Valentina Napolitano

Chercheuse associée

Associate research fellow

Ifpo – Amman, Jordanie

Personal page



Valentina Napolitano is an associate researcher at IFPO, where she was formerly a doctoral fellow (2010-2012). She taught at the Institute of Political Science in Aix-en-Provence (2014-2016) and obtained a Phd in Political Studies from the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris. Her dissertation “Engaging in Yarmuk : the sociology of Palestinian activism in Syria” is based on fieldwork carried out between 2008 and 2011 in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk in the southern suburbs of Damascus. It examines the evolution of political engagement among different generations of Palestinians in Syria (between 1960 and 2014). Her current researches deal with the issue of mobilizations among refugee populations and more generally in context of violence and uncertainty.

Research project

In the frame of the ANR Lajeh, she explores political and social mobilization of refugees issued from the Syrian conflict (both Syrians and Palestinians) and actually resident in Turkey and Lebanon. This research follows the axes 2 and 3, and focus more precisely on the role of “militant networks” in both migratory trajectories and the reconstruction of a Syrian society in exile. This research will outline how the militant networks formed during the Syrian uprising, and even before for Palestinians engaged for their national issue, impacted or not the migratory choices and provided refugees with a first network of relationship in exile. For this research she will carry out fieldwork in the Turkish town of Gaziantep, which become one of the main centre for the Syrian activism; and in Beyrouth, which host many Palestinians refugees coming from Syria and would allow to observe the role of political ties with Palestinians community in Lebanon.


Engagements, Mobilizations, Violence, Uncertainty, Militant networks, Militant trajectories

Regional Mobilities in the Middle East from the fall of the Ottomans

Philippe Bourmaud (IFEA/Lon 3 University) & Norig Neveu (Ifpo)

Photograph: Armenian refugees, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

I- Migration in the historiography of the Middle East

Forced migration in or out of historiography

Among those often treated as losers and repeatedly forgotten are forced migrants –people whose absence from most historical writing is so marked that it constitutes a systematic exclusion” (Marfleet, 2007). For Refugee Studies, this absence presents a major difficulty – how are we to develop an understanding of the past when we receive so little help from history? Moreover, research on Refugee Studies and forced migration rarely includes historical analyses.

More precisely, historians have been attracted to the eventful dimension of forced migrations – the departure. A reliance on ex-post narratives and on institutional sources and on conflicts per se has made the refugees next to invisible. For one thing, historians have often tried to present articulated chronologies, events and causal factors as over-arching narratives, while leaving the study of individual experiences and memories to anthropologists and oral historians. Hence a tendency to focus on the circumstances leading to mass departures and on the moment of departure.

This kind of articulated historical narrative is what Jihane Sfeir, writing on the 1948 war in Palestine and the expulsion of the Palestinians, has analysed as the construction of a learned, academic and politically accepted discourse on the Nakba (the Catastrophe, capital c), as opposed to individuals hijra-s, individual exiles (Sfeir, 2008).

Additionally, historians tend to feel at home with institutional categories, even when they only take them into account in order to undermine them. Once they are reterritorialised, reinserted into institutional categories, given a welfare card, an ID and a travel document, refugees fade from the perspective of historians. They have, if not a nationality, at least a residency – a category which, as underlined by Paul-André Rosental (1999), produces the illusion of fixity, of geographical determination.

Historians have usually been more interested in the dynamics of conflict than in the flows of population they entail. Again, the Palestinians and their expulsion are a case in point: Benny Morris (1987), Ilan Pappé (1992), Nur Masaslha (1992) and others focus on the causes and intent ahead of forced migration, as ways of making sense of the war during which it happened.

Historicizing forced migrations in the age of Refugee studies

The prevalence of narrative in the writing of history and the atomicity of the trajectories of refugees have created a long vacuum: refugees seemed a reality too nebulous for historical writing. Two factors may have helped change this since the 1990s, though.

The first one is the upsurge of the notion of diaspora, in the late 1980s. Following communities and networks dovetailed with the habits of historians. The notion of community could be seen as a way of reterritorialising groups. Situating actors in a network is an old trick of historians to overcome the dialectics between individual choice and social facts. The attraction of the notion of diaspora had probably less to do with the actual political and theoretical value of the term, than with a methodological habitus.

The second factor is the multiplication of refugees in the post-Cold War order, and more generally the international appeal of refugee issues. The latter elicited interest not just because funds were made available for their study, but because refugeehood seemed progressively to become a lasting condition.

Refugee Studies is a new field which has, since its emergence, drawn on insights from a remarkably wide range of disciplines, but History has long been conspicuous by its absence among them. Over the last ten years, historical works have underlined that, beyond the enforcement of social and political engineering policies by nation-states through forced migration, the prohibition of return is a long-term politicy (Altuğ & White, 2009; Boeckh & Rutar, 2016).

Repeated refugee crises such as those in Iraq speak of the past. They are the outcome of complex colonial legacies, global developments, external interventions, local tensions and conflicts. None can be understood without history, yet they are mostly approached on an ahistorical basis.

II- Migrations at the fall of the Ottoman Empire

Forced migrations in the late Ottoman order (late 19th century)

Moving populations by force was a common practice within the Ottoman Empire. One aspect of these policies is well known: the migrations of Muslims from Anatolia to the Balkans to Islamize the newly conquered territory. Groups of population were ordered or made to move if needed, as a punishment or a duty to the Empire. These mobility policies were systematized from the late 17th century onwards (Kasaba, 2009). This was a way to deal with mobile populations and make them settle down. It also induced controlling their new neighbors.

From the second half of the 19th century onwards, in the Ottoman Empire, social conflicts led to significant migrations, deportations or population redistributions. In the Middle East, those migrants actively contributed to the economic, cultural and political life of the regions where they settled. During this period, many tribes and families settled in the new cities and economical centers (Beirut, Izmir, Salt, etc.), or in more suitable places for agriculture or livestock activities (Rogan, 1999). These migrants of a different kind established new solidarity networks—tribal, familial, religious or ethnic—which made possible the extension of migratory patterns possible during regional conflicts (Chatty, 2010; Karpat, 1985). That period was also characterized by an intensification and a massification of mobility in the Middle East.

New borders and new national dynamics: mobility and networks

The establishment of post-Ottoman states had very contrasted effects, neither confining populations within state borders nor producing more than the illusion of territorialization. On the one hand, territorial disputes arose, highlighting issues of ethnic / national settlement, with several further forced migrations. On the other hand, the new borders were not always actively, enforced. There was a degree of abstraction in the new borders management, when compared to effective space control. Progressively attempts were made to administer mobility within a national space or inside the framework of controlled patterns of international circulation. The common Ottoman citizenship was replaced by a spate of citizenships, which excluded few stateless persons, especially among forced migrants of the 1911-1925 period.

What was to be done with refugees? The question nagged the new states from the beginning, and come back over and over again. The answers to the question were multidimensional, beyond the work of relief institutions at their behest. « Normalizing » refugees was part and parcel of State-building and of the making of the international organizations: this involved health and social issues linked with the impoverishment of the refugees. These communal issues were not only of cultural, but also of political import, directly linked with economic issues which, together with the condition of losing the home country, affected the relationships between the refugees and their new neighbors. Countries that could afford it, relocated refugees in the stead of other expelled populations.

Yet host states and international organizations did not only stabilize refugees. Forced migrations also induced a stronger control on the borders, sometimes even a complete closure. Economic and geopolitical asymmetries have played an essential part in the history of border control regimes. This did not necessarily indicate a confinement of populations within national borders but rather induces the existence of transnational networks. The latter can be more or less loose in character, depending on the characteristics of the border between two states, as well as the reshuffling of earlier practices of mobility in the face of border pass system. This, of course, came at a cost for travelers. Not all networks were equally solid and resilient. This depended on family-, village-, tribe- and religion-based connections.

New migration, old paths: pilgrimage roads, visits to local saints.

Since the 16th century, the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina was an important time for mobility in the region. It gathered thousands of pilgrims every year (Faroqhi, 2014). Between 1908 and 1914, the newly opened Hejaz railway allowed an intensification of the pilgrim flow. This new path was also used in Ottoman forced migration policies. Many pilgrims never returned home, settling instead in one of the cities on their way. In addition, many studies have shown the importance of local holy places—those located in Jerusalem but also smaller places of worship (mausoleums, cenotaphs, Sufi lodges)—in the distribution of regional flows and the organization of trans-regional solidarity networks (Aubin-Boltanski, 2007; Andézian, 2010). These networks have been used by migrants during subsequent conflicts, structuring regional circulation paths. Through these different aspects of mobility, one can establish a genealogy of migrations in the Middle East.

III – Nation-building and migration

Controlling mobility: a colonial issue (mandate period)

Several types of interactions between nation-building and migration can be distinguished. Yet first it should be first remembered that post-Ottoman states did not emerge out of the blue. They were carved out of an imperial structure that was not egalitarian, but left hierarchized communities an autonomous space that was defined by religious lines, yet was not necessarily confined within a determined physical space. Moreover, the new states were under European influence, as in the case of Turkey, or direct colonization elsewhere. This meant that models of sovereignty had to be appropriated. Sovereignty, in colonial states, was not a simple illusion but a construed and negotiated fact. Citizenship and refugees were such negotiated issues: e.g. Who should become Lebanese, among the many refugees (Armenians, Syrian Christians from southern Anatolia, Assyrians, Kurds) who came to settle in Lebanon? Nor were borders a fiction; they had to be negotiated with neighboring states / colonial powers, and other local actors, rather than enforced. Bedouins, for instance attribute little importance to the borders of the mandates, but the enforcement of those borders was negotiated with them; and this process of cooptation was part of making the border effective.

Cyrus Schayegh has argued that the making of the new borders was channeling, organizing and thus intensifying mobility and circulations, not only for formal but also informal traffic (Schayegh, 2014). The regional was becoming transnationalized.  Yet transnationalization did not require mobility, nor formal conditions of border crossing: refugees could see their mobility impaired, e.g. if they were refused national status, and yet bank on the geographical dissemination of communal contacts to survive and strive.

In any case, for colonial states, refugees were just one mobility issue among others. Among these were pilgrims, with their political views and their health; Bedouins, straddled across the borders; as well as informal trafficks, not just by the underworld but also by local tradespeople in the new border areas, unconcerned by the custom apparatus in the making. These were occasions for a bit of state-building, or could be instrumentalized to maintain a colonial order. The predicament of Armenians in French Syria is a good illustration of those processes. In this context, the agency of the refugees was taken for granted by the colonial power in what Keith Watenpaugh has called « the survivors’ bargain »: resettlement against de facto communal autonomy (Watenpaugh, 2004).

Migration and nation-building: the parallel making of the state of Israel and of Palestinian refugeehood

The most outstanding link between state-building and forced migration was the foundation of the state of Israel upon the ruins of the Arab Palestinian population. The link was doubled by the Israeli policy of attracting 700 000 Jews from the Arab world, in the following three years (1948-1951). Various features of the new State were dictated by the necessities of formalizing the conditions of a post-forced-migration.

Yet the connection between Palestinian refugees and State-building was proliferating, as neighboring states appropriated in different ways the Palestinian refugee presence, from exclusion, to strategic inclusion in Jordan, to recruitment as tools of state-building. Arafat was supposed to have said, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait: « Kuwait? But I built Kuwait! »

Yet the relations between state institutions and refugees were not without ambiguities, especially once the latter turned to armed struggle: this entailed a civil war in Jordan in 1970-1971, and was a significant element leading to the one Lebanon knew after April 1975. Refugees took part in national construction, but could become suspected of building their own state-within-the-state, and of inviting conflict in the host country. This was what happened in Lebanon, due to the military operations between the PLO and Israel.

IV – Managing refugees

The refugee count issue

It is a daunting task to manage refugees following bureaucratic criteria – a task not dissimilar to the difficulties met by historians in writing refugee history. How to count refugees? The possibility depends on a definition of their exodus, often enough based on international criteria or nationality. Refugees no more have a monolithic past that would define them as refugees, than a common scripted future.

Attempts by Justin McCarthy – with an ax to grind – to count Muslim refugees in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century have underlined the weaknesses of the census as a starting base (Karpat, 1985; McCarthy, 1983). The same goes for Armenians, who were deported and killed, but did not change status: depending on how many Armenians one assumes to have lived in the pre-1915 Ottoman Empire, the number of killed may oscillate between 600 000 and 1,5 million; and the number of refugees varies in proportion.

Also, not all expelled people share the same nationality: does that make them the less of a refugee group than others? UNRWA, the UN Relief and Welfare Agency for Refugees of Palestine and the Near East, came into being in late 1949, several months after the end of the fighting caused by the 1948 war. One of its first tasks was to identify and count Palestinian refugees; among them were many citizens of neighboring countries who used to live Palestine before the war. The dispersion of refugees between several states was another major counting issue. « Serious » evaluations, in the case of the Palestinians, vary between 600 000 and a million.

The same problems occurred, with a vengeance, with Iraqi and Syrian refugees. Over the years, the states have grown accustomed to counting refugees, and become aware of the advantage of being able to present high estimates. In Jordan, this approach was learned when dealing with Iraqis, put into policy with the Syrian civil war. The state of Jordan has instrumentalized the number of Syrian refugees, i.e. deliberately attempted to inflate it, so as to justify an increase in international aid, and attract investments, political leverage, etc.

Short of a clear definition of a group of refugees at the time when forced migration occurs, what exists is, ex-post, the recognition of the status of refugee by UNRWA or UNHCR. However, not all refugees aspire to that status.

Nationality, work and network insertion

This instrumentalization notwithstanding, a bigger concern is what happens when refugees remain refugees. How to work, how to go to school, how to make a living? International organizations (IO) are there to coordinate relief, resettlement, or repatriation operations, not to provide jobs and services in the host states’ stead. IO-state cooperation can be a factor of development, through the investments of the UN system and other institutions. But for all that refugees may well end up out of work, especially if the main job providers close their borders or hire foreign workers according to quotas: in the 1960s, Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun illustrated the efforts made by Palestinian to get to the Gulf states. Yet most of them stayed stuck in densely populated countries without oil resources, and could be ejected from work, as was often the case in Lebanon.

The question of refugee status is one that affects their economic perspectives, their mobility and their social prospects (e.g. through marriage). And so it is a contentious one: how to transmit a nationality, to acquire a useful one? This is made all the more problematic as nationalist states, in the 1950s-1970s, have used nationality laws to include and to exclude. Post-forced migration nationality laws, inspired by the Lausanne treaty, were used to exclude the national Others. Hence the importance of the network, as a tool to re-migrate, and get a job.

Work migration and mobility

The Middle East is indeed a competitive job market, in part due to the competition between high numbers of migrants and refugees for the same jobs. Some nationalities are cornered into a next-to-automatic status of foreign worker: as has been noted in several Gulf states, the individual’s nationality carries an implicit bias regarding their job position and social environment.

Following that logic, whole populations get directed towards domestic work and poorly paid, less qualified jobs. This has been the lot of the Egyptians in the Levant since the 1920s. At the time, the government of Palestine and the British army in Palestine, needing workers for the major projects of the mandate, started hiring them from nearby colonially-occupied Egypt. Later, they were hired as subalterns in the service sector, for instance as restaurant waiters. Today, Filipino immigrant workers occupy roughly the same kind of jobs.

It is a significant lacuna, for historical writing in the Middle East as well as Refugee studies that it took so long for a critical mass of historians to get interested in the post-migration life and social environment of refugees. Disciplinary habits go a long way to explain the fact: but recent works by historians, catching up with the growth of Refugee studies and its impact on other social sciences, could shift the focus from wars, a frequent event in the Middle East in the 20th and 21st century, to the history of humanitarianism, to the economics of refugeehood, or to the similarities of position and competition between refugees and migrants. Studying the historical development of categories of migrants and the genealogy of international practices regarding refugees invites us to question the frequent dilution of terminology in the media (should one say the 2015 migrant crisis or refugee crisis?) without trying to replace media catchphrase with similarly misleading, well-delimited notions.


Altuğ, Seda and White Benjamin, 2009, “Frontières et pouvoir d’État: la frontière turco-syrienne dans les années 1920 et 1930”, Vingtième Siècle, no. 103, September .

Andézian, Sossie, 2010, Fondations des lieux de culte. Numéro spécial de la revue Archives de sciences sociales des religions, no151, septembre-octobre, Éditions de l’EHESS, Paris.

Aubin-Boltanski, Emma, 2007, Pèlerinages et nationalisme en Palestine. Prophètes, héros, ancêtres, Paris, Édition l’EHESS.

Boeckh, Katrin, & Rutar, Sabine (eds.), 2016, The Balkan Wars from Contemporary Perception to Historic Memory, London, Palgrave-McMillan.

Chatty, Dawn, 2010, Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Faroqhi, Suraiya, 2014, Pilgrims and Sultans: The Hajj Under the Ottomans, London, New York, I.B. Tauris.

Karpat, Kemal H., 1985, Ottoman population 1830-1914: Demographic and social characteristics, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press.

Kasaba, Reşat, 2009, A Moveable Empire:  Ottoman nomads, Migrants, and Refugees, Seattle, University of Washington Press.

McCarthy, Justin A., 1983, Muslims and Minorities: The Population of Anatolia and the End of the Empire, New York, New York University Press.

Marfleet, Philip, 2007, “Refugees and History: Why we must address the past?”, Refugee Survey Quarterly, vol. 26, Issue 3, p. 136-148.

Masalha, Nur, 1992, Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948, Beirut, Institute for Palestine Studies.

Morris, Benny, 1987, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Pappe, Ilan, 1992, The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-1951, London, I.B. Tauris.

Rogan, Eugene, 1999, Frontiers of the State in the Late Ottoman Empire, Cambridge, Cambrigde University Press.

Rosental, Paul-André, 1999, Les sentiers invisibles. Espace, familles et migrations et migrations dans la France du XIXe siècle, Paris, éditions de l’EHESS.

Schayegh, Cyrus; Kozma, Liat and Wishnitzer, Avner, 2014, A Global Middle East: Mobility, Materiality and Culture in the Modern Age, 18801940, London, I.B. Tauris.

Sfeir, Jihane, 2008, L’exil palestinien au Liban : le temps des origines 1947-1952, IFPO/Karthala, Beyrouth/Paris.

Watenpaugh, Keith D., “Towards a New Category of Colonial Theory: Colonial Cooperation and the Survivor’s Bargain – The Case of the Post-Genocide Armenian Community of Syria under French Mandate”, in Méouchy Nadine & Sluglett Peter, The British and French Mandates in Comparative Perspectives / Les Mandats français et anglais dans une perspective comparative, Leiden / Boston, Brill, 2004, p. 597-622.

Syrian refugees’ journey from Jordan to Germany

This is a translation from French (fisrt published on Lajeh Blog) by Richard Dickinson, INIST-CNRS translator.

Translation published:

This field report is part of a project of doctoral research into the networks and dynamics of Syrian exile to Jordan. This research is based on longitudinal monitoring of an ordinary group of refugees from Deir Mqaren – a village in the Rif Dimashq Governorate – and its aim is to analyze and understand the population’s “diasporization” process. Another of its objectives is to show how cross-border trade circulation initiated by the men of Deir Mqaren during the Ottoman era has influenced the migratory paths taken by all the families of the village since 2011. From the 1990s up to the conflict in Syria, the main source of revenues of the inhabitants of Deir Mqaren came from the sale of foodstuffs (dried fruits, nuts and “traditional” sweet products) that the merchants of the village bought in Damascus to sell on in Lebanon and Jordan. However in 2011, the increase of fighting in Syria considerably perturbed this trade which had been based on fluid, unhindered circulation between Deir Mqaren and the surrounding countries. From the start of 2012 onwards, this situation led a growing number of such traders to move permanently to the towns they had previously only visited to sell their merchandise so that they could work there on a permanent basis. In the following months, the regime’s increasing bombing in the Deir Mqaren area led their wives and children to join them but after a temporary stay in Lebanon and Jordan many families preferred to continue their journey to more distant destinations, particularly Germany.

Thanks to communication tools like Whatsapp and Facebook, I managed to stay in contact with some of the refugees I met during my surveys in Jordan in 2014 and 2015. In July 2016, I went to Dortmund in Germany where a family from Deir Mqaren lives. I had kept in touch with them since our first meeting in Amman two years earlier and used participant observation methods to find out about their new daily lives, particularly their representations and habits in their home area. The main ambition of this article is above all to allow my hosts to express themselves. Their stories published in this article are not supposed to be representative of the situation of all Syrian refugees in Germany. The idea is instead to shed new light on the installation of a population from a rural area in an urban environment – a subject which has been covered little in studies of Syrian refugees until now.

How Syrian exile from the Middle East to Germany is structured

At the start of the summer of 2014, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that around 3 million Syrians had left their home country to find refuge abroad, mainly in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. During the same period, signs of stalemate in the Syrian conflict were multiplying particularly following the arrival of new players in the situations such as the “Islamic State organization” with their strong media presence. The Syrian regime has continued dropping its barrels of TNT on the civilian population thus increasing the total number of refugees heading for neighbouring States since 2011. Faced with this population influx and their fear of the Jihadi threat, in June 2014 Jordan decided to close and increase surveillance of its border with Syria (Ababsa, 2015). From then on, only a few dozen Syrians a day have been allowed to enter the country. This blocked situation quickly led to the appearance of two camps built for and by the refugees in the no man’s land between the two countries near the border posts of Hadalat and Rukban1 (HRW, 2016).

By autumn 2014, there were 600,000 Syrian refugees on Jordanian territory2 mostly with precarious jobs in the informal economy sector. The government decided to harden its position in response to the discontent of part of the Jordanian population who complained about the increased negative effects they considered the refugees were having on the housing, jobs and services markets. Police checks on Syrians living and/or working in the country without official authorization had been carried out for several months and these were reinforced. This led to more and more refugees being forced to go back to the Zaatari and Azraq camps or, worse, even back to Syria. During the same period and following a significant reduction in aid funding for refugees paid to international organizations by overseas governments, several families lost the aid they had been receiving from the World Food Programme (WFP) in the form of food vouchers. Many Syrians found themselves plunged into a context of difficult living conditions in Jordan (Doraï, 2015) combined with an increasingly dangerous situation in Syria and therefore chose to go into exile again to try to reach destinations offering more favourable future prospects (Rey, 2015).

The rare beneficiaries of reinstallation procedures coordinated by the UNHCR managed to follow official immigration pathways but the overwhelming majority of refugees were forced to pass through “illegal” channels. Thus by the end of 2014 there had been a considerable increase in the number of departures for Europe. Migratory channels from Jordan were added to routes run by networks of “people smugglers” with well practiced methods. Some of the migrants attempt the dangerous Mediterranean from Libya3 and try to get to the Italian coasts before travelling towards Northern Europe. Paradoxically the “Balkans route” is more expensive for migrants than crossing the Mediterranean and also attracts a growing number of migrants trying to get to Europe. Information circulates rapidly within the networks with the telephone numbers of “reliable” people smugglers being exchanged between relations and friends and in just a few months, as demand increased so the price of the journey from Turkey to Greece dropped considerably. Germany quickly became the favoured destination for the overwhelming majority of Syrians attempting to take refuge in Europe and the route through Central Europe was seen as the best way to get there. The relative openness of European borders at the end of the summer of 2015 meant that it only took around ten days for Syrians to get to Western Europe from the Middle East.

In the summer of 2015, several hundred thousand asylum seekers were trying to get across the border into Germany and barely a year later around 600,000 Syrian refugees were said to have been accepted as refugees in the country. But what happened next for these Syrians once they had arrived in Germany? How do they choose where to settle? What are the conditions for their access to jobs and housing? What is it like for them to be so far away from their own culture, families and friends in the Middle East, elsewhere in Germany or in the rest of the world?

Figure 1: Map of the route taken by Yasmin and her children between their home village and their current home in Germany

Figure 1: Map of the route taken by Yasmin and her children between their home village and their current home in Germany

The system to divide refugees up over German territory

Yasmin4, Faysal and their 4 children (three boys and one girl) have been living in Dortmund since February 2016. Yasmin was the first to leave Jordan – at the end of April 2015 – with her two youngest sons and Faatine, one of her closest friends and her neighbour in Deir Mqaren. Faatine, Yasmin and her two sons took a flight to Istanbul where they met Yasmin’s brother who had just arrived from Beirut with one of his friends who was also from Deir Mqaren. Once in Turkey, the group was housed for a night by a person from the village who had been living in Istanbul since 2011 and who had become in charge of putting Syrians hoping to go to Europe with Turkish people smugglers. The closure of European borders had led to them being refused entrance to Germany several times by the Macedonian authorities. They had also had to suffer extortion by the people smugglers who had escorted – and sometimes imprisoned – them on part of the journey. A month and a half after leaving Istanbul, Yasmin and her family entered German territory at the town of Passau where they spent a few days in a “temporary reception centre” before being sent to a “preliminary reception centre for asylum seekers” in the small Bavarian town of Dingolfing.

Yasmin’s husband Faysal, and their two elder children joined the rest of the family in September 2015 after having saved up enough money to pay to cross the Aegean Sea and then travel to Germany. They used the same people smugglers and route as Yasmin but the European borders were slightly more open by then (Heller & Pezzani, 2016) so their journey “only” took seven days. When they arrived in Germany, they first stayed for a fortnight in a “temporary reception centre” in the suburbs of Munich before joining their family in Dingolfing where several friends and family members from Deir Mqaren had settled after leaving Syria, Jordan and Lebanon using the same people smugglers and route.

According to Fouad Hamdan who was in charge of “citizens’ participation” at the central coordination unit for refugees in Hamburg, when refugees arrive at Germany’s borders they are systematically directed to “temporary reception centres for asylum seekers”. Today, the system works fairly well but in 2015, particularly between August and December when the country was faced with a particularly large influx of migrants, a Hamburg town hall civil servant admitted that things had often be improvised and rushed. However, according to the legal procedure, refugees were to spend around 5 days in these centres which were often made up of canvas tents like the refugee camps run by the UNHCR in Southern hemisphere country. Refugees are first given a medical check-up. If they are in good enough health they are sent to an information point where details of the procedure they need to follow are given to them. This stage enables German civil servants to record a first account of the refugees’ stories including their reasons for leaving their countries. They are then given a ticket with a number before other team members take their fingerprints and photo. Next they receive a certificate that they have been registered along with a card with a chip containing their personal information and the place they are to be subsequently housed. After this they are sent to a “preliminary reception centre” – like the one in Dingolfing – where they are looked after and given three meals a day. Refugees stay in such centres for a period of 3 to 6 months until the results of their asylum application come through. A residence permit for 2 or 3 years is systematically given to Syrians seeking asylum in Germany. However, according to Mr. Hamdan5, in reality when refugees get a 2 or 3 year residence permit, this is valid for 5 years because if they request an extra 2 years the permit is automatically renewed as long as they have “behaved well since arriving “. Fouad Hamdan also explained that: “The first period of 3 years corresponds to a training phase aimed at helping refugees to fully integrate into German society. So during these first three years, the refugees learn the language and receive training to learn a profession or attain German standards in professions they worked in at home (…) After three years, they (refugees who have done all the necessary training) will be ready to work quasi-autonomously. Thus the two extra years given to refugees are seen as a minimum return on the investment for German companies and the State. At the end of these five years, the State will take stock of each refugee’s will to be integrated. Let’s stay with the case of Syrians. If after 5 years they are still unable to speak German, if their work is not deemed profitable for society and if the war in Syria is over then they will be told to pack their bags and go home while wishing them good luck for the future!”.
After having obtained their 3-year residence permit, refugees are directed to accommodation where they will generally stay for the next five years. From then on, they no longer have much of a say on where they are to live and only nuclear families – along with certain dependent people – are ever put in the same accommodation or even the same town. For example, it was out of the question for people from Deir Mqaren to all be together in Germany as a whole on community criteria. The first place they live on a long-term basis is determined by the “Königsteiner Schlüssel 6, a complex distribution system created in 1949 whose aim is to fairly calculate how refugees are spread out over the whole territory. This was therefore the “key” factor which determined the rest of Faysal’s family’s move to Germany. At the end of February 2016, Caritas – the organization in charge of helping refugees find housing if they so request – informed them that a house was available near Dortmund in the Eving neighbourhood. A few days later, having packed their bags and said goodbye to their friends who were staying in Dingolfing, they left for Dortmund on a high-speed train …

Finding a place in a new society, a long and difficult process

– getting a new home ready

When they arrived in their new accommodation, Faysal and Yasmin decided to renovate it. To do this, they asked for help from Faysal’s former business partners who were still in Jordan7 who lent them part of the 5,000 euros required to renovate and furnish their new accommodation. Although the house was relatively dilapidated, the couple were delighted at how big it was. It was in a small building made up of several apartments some of which had been divided into three-story terraced houses.

Figure 2: The buildings and neighbourhood street Containing Faysal's family house in Eving (Dortmund, Germany).

Figure 2: The buildings and neighbourhood street
Containing Faysal’s family house in Eving (Dortmund, Germany).

Each of these houses has three large bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom on each floor, a basement cellar and a little 50-square-metre back garden. The neighbourhood is made up of around ten such buildings with worn walls. Most are inhabited by Eastern European migrants and Kurdish or Iraqi refugees. Indeed, Faysal did not particularly like this situation of social segregation which he found a real handicap to his integration into German society. One of his main concerns was learning the language. “It’s very difficult to discover a new country and learn a new language when you’re 40 with four children! It’s easier for children because they’re young and learn really quickly at school. But for us, it’s different. We have to learn everything all over again – a new way of life and language – and staying here not working surrounded by people who don’t speak German isn’t going to help me improve my situation. (…) Some of our Iraqi neighbours came to Germany nearly 20 years ago and still can’t speak more than about 10 words in German which often prevents them finding work.”

Figure 3: Faysal and Yasmin's youngest son in the family garden in Eving.

Figure 3: Faysal and Yasmin’s youngest son in the family garden in Eving.

– Daily shopping

Faysal’s daily movements seem strongly influenced by not speaking much German. He systematically goes to the same places, particularly in the Nordmarkt area which is halfway between Eving and Dortmund town centre. The family never goes to this area and Faysal says he has nothing much to do there. The day after my arrival, Faysal and I went to the market in what he calls the Arab quarter, namely Nordmarkt. He goes there regularly to buy things because he can find all the right products to make Syrian meals. It is a “working class neighbourhood” with a large Arab migrant population (mainly from the Maghreb and Lebanon) living alongside Polish, Portuguese, Turkish and Romani immigrants. There is an outdoor market every Tuesday morning on a big square in the neighbourhood.

Figure 4: Nordmarkt market (Dortmund, Germany).

Figure 4: Nordmarkt market (Dortmund,  Germany).

Most of the stall holders speak Turkish or German with a few words in Arabic which means Faysal can speak with them more easily. When we got to the market, the stall holders were all shutting up shop and Faysal couldn’t find the stall where he usually shopped. He told me that usually he bought from stall holders who he could speak with in his native language to negotiate prices and find out where the products come from. On other days of the week, he does most of his shopping in a Turkish supermarket which is also in the Nordmarkt area. Although he prefers shopping at the market where it is generally cheaper, in this shop he regularly buys damaged fruit and vegetables which he negotiates a price for along with Syrian-Lebanese groceries which he cannot find in other supermarkets (tins of hummus, Ful medames (Fava beans), dried pumpkin seeds, pomegranate molasse, etc.). This means that he hardly ever goes to German shops apart from when he needs building materials and D.I.Y. tools. If that is the case, his 14-year-old son who already speaks good German accompanies him to shops in the retail area between Eving and Nordmarkt to interpret.

– Getting a job

One specific feature of the national system for job access for refugees is that it is directly linked to their ability to speak German. In the context of this, the “job centre” (Bundesagentur für Arbeit) which Faysal spoke to me so often about during my stay was a key place in the refugees’ “integration” process because they found information about job offers or German language training centres there. Also this organization managed the payment of any benefits they were entitled to.

Figure 5: The Job Centre in Dortmund where Faysal went several times a week, hoping to find a well-paid job.

Figure 5: The Job Centre in Dortmund where Faysal went several times a week, hoping to find a well-paid job.

The German State pays the rent and other charges (except electricity which refugees have to pay themselves) including local public transport costs. Also a monthly allowance of 400€ per adult and around 200 euros per child8 is paid to cover the rest of their spending (food, electricity, any travel outside the city, etc.). In fact, these benefits are exactly the same as those paid to an unemployed German national who does not have the right to unemployment benefit. Refugees who have recently arrived have the right to work9 but getting a job depends directly on their level of German with those who do not speak good enough German only getting access to work which is so low paid that it less than the benefits they qualify for. Also when refugees are paid a salary, their benefits are cut to the equivalent of the remuneration paid by their employers to the “job centre”. This procedure is therefore highly frustrating for them. Fouad Hamdan, the Hamburg civil servant mentioned earlier, states that refugees “generally find if very hard to understand how the system works. They have been repeatedly told that they can only get an interesting job if they speak German well enough but they find it really hard to accept. (…) You can only get a job if you can speak German. Of course they would like to do a job which doesn’t require qualifications and nothing is stopping them except that these jobs are badly paid and the State will take the equivalent of their monthly benefits back off their salaries. But again most of them won’t accept this and don’t see the need to work if the State is going to take part of their wages to pay for things they have a right to without working”. To come back to Faysal’s case, although he goes to the “job centre” several times a week hoping to find work, as long as he can’t speak German, he has very little chance of finding a job which will earn him more than he gets in benefits from the German government. This is a situation which he finds very hard to accept. Faysal says: “I worked for two weeks on a building site since I came to Germany. It was really difficult and tiring. I worked over 8 hours a day and at the end of the month, the job centre took the equivalent of my wages to pay the rent on the house. So it looks like people work for free in Europe, is that right? (…) I realize that in Europe, you have to pay takes all the time and you end up with nothing left at the end of the month. Now I live in Germany, I realize that life really was for free (“balash”) in Syria”.

– Future prospects …

Despite the family’s daily difficulties in Germany, Faysal and Yasmin remain extremely grateful to German society for the welcome they have received since they arrived. They are particularly appreciative of the attention and respect shown them by local civil servants. Faysal: “When I go to the job centre, the people who work there are always very responsive to my requests, there are always employees who speak Arabic and everyone is always very courteous with me. It’s the same with the women who teach the children German – they’re lovely and always smiling! When I arrived in Munich with the children, the Germans took us in their arms to welcome us. Even the police respects us here! They are there to ensure our safety not to cause us problems which is totally the opposite to the situation in Syria or Jordan. When we were trying to escape from a war, the Jordanians didn’t even want to let us in and when they did they welcomed us by hitting us with sticks! So even if life is difficult for us here, at least we have rights we didn’t have at home”.

When asked whether they would like to go back to Deir Mqaren if the situation got better in Syria, Faysal and Yasmin both said that this would require Bachar Al Assad and his clan to be no longer in power. Faysal: “The situation in the village has become about normal again now but we still don’t want to go back. Before I can go back to Deir Mqaren, Bachar needs to go and we need another government in power. Because if the war stops but there’s still the same regime, we still wouldn’t be safe in Syria and there would be nothing to stop me having problems or being arrested when I arrive back in the country. But the thing I want the most now is to be able to go back to the village. You for example, although you travel a lot and you spend time in Jordan, your country is France. How much time would you accept to live abroad without seeing your country? 6 months? One, two, maybe three years? And then what? Even if you end up finding your place in another country, nowhere can ever replace where you come from!”.

Field report, July 2016

David Lagarde

Featured image: The Flower Salesman – Dortmund Germany by Magicman678 under Creative Commons BY license.

This is a translation from French by Richard Dickinson, INIST-CNRS translator.

Cite this article: « Syrian refugees’ journey from Jordan to Germany », by David Lagarde in Anthology.

  1. Currently, over 70,000 Syrians are blocked at the north-east border of Jordan. Human Rights Watch regularly denounces the Jordanian authorities’ refusal to allow NGOs to provide humanitarian aid to this population who are kept in inhuman and degrading living conditions because Jordan refuses them access to its territory. []
  2. This is the number of Syrian refugees registered by the UNHCR. []
  3. Until January 2015, Algeria did not demand visas for Syrian nationals. This meant they could land at Algiers airport where the people smugglers met them to take them to Libya, the departure point for the crossing to the Italian coast after a short transit via Tunisia. []
  4. All the first names of Syrians mentioned in the text have been changed. []
  5. This interview was carried out entirely in French. The words used in this transcription have therefore been translated from French to English, unlike the extracts from interviews with Yasmin and Faysal. []
  6. Literally “the Königstein key” For more information on how this system works please consult the article in Le Monde from September 2015 entitled “En Allemagne, la clé de Königstein permet de repartir les refugiés”. []
  7. Faysal used to work in the import-export sector between Jordan and Syria before the conflict began. His main activity was supplying nuts, dried fruits and sweet products to Jordanian wholesalers. Part of the travelling salesmen from Deir Mqaren used to regularly go to Jordan to sell these types of products in the country’s different Governorate. He also used to export other types of merchandise to Jordan, particularly textiles. []
  8. This amount varies slightly according to the age of the children. []
  9. To be exact, asylum seekers can only work after waiting three months following their arrival in the country (Bundesagentur für Arbeit). []