Living in a big prison

Nisren Habib on the sexual violence in mass housing, the concerns of refugee women and the possibilities to support their integration.

Nisren Habib by FES / Nisren Habib

Nisren Habib has conducted research on the situation of refugee women from Syria in Germany. An engineer specializing in networks and technology with a degree in women studies, Nasrin who lives in Berlin, has already worked with refugees in Lebanon. Recently, she presented her research findings at “Integration,” a congress organized by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. We talked to her about the gender-specific problems refugee women fight to overcome, what motivates them in the struggle and how they can be supported.

FES: Against the background of your research, which factors must be considered for Syrian women who have fled to Germany to help their integration process?

Nisren Habib: Let me begin by saying that I interviewed 46 Syrian women refugees in Berlin, just to make sure that we remain aware about the importance of all stories when giving a general outlook of the results.

The integration process of Syrian women refugees is a process that involves two parties: the Syrian women refugees and the German society. Therefore, it cannot be developed by one side only.

Learning the German language and attending integration courses are absolutely needed for Syrian women and men to be more involved in their new society but it is not enough.

However, most of those who have fled to Germany in the last two years still live in a temporary accommodation centres and have temporary legal status. Many face difficulties to find and move into an apartment. Others still await the outcome of their residency applications. And the most pressing issue for the majority is the situation with their family members who were left behind.  

Most of the women you interviewed for your research live in big housing centres in Berlin. What gender-specific problems do they face there?

NH: Living in such places for a period, ranging from 6 months to year and half or longer, is the greatest challenge for Syrian women refugees. In those conditions, they lack privacy, as humans in general and as women specifically.

Some of them live in sports halls or in booth-like enclosure, where cloths replace doors. Others live in common rooms or in rooms without locks. They have shared bathrooms and kitchens. And all this leaves most of them feeling as if they are living in a big prison. There have been cases of sexual harassments by other refugees’ or by the staff administrating the housing centres.

Living for a long time in these types of housing creates a new society “not a German one and not a Syrian one.” This is a society where most of the women feel they are monitored at all times, where they have sometimes to behave in ways they don’t embrace, but appropriate in order to avoid being judged by others.

They do not really feel that they are in a place where women are equal to men and where they have choice. At the same time, they deal with selected groups among the German people, including security guards, social workers and sometimes volunteers. This may sometimes elicit negative images of both Syrian and German ways of being, since they all deal with each other in a closed environment where people live under very stressful conditions.  

Almost half of the interviewed women were single, almost as many married. A minority was divorced or married, but arrived without their husbands in Berlin. Do you think that family status (and gender relations in these settings) matters with regards to integration?

NH: Actually, yes – it matters, but differently for each of the categories of women you mention.

Single women are looking to start their life: move to their own apartment, get a job, enrol school. And this can also be explained with the obligation most of them have, to send money to their families back in Syria, at least until they will be able to reunite. Most of the single women have a sense of guilt, themselves living in a safe place while not being able to bring to Germany their families who continue to live in life-threatening circumstances.

Married women, who left their husbands in Syria, also face a lot of challenges when dealing with their children who are experiencing trauma, living far away from their fathers or separated from their siblings. For this reason, the most common response by married women to the question about their future in Berlin is “moving to an apartment and starting the family reunification process.” Yet, now, the new laws of one-year protection status for Syrian refugees eliminate all possibilities to start a reunification process.  

In conclusion to your research you propose recommendations to increase the chances of good integration into German society for Syrian women. Could you share the most important recommendations with our readers?

NH: Some of the asylum conditions in Berlin, and this includes those at the housing centres and of the integration process, women have to cope with, have some negative impact on the ability and motivation of Syrian women to be more integrated into German society.

Shortening the stay of newcomers or refugees at the temporary accommodation centres, and providing stronger support in the quest for houses and apartments in Berlin is a very important step for a healthy start of a real integration process. In the meantime, we must ensure that temporary housing centres are monitored in a way that prevents sexual harassments or violation of the privacy policies. This will be helpful for all women, not only those from Syrian. 

A participatory approach in developing the psychosocial support process, in a way that involves Syrian women and men, will clearly lead to better results. Such a process can create an environment where they feel more understood and valuable, giving them additional motivation to be more pro-active and less pessimistic.

German volunteers have been of tremendous support for some of the Syrian women refugees. At times, however, relying only on volunteers for support may lead to types of relations where volunteers unintentionally interfere in the lives of refugees. Therefore, it’s much more recommended to increase the interaction of refugees with the German society, beyond the walls of the temporary housing centres, through well-designed programs and activities. This will change the prejudices on both sides – refugees and the host society – at a faster pace and will build positive relations between them.

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