Why ‘refugee’ makes me think of success. A commentary

Hussam Al Zaher, founder and editor-in-chief of kohero magazine, on public discourse around refugees in Germany, self-determination and external perceptions. The article was originally published in kohero magazine.

Hussam Al Zaher © Miguel Ferraz
Hussam Al Zaher © Miguel Ferraz

Refugee [German: Flüchtling]? This word has many meanings [in German] and is criticized just as much. I too have had experience with these terms. Not only because I am a refugee myself, but also because I founded kohero Magazin.

I founded this magazine so that refugees can talk about their opinions and problems. And I knew that Flüchtling has a negative meaning in German because of the ending -ling, which makes this word smaller. There is a big discussion about the use of Flüchtling or Geflüchtete (refugee). The first term describes this group not only in a negative sense, but also because it only refers to the way of escape. The term Geflüchtete on the other hand also means arriving at a certain place.

Break down prejudices with the magazine

With this discussion I have made the decision that the terms are not different for us. We can also give a new meaning to the word refugee [Flüchtling] through our magazine. People could reduce their prejudices against refugees.

But unfortunately my magazine and I are criticized by many. Not only by right-wing people who see the refugees as the devil. There is also criticism from the left, from people who do not like the term Flüchtlinge. For them the word is like a swear word. And there are some refugees themselves who do not accept this term. For it describes a certain group to which both good and bad people belong.

Negative meanings

Prejudices have been strengthened by the many discussions. The media describes more than 1,600,000 people as a group with shared characteristics, that are responsible for many problems  in Germany. Therefore, many refugees do not want to belong to this group. They find that the terms foreigner or migrant are more appropriate.

Some refugees do not accept German laws, they would rather implement their own laws in Germany. These are often the people who are presented in the media as refugees although they do not represent the greater majority of refugees who are different, who are looking for a peaceful life. With time, our society is suspicious of all refugees. Normally, the accused is innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, this is different for refugees: the refugees are guilty until proven innocent.

In order to belong to a different group and to fight against these prejudices, some refugees have decided that they no longer want to be called refugees.

Categorizations in Germany

Our society categorizes people according to their ancestry and history. These categories are not fixed but rather flexible, you cannot always see or feel them. But almost every day there are new discussions about these groups, what they can and cannot do. The comparison with other groups is high. That’s why many don’t want to belong to these groups.

Many refugees think they have understood that refugees are not a good category. Therefore, many would like to belong to another group, a group that has more rights. The laws that apply to Germans often do not apply to refugees.

To be ashamed or proud?

Which is better: To say I am not a refugee, or to say I am different from the refugees portrayed in the media? Or that I declare that I was a refugee because of my history, but I am no longer a refugee because I arrived in Germany? What is clear is that the escape is part of my personality, my story. So why should I be ashamed of my story or maybe even deny it? Just because people don’t like refugees or have prejudices? Why should I be arrogant towards other refugees just because other people are arrogant towards me? This is exactly what happens in dictatorships. So why should it happen here too?

Refugee does not equal refugee

A friend told me about a Syrian who introduced himself by saying that although he came from Syria, he was not a refugee because he had not entered Germany illegally. Although he left Syria because of the war, he does not see himself as a refugee and he does not want to belong to the group that arrived here in Germany in 2015. And although he belongs to a people that experienced the war and fled because of it, he does not want to belong to this group himself. Maybe because he thinks he is better than others. But perhaps also because he knows that the Germans do not like this group.

My experiences with art

I myself have also had experiences with artists with whom I wanted to do interviews. They told me that they only present themselves as artists, but not as refugees. So they refused interviews because they don’t appear with an article in Flüchtling magazine, so they don’t want to be seen as refugees. They are people who are proud of their art, but not of their origin, their history.

The term refugee has a very negative connotation, precisely because of what the media and politicians publish. The term describes a very specific group; poor or even criminal people are often associated with it, but not people who want to start a new life here and simply want to be seen as human beings.

Displaced persons or refugees?

As I write this commentary, I am remembering my time in Syria. My parents are from Golan, they fled to Damascus in 1967 when they were young, because of the attacks from Israel on the area around Golan. My father was 15 years old at that time, my mother even only ten. They then lived in Damascus for a very long time and had nine children there. My siblings and I all grew up in Damascus, studied at the university there and worked in the city. We are displaced persons from Golan. So I am both a displaced person and a refugee.

Finding a different meaning for refugee

In conclusion I would like to say: We remain refugees, perhaps in our thoughts, and perhaps also because of the reasons why we came to Germany. And we will not be ashamed of our history. We will be proud because we are building a new future here. So we will find a different meaning for the word refugee, a meaning that more associates our success with it: Our success that we have learned a new language. That we have found new friends and a new home. That we work successfully or have an education. And, of course, also the success that we will give back to the society in which we now live what it has done for us.

Only our success can change our thoughts about this word, about this concept.

Hussam Al Zaher came from Syria to Hamburg in 2016, where he lives today.

Hussam studied political science in Damascus and began working as a journalist in Syria. Once in Germany, he founded kohero Magazin (originally: Flüchtling Magazin), an online magazine with two print issues per year. There is also a podcast. Kohero (“solidartiy” in Esperanto) gives refugees in Germany a platform to introduce themselves and discuss their opinions on socio-political issues.

In the article, Hussam deals with the question of what the word refugee means in German society and for himself, with the balancing act between self-determination and external perception as a refugee in Germany and answers the question of why he is proud to be one of them.

Al Zaher, Hussam, 2019: Warum ich bei Flüchtling an Erfolg denke. Ein Kommentar, originally published in German in kohero magazine. Published here with kind permission by Hussam Al Zaher.

Translation into English © Minor Kontor.