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Newton's First Law of Refuge

Mike Niconchuk

“When do I stop being a refugee?” I remember his question vividly, and the 50-something Syrian man who asked it, at the opening of an art exhibition in Berlin. As he asked his question, people--mostly the Germans--shifted in their seats, knowing he had opened one of Berlin’s Pandora’s boxes.


“Is it when I get the passport? When I learn German? When I get a job? When I’m not receiving aid? When do I stop being ‘flüchtlinge’ [refugee]?” The downcast faces and stuttered responses were enough of an answer. “Or is it just a permanent adjective, part of my identity?” he finished, rhetorically, slowly lowering the mic to his side.

As more than 400,000 Syrian aslyum seekers have made their way to Germany over the past three years, the challenge of adapting to the culture, norms, laws, and climate of Germany has not been easy. The size of the challenge has caught many—on both sides—off guard. A series of attacks, some of which were perpetrated by Syrian and other asylum seekers, has done little to calm everyone’s nerves when it comes to the “i-word,” integration. ‘What does it even mean?’ some ask. ‘Is it even possible?’ I’ve heard others say. Like refugees’ notion of home, integration remains elusive, recognized as a challenge but addressed only as a series of economic, movement, and government benefits policies.

Across the city, Nader and Mohammad ask themselves similar questions to that of the man in the gallery. They do not know each other, but their stories reverberate in the same echo chamber of confusion, loneliness, and anxiety, a place where questions haunt, and answers hide.

Nader is a young father, married, but parenting alone in Berlin with two of his children, while his wife waits for papers in Lebanon with the remaining children. He loves to cook, and has recently taken a job at an Arabic restaurant in Wedding, just north of the city center.

Mohammad, formerly a teacher in Syria, has spent the past 5 years moving from house to house, from Jordan to Lebanon to Turkey to Germany, finally making it to Berlin a year ago with just a backpack and a laundry list of comatose dreams.

These men do not know each other, but face similar challenges. I first went to Nader’s house on the promise of shawarma and sheesha, invited by my good friend Ra’ed. Ten minutes and half a shwarma in, Ra’ed started talking about the i-word with Nader.

As Ra’ed spoke about the countless challenges of making a life in Germany and within its systems, Nader’s leg twitched furiously, anxious about what he could, should, and should not say. Many Syrians, even those now in the West, live with an unconscious, relic paranoia of living in a police state, where phones are tapped, conversations are had in code, and ‘disappearances’ are still frequent. Ra’ed put his hand on Nader’s shoulder. “It’s okay; say what you want.”

Nader blurted out: “I'm shy to call myself Arab now!” His leg stopped twitching, and he sunk his forehead into his palm.

He continued: "No society is all good. There are always a few bad people who ruin things." I could see from his expression that he was angry, tired, and confused. His struggle towards integration is as much psychological as it is economic.

A few nights earlier, I was sitting with Mohammad, who, unlike Nader, held nothing back as we sipped tea and mate in his living room. “Integration? Integration? I’m integrated, I guess….I know Germans.” He laughed, “if that’s what you mean, I’m integrated.” Many Syrians get excited by just one conversation with a German. Relationships are a key step towards integration.

But, Mohammad continued. “Ask me if I feel settled, if I feel integrated, though. That’s something different.” Perplexed and frustrated, Mohammad frequently toys around with the idea of integration in his head, and, as it is for Nader, the concept remains ostensibly achievable, yet ill-defined.

The word integrate is derived from the Latin integrare, which means “to make whole.” The discussion of integration, of refugees in Germany, of minority communities in London, of schools in 1960s America, would sound vastly different if we stuck to Latin, if we stuck to discussing about how to make people and communities whole. In most contexts, integration has come to mean little more than understanding laws and systems, language acquisition, and an economic process of participation in the job market. If, in contrast, integration policy were focused on making people whole, the programs we design with and for migrants, refugees, and native-born who feel excluded and marginalized—would likely focus on robust models of social work, health care, and mental health. The difference is massive, and it matters.

Berlin, the second largest city in the EU, is a messy case study in migrant inclusion and integration, and is in the midst of a formative period in her history. Almost certainly, history books of 100 years from now will make mention of the country that—like it or not, want it or not—is weathering an experiment of allowing more than a million "unvetted" individuals to settle in her borders. Germany has made a major political, ethical, and financial commitment to asylum seekers within their borders, far more than any other Western country.

People around the world have latched on to different parts of Germany’s refugee story, often the parts that fuel what they already want to hear and see. Indeed, there is a macro story of Germany’s refugee crisis. This story—the story of headlines and emotions—discusses refugees as an “issue,” a monolith of trauma or resilience, risk or benefit, Islamization or diversity, integration or incompatibility, depending on who is talking, and what incident they are talking about. In the macro story, refugees are considered and decided about in bulk. We know this macro story: one Afghan murders people, and all Muslim refugees are suddenly a major security risk. A young refugee opens a business, and that means that it’s easy to integrate in Germany. Neither narrative is true, but both narratives are easy.

Underneath the macro story, though, there is a micro story of the crisis, a mosaic story comprised of the man in the gallery, of Nader and Mohammad, of experiences of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, and others trying to make sense of Germany and life in Europe. These micro stories are first about survival, and second about adaptation, and each one is filled with milestones of loss, love, sacrifice, and resilience—together forming an unclear image that brings to light major shortcomings in the international aid and asylum systems, the damaging toll of hate speech, and major risks within the refugee community. The micro story is overwhelming, but it is true, and we must amplify it.


At points, the macro and micro stories touch, affecting each other, for better or for worse. Nader, as he discussed those people who “ruin things” for average Syrians like himself, recalled one vivid example.

In December 2016, a Tunisian migrant named Anis Amri, with an impressive criminal record and penchant for finding loopholes in EU deportation law, rammed a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin’s upscale Ku’damm neighborhood. Logically, painting Syrian refugees with the same brush as Anis Amri, a criminal from Tunisia who came to Europe well before the war in Syria escalated, makes little sense, but from the moment it happened, Berlin’s Syrians knew that they would face the backlash. They knew their micro stories were once again hijacked by something outside of their control.

“The son of a bitch who ran over those people in the market...he wasn't Syrian.” Nader was emotional as he talked about the incident, which happened just a few kilometers from his house. “But that doesn't matter to people. He was 'Arab' and that's what people cling to.”

Nader deeply laments that a few individuals, like Anis Amri, have jeopardized his integration experience. The seven other men in the room with him, ranging from six to thirty-two years old, nodded as he spoke, each one recalling incidents where they felt ashamed, needing to apologize on behalf of someone who looked like them—dark-skinned, bearded, with broken German, Arab or not, Syrian or not.

With much to say and little outlet to say it, Nader went on: “Some Syrian kids just find it fun to do drugs, to smoke, to harass women. This is all new. They're lost. It's hard to just be uprooted entirely and still remain 'you'. The few sons of bitches who don't get it and who screw up are ruining it for everyone else.”

He took a breath, and kept going. His criticism extended wide--Anis Amri, select Syrian youth, and Germans as well.

“They're all ‘Arabs’ they [Germans] say. We hear them; I speak basic German. We see their subtle looks on the metro every day. I'm scared to be Arab. They don't know if I'm Tunisian or Syrian or whatever.” He sighed deeply.

He couldn’t help but go back to Anis Amri, who represented such a crucial issue to him, “And the terrorists, they use us too. Do you really think a Syrian refugee, who keeps his ID papers tightly guarded like a treasure in his pocket at all times, would plan mass murder, and in the process of fleeing, somehow leave his passport and asylum papers on the seat of the car? No. Something is wrong. It's completely illogical. Not how a refugee's mind works.”

He had run out of steam, for now.

Shame and fear were evident on Nader’s face as he spoke, ashamed of some in his community, ashamed of his inability to bring his wife and other children to Germany, afraid of being misunderstood, afraid of reaching out from the dark cavern of his own thoughts. Shame is a profoundly destructive feeling and should not be part of the life of someone seeking asylum and protection. Tragically for Nader though, integration and shame remain locked in a very confusing, destructive, internal battle.

Days earlier, Mohammad, the teacher from Damascus, elaborated on his sense of being unsettled since arriving in Germany, and the psychological process of integration. Our lengthy conversation gave me a preview for what countless other Syrians in Berlin have said since. Mohammad teared up as he talked, saying that he is now “so far—farther than I ever imagined”—from all he knew, from what he expected his life would be, just a few years ago. A man on the move for five years, he feels he is floating in Germany, finally coming to terms with the challenge of staying still, of confronting the terrible inertia built up over five years of war and forced migration.

Mohammad has never stopped being a teacher--he takes any moment he can to teach German to those friends who know less than him. Hoping to pick up from the last point of stability he can remember, Mohammad hopes to teach physics for Syrian children in Germany, but, recently, a small hiccup with documentation moved him out of the running for a refugee teacher training program. He now has to wait a year, hoping to find something, anything meaningful, with his time until then.

Little to nothing is within his control in Germany, so he has invested immense amounts of time in becoming painfully self-aware. Keenly conscious of his own mental health, Mohammad admitted that he has internalized a lot of negative rhetoric about himself, and about refugees. He, too, has let the macro story invade his micro story.

"I shaved my precious beard after the market attack," he lamented, running his hands through his stubble where his hipster, waxed beard was once full. “I felt watched…paranoid, but a paranoia I know is rooted in my complete and deep instability in every area of life.”

Similarly to Nader, Mohammed has grown hypervigilant of dirty looks, suspicious faces, and others’ disapproval. That vigilance, not uncommon among people living under tremendous stress, has exacerbated his sense of instability, of disintegration.

He admitted: “I just need something, anything to bring me that deep breath that comes with feeling 'settled'. I’ve been here a year, I can’t continue unsettled.”

As we drank more mate in his living room, we talked about high school physics—my worst class of all time. We discussed that, for the sake of momentum, perhaps he should take a refresher physics course online.

“I forgot Newton’s laws” he laughed, while scouring Coursera for something useful.

“You are Newton’s laws,” I replied.

He scoffed, “shlon? [what?]”

“A body in motion stays in motion” I reminded him. “You’ve been in motion for five years”


For Mohammad, as for Nader and Ra’ed, integration has become yet another obstacle, something they risk doing wrong, something elusive yet obligatory, and something too much controlled by others, be it Anis Amri or the man behind the counter at a job center.

To be a Syrian refugee in Germany is not paradise, as many assume. To be a self-aware statistic in a macro story is a prolonged agony. “What are we supposed to do?” Nader asked me. “Like us, the vast majority of Germans are good, and kind, but that doesn’t get me any closer to feeling ‘integrated’.”


Nader and Mohammad have not found peace; their peace has been delayed by perceived looks, glances, and insults, by the inability to openly ask, complain, and cry. For Nader, stability and peace may only come when his wife and other children arrive. For Mohammad, after being in Germany in the same city and same house for a year—a feeling he hasn’t known since fleeing Syria in 2012—stability and peace may only come when he finds some small thing he has control over. For both, they crave a sense of rest, but for now, they can only imagine it in an unknown timeframe they summarize as “inshallah.”

To really integrate, to be made whole, has little to do with language acquisition, employment, or housing—although those steps are important. Finding rest, feeling settled, seems to be an important precursor. For example, Nader has a job, an apartment, and is taking German classes. Mohammad has German friends, an apartment, and speaks German quite well. But, for these two, and for all of those fleeing war, losing family, losing identity, and waiting in countless lines, wholeness is something else entirely, something seemingly intangible, but known when experienced.

Only from a place of rest—psychologically and physically—can the policy questions of integration, of crime, language, job markets, and education, be meaningfully discussed and addressed.

Back at Mohammad’s house, he slowly put his cup of mate down. He repeated Newton’s First Law. “A body in motion, stays in motion.” He laughed, trailing off with “ya zalemehhhhh…” which translates roughly to “duuuuuude”.

He smiled. “I’ve been in motion for so long. Maybe I’m scared of what is behind me when I finally rest.”

This is the crux of the issue--inertia. What lies behind refugees’ constant moving? Behind the waiting? Behind the chasing? Like a tsunami caused by massively disruptive energy, the inertia of young refugees like Mohammad and Nader has built up over years, by a process of fighting for survival. The question for us is, are we ready to support them as they brace for the tsunami, the spectre of their inertia, once they feel settled?

For Nader, for Mohammad, and for thousands of others, tending to what lies underneath their inertia—some combination of fear, trauma, loneliness, pain, anger, confusion, love, stoicism—should be the focus of our integration efforts, of our collective efforts in becoming whole.

Feature Image: Berlin skyscrape, courtesy of Mike Niconchuk

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