Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Reluctant Refugee: Trauma, Manners, and Morale

A friend, who in addition to her considerable duties as a Gymnasium teacher runs a B&B, offered to take in two refugees, and the first has arrived. She speaks no Arabic and he speaks no German, French, or English, the languages she tried. She showed the middle-aged man up to her best bedroom, thinking he'd be relieved to have a nice view and plenty of space. He shook his head, and after a number of gestures she understood that the room did not meet his expectations. He wanted a TV. She took him to the other bedroom, which is much smaller, but does include a TV. He frowned. Too small. 
If you're already either laughing or feeling outraged, don't. And don't expect people with terrible experiences to remember their manners. Maybe he'll calm down. I'll see her in a day or two, and if he does, I'll update the post. UPDATE: He speaks German after all, at least enough to communicate basic needs, but seems to have been unable to speak it on the day he arrived. He locks his room door whenever he leaves his room, even if only for a few moments, like to go to the bathroom. But the refrigerator door gets left open. The garden gate, too, and even the front door . .  . classic signs of trauma: "I am in charge around here!" This man is desperate to feel that he can control his world. He was a professional, much sought after in his field, a lucrative one, back in Syria. Here, he has no chance. A middle-aged guy losing his profession loses his identity. 
I'm surprised he's only leaving doors open.  He can't seem to stop doing this, even though he does try. 
 I'm surprised he's managing to put together his own meals.  The door should be open to him, to his loved ones. The German door. The European door. And his life, his belongings, his world, should be safe. So his own private domain is carefully locked.
When my husband and I had dinner with friends involved in helping refugees, I heard similar tales: a man who had been living in a nice apartment at the expense of the local Catholic church disappeared in the middle of the night, leaving a note explaining he had become terribly homesick and had to return to his country of origin which is not, fortunately, at war--it's just that there's no work or possibility of getting an education there. He didn't pay the small amount he was supposed to pay for gas and electricity. 
Another refugee had dinner at our house, sat silently, sadly, and toward the end of the evening relaxed a bit, and in the car--my husband was driving him back to where he's staying with friends--the man said he really desperately needed a desk. He was studying and had no desk. My husband turned the car around, since we have several unused desks in the basement. The man looked the desks over gravely and decided none of them would do. He would maybe go to Ikea.
If I had lost everything, if I had seen death, if I had braved oceans, I don't think I'd be particularly reasonable. When I think how my lack of sleep when my children were young turned me into a meanie, and I try to multiply that crankiness by the experiences of Syrian and other refugees, I begin to understand. People need to make choices, and to believe that they are in charge of their lives. Most of the time, I believe that I'm in charge of mine, but of course that illusion is the thing that makes me relatively sane. Anything could happen, any day. I am lucky that I haven't faced such utter loss so far.


  1. I like your angle of approach (10,000-foot view) to the individuals you mention and their situation as a whole. My first reaction, having not yet reached your final paragraph, was, "Typical. They come over here, they're given the basics, but they want more and more and more." The refugees' decisions paralleled, in my head, what's wrong with the American welfare system. But your final paragraph points towards other reasons that could, and probably do, lurk beneath decisions such as these: to fee that one is in control, even if this control looks unreasonable to those watching on the surface.


    P.S. I've seen your blog a few times on The City Journal. Thanks for posting there and here.

  2. Thanks. When I think of the difficulties I faced coming willingly, and comfortably, to this small German city--I'm married to a German--I pale at the thought of what people in our local tent city endure. Traumatic losses, traumatic experiences, combined with unfamiliar foods, climate, and language, not to mention security guards who sometimes turn out to be neo-Nazis! No wonder our refugees often react like the man who wanted the TV.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. I've just deleted a post from some character calling himself "Commander Zack" and advising me to admire Donald Trump. Only if he's really helping Madame Clinton, not if he's pretending to Hitler's throne. Let me make myself understood: I hope Trump miraculously evaporates from the political scene, in fact, from all scenes of this life.

    1. There are organizations that are planning to do what you have just described.

    2. Thanks. You mean help refugees make their own choices, and help people assisting them to understand the symptoms of trauma--and not to judge them? I hope so. Every day I think of those people literally out in the cold, and me lucky to have a roof over my head.

    3. Yes, it has been a part of my agenda along with others to assimilate, and sometimes, even protect refugees. It's disturbing for me to get calls from refugees living within our borders who tell me they have been targeted by US citizens.

  5. If every German opened their home to one refugee or one mother and child--well, I'm dreaming. And I can't claim yet to have done this myself. But I do plan to help out at our local tent city.

  6. I'm moved by your suggestion. Here in the US I went to see the person at charge in the office of the Democratic Party, with my proposal to modify immigration, and was chased out because of my ideas. Would love to share it with you, here: