In this piece (re-posted from The National) Professor Alison Phipps, UNESCO Chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts at the University of Glasgow, reflects on the interpersonal nature of hosting – and the way it develops through everyday encounters -, arguing that intimate and local level dynamics are at the core of refugee ‘integration’ . In her piece, Phipps reflects on processes of welcome, hospitality and integration across a range of spaces and places, including in rural areas of Germany and urban areas of Scotland. Refugee Hosts will be exploring similar processes across different spaces and places in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, focusing on the diverse ways in which refugees and hosts encounter one another in everyday life.
A Tale of Humanity, Love and Reaching Out to Refugees
By Professor Alison Phipps, University of Glasgow
“Alison,” she says. It’s close to midnight. I am sitting with one of my oldest friends, my penfriend from German school exchanges, at her kitchen table. She had just picked me up from the airport. We are both bubbling with the happiness of being together and the gratuitous amazement that this short visit has been possible. “Alison. I have something to tell you.” she says, with a seriousness, “my life has changed completely in the last two months.”
In the last 25 years I’ve seen very little of her, busy as we were with family life, and just Christmas cards holding the space. Then social media came along and helped, in the way it can. She knew of my struggles to have children of my own, of my work, our fostering of an Eritrean child and the long struggles for justice.
She’d been gently alongside from afar, witnessing an experience that was unimaginable to her. We are very different people, with very different lives and experiences. Calm, measured, work and family life in rural Germany compared to mine as an academic, writer and activist. When she visited me for her daughter’s 18th birthday treat and saw how wonderfully our daughters hit it off, being of a similar age, the friendship took on a new dimension.
“I’ve become a mother to a refugee boy ” she said.
I had wondered before arriving how she would have experienced the new Germany, the one which has just welcomed more than one million refugees. Angela Merkel’s change of heart and decision to take in refugees in the event of a war on the borders of Europe was one of determination to uphold the articles, signed up to by her country as an EU member state.
Germany was largely isolated in Europe in this decision. The majority of states ignored the binding agreements they, too, had signed up to upon joining. The UK went a whole xenophobic step further and voted for Brexit. But Germany has, once again, transformed itself, and for the better. Every village, every parish, every town and city in Germany has refugees and asylum seekers dispersed to it.
“Wir schaffen das” – “we can do it” has not found a welcome everywhere in Germany, and, as in the UK, the areas with the least diversity have shown the greatest hostility. There are numerous issues with the macro-structures and politics of this move but what is important, to me as a researcher, is how it is experienced in people’s lives and homes. It’s here that the politics of a country are first made, because all homes are political. And it’s not a complex thing. It’s either a step into greater love or into greater hate. Neutrality is not possible in the face of the need or the suffering.
Out comes an album of photographs, the son’s name, the necessary language of refugee politics and bureaucracy, is starting to form in her speech, but also, beautifully, talk of volunteering and welcoming, of football tournaments and swimming galas, of mutual language learning, and of stories of experiences they are sharing together. I have rarely seen her so determined, clear, alive, so completely at home in her skin, and proud of her children’s response. Her husband – shy, steady – is alight with a liveliness and quiet certainty about the rightness of this, their new family relationship.
This is the risk of love. They just stepped up when the need presented itself in a personal way, and did so despite fears which circulate all the time in our media telling us not to care, not to trust but instead to demonise, insult and dismiss, to render destitute, to detain and to deport.
As she tells her story I am finding it hard not to cry. Beauty does this to me when it expresses itself fully and in balance with natural justice. Night passes into a new day and we step purposefully into the stride of our friendship in these rare moments of being in the same time and space.
A walk round a town where shop windows, faces, and the silence of a cathedral are now all occasions for stories about the children who found us both. We first walked these streets together when I was 14. Thirty-six years on, since her hospitality profoundly changed my disturbed and lonely young life, its grace was coming full circle.
The evening brings a meal together at home. Language is loosened into the simplest words in a multilingual kitchen alive with Maninka, Wolof, German, French and English. We are all practising speaking everything. It’s a celebration, so groundnut stew and thick gunpowder tea are on the menu, and the new son is charge. The air is as thick with stories as the tea is with sugar. Every now and then we lapse into the languages that are easiest for us to share.
Eating each other’s food, sharing in each other’s stories, touching each other naturally, as families do, with affection, in tenderness and in jest, celebrating each others’ lives, giving of wisdom and knowledge back and forth. Yes, there is grief in the stories on all sides, but the way the family is re-forming is a matter of adventure.
When the Syrian resettlement programme began in Scotland two years ago I was one of those advocating on practical grounds, for it to be concentrated in the central belt, and particularly Glasgow, because that was where the experience of integrating reasonably well had developed through the years of dispersal, largely through trial and error, and a good deal of error at that.
I could see how little experience, capability and capacity there was in local councils with none of Glasgow’s particular refugee and asylum story. Witnessing the new Germany – yet another new Germany – I realise I was wrong.
I see the changes, which are coming across Scotland through the community work of integrating, though with much less opportunity for full participation due to the tiny numbers of refugees the UK is taking in comparatively.
It’s not a complicated thing, integration is the very back and forth, the give and the take of hospitality when it’s in full flow. It’s a place at a table, with food as part of the common task of making a new society, together. This does not mean I must meld my life to every stranger, just if occasion allows and I am prepared to put myself in a place where I can be found, to a particular stranger who may occasion across my path.
My friend’s family are as “German” as they ever were. They haven’t lost anything. They have simply expanded their sphere of love.
Alison Phipps is UNESCO Chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts at the University of Glasgow
Featured Image: (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh: Birds fly overhead as the sun sets in Baddawi refugee camp.
If you enjoyed this piece, read Alison’s other posts here. For similar articles that touch on hosting and everyday life, take a look at these contributions:
Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) “Loss and Everyday Life on the Syrian-Turkish Border”
Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) “Hope, Resilience and Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Southern Turkey”
Western, T. et al. (2017) “Summer in Athens: A Sound Essay”