Please explain to me what integration is

Kefah Ali Deeb came to Berlin in 2014 and spent six years writing a taz column about her old home country Syria and her new home Berlin. In this article she criticizes the intransparent demands associated with the keyword “integration” and describes her difficulties in working and learning German at the same time.

Of course I knew before I came to Germany that I had to learn German. But then integration got in the way. My German failed because of the ‘integration dilemma’: I had a job, but was missing from the language course.

Kefah Ali Deeb © Lena Kern
Kefah Ali Deeb © Lena Kern

A few weeks after my arrival in Germany, I needed a certificate from a German authority, so I contacted a clerkess at that authority. I went to her office, greeted her, apologized for not yet speaking German, and politely explained my request in English. I gave her a note telling her in German what I needed and showed her my temporary refugee ID card.

She examined me from top to bottom and then sniffed at me while she pushed the certificate over to me and said, ‘We speak German in Germany. And if you want to speak English, go where English is spoken.’

I was shocked, took the document, went outside and cried. I didn’t even think about complaining about it and kept what happened to me. Because basically I was ashamed of being a refugee. I realized that everyday life would not be easy.

Of course, I knew even before my arrival in Germany that I should learn German. After all, it’s obvious: if you want to live in a foreign country, you should speak its language. That should be a matter of course. So I was looking for a language school to take a language course. But shortly afterwards I was confronted with the ‘integration dilemma’. Later I failed to learn German. Nevertheless, I learned a lot about German culture and history and was integrated into the job market. As a result, I missed the language school very often because I worked a lot.

Nevertheless I am still often confronted with the question: You have been in Germany for so long and still haven’t learned German? You have been living in Germany for four years and still attend level B1? In order not to have to hear this question anymore, I finally started attending the language course again a few months ago.

I am the only Arab in my course. Most of the participants come from European or American countries and have lived in Germany longer than I have. We all have more or less the same language level. When I told them about my experiences, the other participants were amazed because they were never confronted with such questions. Does it have anything to do with the fact that I am a refugee? Coming from a certain region? Or are there other reasons?

Finally, I would like to know: Are really all Germans integrated? What does integration really mean? Can someone please explain it to me in such a way that I can also participate?”


Kefah Ali Deeb (*1982) is a visual artist and author of children’s books and magazines from Syria. She fled to Berlin in 2014 and wrote about her old home Syria and her new home Berlin in the taz column “Neighbors” for over six years. She is editor of Handbook Germany, an information portal by and for refugees. She also publishes in other German magazines such as Zeit online and 51 °. As an activist, Kefah Ali Deeb is a member of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change in Syria. She gives guided tours of the Berlin Pergamon Museum through the Multaka project.

In the column article “Please explain to me what integration is” Kefah Ali Deeb describes her problems in learning German as soon as possible after arriving in Germany and working at the same time. She also criticizes the environment’s demands on the progress of integration of refugees, saying that these demands are on the one hand intransparent and on the other hand stricter than those for non-refugee migrants.

This article is published here with the kind permission of Kefah Ali Deeb.

The first publication appeared in German (“Erklärt mir bitte, was Integration ist!”) on April 15, 2019 in the taz column “Neighbours” (“Nachbarn”):!5585032/ (26.08.2020).

Translation from Arabic to German by Mustafa Al-Slaiman.
Translation from German to English © Minor Kontor.