who can work.

It even seems that history will remember them the same way. I saw a sculpted fountain in a park in Erlangen that commemorates the feats of Ernst by depicting him with the refugees whom he welcomed and Fama, the Roman personification of renown. Similarly, pictures and murals depicting Merkel began to appear in Syria soon after her historic decision to welcome refugees. Syrians called her “Mama Merkel” in Arabic, similarly to how Germans called her “Mutti” — both meaning mother.

Huguenot and Syrian refugees alike had left behind countries where an absolutist head of state was persecuting people with no regard for freedom of conscience. Both must have felt glad to be in a safer place but still struggled to call it home. Both arrived in a country itself coping with its recent history of bloodshed and war. The Thirty Years’ War was a conflict so brutal and devastating that, according to the historian Peter H. Wilson’s book, “Europe’s Tragedy”: “Public opinion surveys carried out in the 1960s revealed that Germans placed [it] as their country’s greatest disaster ahead of both world wars, the Holocaust, and the Black Death.”

My travels in Germany were about to show me a glimpse of the German and Syrian experiences in their similarities and differences, and how they have shaped the ways that the refugee and host communities view themselves and each other.

I alighted from a train at the Erlangen station in March 2021 — my first stop on my first visit to Germany. I had hitherto been conventionally visiting the largest and most prominent cities in every country to which I traveled for the first time, but Erlangen offered up the tempting chance to reconnect with old friends from Syria, whom I hadn’t seen in years — and free accommodation.

It’s been years since I and most of the people I know left Syria, which has been the scene of a brutal war since 2011. Like hundreds of thousands of Syrians, my friends in Erlangen had made a perilous journey across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. When they shared an inflatable boat across the treacherous waters that had killed thousands of others, it was their first time leaving the country where they had been born. As they trudged through the Balkans on their way to Germany, one of them was stabbed by a mob who stole his belongings.

Their experiences are a microcosm of the experiences of other Syrians in Germany, who now make up the third-largest community of foreigners in the country. The eldest, 32 years old, having finished a master’s degree at a local university, now works for a major industrial manufacturing company. Recently, he even obtained German citizenship. Although generally happy with what he has achieved, he looks back longingly at the social life and warmth he was habituated to at home, and which the aloofness of this small southern German city prevents. He struggles with his archetypal Bavarian landlord, who sits at home all day as if waiting for any of his tenants to make the slightest noise in the building in order to rebuke them. The other friend I have there, 29, once knew nothing but a life of comfort, leisure and romantic dalliances. He now works at a one-euro store and struggles with despair, loneliness and an addiction to video games, which several other Syrians I know in Germany share.

When I was the only person I knew who was learning German at high school, I would have hardly believed that, a few years later, more than half a million Syrians would be living in Germany, with many of those left behind doing all they could to follow in their footsteps. Culturally and historically, there is not much that binds the two countries together. Germany was associated in the minds of Syrians with two main things: the Second World War and technological and industrial progress.

I first encountered German culture through Bach’s cantatas and Schubert’s lieder, which I still regard more highly than any other kind of song. There were also the hymns that I sang in choirs in Aleppo and Damascus, including those written by Martin Luther himself, like the chilling “Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”), recalling his remarkable stand against the strongest authorities of the time: the pope and the Holy Roman emperor. I found German to be a beautiful language and spent three years studying it, devouring the works of Goethe, Schiller, Heine and others.

Reading about medieval and early modern European history at my school and in my grandfather’s library in Syria, I longed to explore this history first hand. This was not easy, however. The 2011 revolution began just as I was becoming an adult, then turned into a war that shattered, among other things, Syrians’ hopes of getting any sort of visa to go abroad. In 2015, I had begun working as a journalist and did not wish to take the perilous route across the sea that many of my friends and relatives took. I chose instead to stay and report on the war. In 2017, I was offered an internship with CNN in Berlin, but when the German Embassy in Beirut asked me to come from Syria to Lebanon for an appointment, it was to tell me that my visa application had been denied. Less than a month later, I had either to flee the country at once or face severe repercussions for my work. I went to Sudan, then to Lebanon, where I had to live illegally.

A French asylum visa gave me the opportunity to settle in a new country, where I now feel safe and enjoy my full rights. The happiest gain of all so far has been the ability to travel freely, first using the Refugee Travel Document and now using a French passport, both of which I hastened to put to use as soon as possible, becoming a traveler with an insatiable appetite, never spending more than three or four consecutive weeks at home. After my first trips to Greece, Italy and the Netherlands, it was time to go to Germany.

I was already aware that Germans are reluctant to indulge in much pride in their nation’s past, given what this had led to in the past century. But I was surprised to see how my interest in the history of the country — prior even to its unification under Kaiser Wilhelm I and Bismarck in the second half of the 19th century, not to mention the two world wars of the 20th century — made almost everyone I met there uncomfortable. The majority of Germans with whom I interacted seemed to agree that their country lost its right to celebrate its culture and heritage. Many of the Syrians who have now been here for years seem to have adopted the same attitudes toward looking back on the past. Those Syrians had, after all, grown up under a regime that resembled National Socialism in many ways. They know very well how pride in history can be employed in the forging of dangerous ideas about nationalism and power.

Whenever I am in a country, everything I know about it flows freely around my mind. I recite verses, hum tunes, repeat sayings to myself and volunteer boring pieces of information left and right. But when I started absent-mindedly whistling Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76 No. 3, during a short train ride from Erlangen to Nuremberg, my traveling companion’s face turned yellow. “You shouldn’t be doing that!” he whispered. I knew he was right, for the melody was used for the German national anthem, and even though the final stanza of the original lyrics is still sung today, it is far more infamous for its first line, “Deutschland ueber alles,” which has since been banned because of its association with Nazism. But I had first encountered the melody neither in the German national anthem nor in Haydn’s string quartet. It was in a song from the worn-out hymnals that one could find in the wooden pews of Protestant churches in the Middle East, called “Spiritual Songs for Evangelical Churches,” familiar only to a few thousand Syrians who frequented those minority-within-a-minority churches.

Once I arrived in Nuremberg — incidentally the first city to embrace the Reformation — I skipped visiting what is perhaps the most obvious site for modern visitors of the city: the court where the trials of Nazi war criminals occurred after WWII. While everyone seems to believe that, as a Syrian and a journalist, my interests must be wholly confined to modern geopolitical history, I only wanted to see the Germanisches Museum, which possesses the largest collection of German art in the country; the home of Albrecht Duerer, one of the most brilliant northern Renaissance artists; and the medieval castle, which occupies an important place in the history of the Holy Roman Empire.

In most small German towns that I ended up visiting, I mainly saw two kinds of people: retired Germans alighting from buses and walking out of pubs, often with the assistance of a cane, and young Syrians serving food at restaurants, lugging boxes around in warehouses and selling groceries in stores.

I was not entirely sure how I felt about the many encounters with Syrians who I knew were waiting for me in Germany. The sheer number of Syrians in Germany could make me feel on edge. This is often the case for Syrians abroad, because one never knows who is sympathetic to the Syrian regime or to extremist opposition groups, or who would want to cast every fellow Syrian as a “brother” based on presumed religious or social ties. Many conservative Syrians abroad think that it is their duty to keep an eye on other members of the diaspora to make sure that they do not go around picking up “Western habits” of drinking alcohol and not observing religious rites or catching strange ideas about sexual freedom or gender equality.

Sure enough, as I was speaking Arabic with a Syrian friend in Nuremberg one day, we were overheard by a Syrian man who greeted us with the traditional Muslim formula, “As-salamu alaikum.” I generally refrain from flavoring my language with any sense of religious affiliation, and have never used this greeting. My friend, more diplomatic than I am, gave the appropriate response, “Wa alaikum as-salam.” I uttered a simple “Hello,” upon which he looked askance from one to the other of us. “Do you live here?” he asked. “No,” I answered, telling him that I live in Paris. “Paris! How lovely,” he responded. “Let me welcome you again, as-salamu alaikum!” he repeated, to which I persisted: “Hello!” Then he looked at my friend and asked him, “Is your friend Christian?” I lived in majority-Muslim countries for 25 years, yet this was the first time I was put in such a position.

During my time in the north, I stayed with another old friend from Syria. His was a different story from those of my two friends in Bavaria. One day back in 2013, he came over for dinner at my apartment in the Old City of Damascus and ended up stuck with me for an entire week; clashes near where he lived had led to the shutdown of the roads, making returning home exceedingly hazardous. During that week, one of our mutual acquaintances was killed by a mortar shell just over a mile from my house. We were both extremely shaken by the event, and he immediately applied for a German visa after being accepted to a university there. Within a year, he had gone.

Some Syrians came to Germany in a similar fashion: aboard an airplane and with a student visa, without risking their lives by trusting smugglers, sailing in rubber boats and crossing borders on foot. Many of them imagined that this would spare them the stigma that asylum seekers often face, but were quickly proven wrong, as those with xenophobic tendencies seldom care about these technical differences.

In order to get a German student visa, one has to open a “blocked bank account” — i.e., one out of which money cannot be withdrawn except in small monthly installments — and deposit over 10,000 euros in it. This is to prove that one can take care of oneself financially while living in Germany. Most asylum seekers, however, come with very little money — especially after paying thousands of dollars to smugglers to reach Germany. They have to rely on the “Jobcenter” for a monthly allowance until they find a job and can support themselves. I noticed that my friends in Bavaria, when we chatted in Arabic in a public space, would make sure never to explicitly say the portmanteau “Jobcenter,” but would say something like, “He still takes money from the … you know what,” to avoid being heard by anyone who would surmise that they still rely on welfare money.

In fact, many who arrived in 2015 do still live on that allowance today, feeding the far-right narrative that refugees are to blame for pressure on social spending. While the most xenophobic forces rarely care whether someone came as a student or an asylum seeker, Syrians who constantly tried to explain how “their situation was different” often created tension among Syrians themselves. Some blamed others for not integrating well or not working hard, while others saw that Syrians who had the means to come as students and the keys to social integration in a very different culture were ignorant of the privileges that allowed them their more advantageous positions at German universities and workplaces.

While in Bavaria, I noticed that some of the Syrians I spoke to had become such staunch Bavarians that one could not even persuade them to see any other German state on an equal footing with the former kingdom, electorate and duchy. “This is the real Germany,” they said, repeatedly. But outside of Bavaria, Germans and Syrians alike were taken aback when I said that Bavaria was my favorite part of the country. Bavarians are too proud, they said, too nationalistic — a no-no in Germany — and they think that they are better than everyone else.

“Wir sind gewohnt,” writes Goethe in “Faust,” “dass die Menschen verhoehnen, was sie nicht verstehen.” (“We are used to people despising what they do not understand.”) This was certainly true of many who hesitated to welcome with open arms the many refugees coming into their country in 2015 and perhaps even in 1686. It also applies to many of the Syrians who came to Germany and rejected many of its aspects, preferring or feeling forced to live with people from the same country or region in parallel communities, which are almost completely independent from the larger German context.

I cannot claim, after a few weeks spent in the country, to be able to dissect what it means to be German today and how the country could cope with its past without dismissing it altogether. Nor could I aspire to sum up how much the lives of the approximately 800,000 Syrians in Germany have changed over the past eight years. But having had the wonderful opportunity to sneak a peek at both, I can say that it has highlighted how I too have changed since leaving Syria, after experiencing life in Lebanon and France, with visits every month to different cities that teach me more about humanity and its history.

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