'Integration is about more than a language and a job'

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'Integration is about more than a language and a job'
Abdulalim Alkatea. Photo: Private

Learning the local language and finding a job is not enough to become fully integrated in a society, argues Abdulalim Alkatea, a Syrian architect living in Sweden.


As a refugee from Syria I live in involuntary exile. With roots left behind in my homeland, I was planted once more in a different environment, far from the place where I was born, far from the places where I played as a child. I left beautiful memories and life’s small, everyday details there.

Living like that – out of touch with your past – is difficult. It affects you both physically and mentally. I am a person of flesh and blood, with feelings and with interests. I am doubly affected by what happens: in the life I live here I come across many difficulties, while at the same time I constantly worry about my family back home and the situation in my country.

I am the kind of Syrian refugee who finds himself in an ever-fragmented existence, a kind of existence that is difficult to imagine. The alienation eats me up, I can’t begin to dream about my future, much less plan for it. The smile on my face hides a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. Living in suspense is difficult.

I am the kind of Syrian refugee who survives with the help of patience, hope, and writing. I lose a future, and society loses resources I could contribute to it.

The war in Syria has created numerous cultural, political, social and even demographic crises internationally. The refugee crisis is the most acute from a European point of view. The reaction has been mixed, both from an official position and from people in general.

European societies are talking about integration – and we refugees do not want to be an isolated group in those societies – but the fact is that the process of integration is complicated. We Syrian refugees are not a cultural elite, but a socially mixed group. We do not come from a democratic society, we have fled from death, persecution and oppression, and as refugees we carry with us our culture and experiences. It is in that situation that we try to integrate into a new country.

The experience of integration that Europeans in general and Sweden in particular have shows that integration has not always been successful. There are many immigrant groups that have undergone the process which is constantly highlighted in the integration debate: they have learned the language, found a job, live a safe life, yet despite that, do not feel at home in their new country.

What is integration?

What is the right route to successful integration? How can I avoid feeling like a stranger in society? And how can one define the concept of integration? Most agree that is important to learn the language, to find a job, and to live securely with your family. These are, I believe, necessary conditions, but they are not enough to achieve successful integration. Having a job is important to obtaining financial security, but it is not sufficient to achieve full integration.

There are many Europeans who have worked in China, Dubai or Malaysia without being integrated into communities there. It is important to learn the language to communicate with people around you, but it isn’t enough to achieve integration. Many Europeans speak Arabic, but they are not integrated into Arabic societies, regardless.

Similarly, many migrants around the world are not threatened or vulnerable to dangers in their homelands, but to assert that those who live together with their families in a safe environment are also therefore integrated is the wrong idea. Many Syrian families for example lived in Saudi Arabia long before the war in Syria without integrating into the society there, remaining isolated, even though they speak the same language and the culture is almost the same.

Successful integration means a sense of belonging to the community and an affinity with the people you live with. That you are accustomed to the environment and people around you, and that they in turn are accustomed to you.

That is exactly what Ruud Koopmans, a professor of sociology at the Humboldt University in Berlin, concludes when he says that integration is not something with one achievable goal that applies to everyone. Integration is not something that ends when a person can stay in the country, get a job, study and live there. Integration’s aim is to develop and achieve equality.

Feeling at home

Paul Scheffer, professor in European studies at Tilburg University in Amsterdam, highlights multiple dimensions of integration. In general, integration cannot be reduced to a question of interaction between different groups in society. The problem is not about improving the situation of one group. It is essential that new arrivals can say that this is their homeland, that they feel they have a responsibility in the new country, and that eventually, no one can doubt their efforts or that they are a part of society.

Integration is always achieved thanks to two parties. One part is the new arrivals who are inclined to become integrated, and the other is the visited society, its institutions and population – the host society – which presumably wants integration to occur.

Overall, integration aims to create a society for all of them, a society where every individual enjoys rights, accepts responsibilities, and works actively within the community. Integration means social solidarity which constitutes a network of human relationships that bring people together.

Open hearts

I wish to be accepted like a son, brother and friend. I do not want to force myself on people, but hope that they will open their hearts to me, show consideration for my plight, and thereby reproduce a part of the togetherness I have lost.

We refugees have lost so much and even if we, through our efforts to become part of our new countries, sometimes make mistakes, we need to be met with understanding. There are cultural differences between us, but let us find solutions so that we can live together in a safe society.

I do not want to isolate myself, I want to grow in confidence through collaboration, for my resources to be of use, and to contribute to the development here in my new country. Together we are strong, and with diversity we can build a better society for all.

This article was written by Abdulalim Alkatea, a Syrian architect and blogger interested in youth issues who lives in Sweden. It was first published in Swedish by Göteborgs Posten.


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