Give Me A Refugee

A critical view of the education mentality and the culture of aid

von Ramy Al-Asheq, Chefredakteur der Zeitung „Abwab“

Berlin 2016. Foto: Juliette Moarbes
The society is talking about refugees but not with them. Berlin 2016. Photo: Juliette Moarbes

Contrary to the right-wing presentation of the wave of refugees threatening the German economy and community with the country allegedly opening its floodgates for countless unemployed who would live here at the taxpayer’s expense, many new jobs have come about for Germans, and the labour market has discovered previously unknown employment sectors. Many an organization has started a new life cycle by launching projects aimed at refugees, especially in the field of “education and integration assistance”.

No doubt no one can put an exact figure on how much money the various institutions have raised for their projects from all the different funding sources. Just as it is probably not known how many donors have reduced their tax bills by participating in “charitable” projects supporting the suffering “poor unfortunates”. We don’t know the number of jobs that have recently been created in the “refugee sector”. Nor are we aware of how the market looked before us and will look after us. What we do know, though, is that all this is happening in our name, in the name of the “terrifying hordes” in the eyes of the legions of right-wingers, the “poor unfortunates” for the rows of sympathisers, and the “new market” for the “charitable” associations.

Verteilaktion der Grünen in Österreich.Wien 2015. Foto: Christian Bruna / Flickr
The austrian green party startet a repartition of writing materials in Vienna. Vienna 2015. Photo: Christian Bruna / Flickr

Let us agree that the problem is not the projects for refugees, but the culture of “aid” that always means one strong, powerful side helps the other, weak and needy side, in such a way that makes the recipients of that help unable to be active of their own accord so that they no longer need this type of culture. That’s particularly clear in the refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where the inmates are banned from working. That keeps them locked into dependence on aid from international organizations – because if the refugees were capable of helping themselves the aid organizations would have no reason to exist, and the donor countries would cut their funding. This culture of aid has led to a strange bipolarity, according to which people are divided into two categories: strong/weak, educated/uneducated, civilised/backward, rich/poor, useful/beneficiaries, producers/consumers and so on. The refugees are seen not as equal partners but solely as beneficiaries. This culture and bipolar approach are the actual problem. The inevitable result is a dominant education mentality, according to which the helpers are more developed, more capable, stronger and more educated than those newly arrived from an uncivilised world. I am not claiming that this is always as pronounced as in my description. No, many Germans help out of open and honest concern. Yet we can establish that it is the aid and education mentality based on this bipolarity that has put us in our current position.

A German friend tells me “education mentality doesn’t exist only in conjunction with refugees. It’s a widespread way of life. It’s enough for you to want to talk about a problem that might already have been solved. For instance, if you tell your friends you lost your keys yesterday and they leap at the chance to respond in a way that teaches you something you already knew. They want to give you advice you don’t need!”

In many projects, be they TV programmes, Internet platforms, information sheets or events and conferences en gros, people talk about refugees but not with them. The education mentality assumes that one group of people understand the others better than they do themselves, and is better able to asses what they need. Even when the conversation is about refugees’ culture it is only ever about entertainment – “Give me a refugee and I’ll make something out of them.” That is common practice in what might be called “German institutionalized thinking”. One example, non-exhaustive of course: Somewhere in Germany, an event takes place for numerous participating refugees. The event is designed to give an impression of the migrants, which can then be multiplied. The German event organizers demand the participation of “talented refugees”. Professionalism is not on the agenda, it’s the taking part that counts. Professionalism is not to be expected among refugees in the first place – it’s reserved for the other side of the equation. With the upshot that films and plays are made without the least artistic quality. That doesn’t matter though, as long as we have a token refugee on board. In this “give me a refugee” mentality, asylum is viewed as identity, not as a temporary situation that an individual has to master due to specific circumstances that forced them to migrate, as though we hadn’t been creative artists in our countries. Our identity is our flight and migration, meaning we are no longer doctors, writers, artists and intellectuals, but first and foremost refugees. As such, it is of no interest whether really sophisticated, professional and creative artwork is put on offer as a realistic depiction of our country’s culture. All that counts is that refugees take part so that the organizers can say: “We have refugees on board too.” Thus there is no need to appraise the artistic achievement or form evaluation panels of artists or writers to assess this or that work, because the members of such committees would have to be artists, authors and other experts recruited from the ranks of the refugees – which in turn would contradict the logic of the helpers and organizers knowing best about everything.

This article was first published in Arabic in, “the first Arabic newspaper in Germany” and in German with the cooperation of the internet platform WDRforyou.

Translation: Katy Derbyshire