Integration, racism, discrimination are not easy topics to deal with. What are our worries and fears that we experience and have already brought with us?
Jamiel and I went down the street to the market place on a lovely spring day. His damascene face was gloomy, his eyebrows were bowing in distress. He exhaled suddenly: “It doesn’t work! It won’t work”, and nervously kicked a cigarette butt he stumbled into, its only mistake was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I watched it settling in the cracks between two granite stones assimilating with others, with the many others in the round market square. If doing so will mitigate Jamiel’s anguish, then it is a relief. So maybe he would wake up another day looking for an apartment and prolong his dream of being “allowed” to rent one!
I had not know Jamiel before. We first met here in Germany in a language course in Friedberg VHS. I remember at first, he had some difficulties with grammar. But when I told him, in the 20 minutes break, about some intersectional similarities between Arabic and German –such as the four cases and the declension of words depending on their position, he began making sense of a language that was very foreign to us. A language that the renowned American writer Mark Twain believed needed an “eternity” to be learnt or “30 years” for “a gifted person”. Well, we still have time to learn it properly. But, of course, German is not the ‘awful’ language that Twain described in his humorous essay. I told Jamiel about this in the short train drive back to Butzbach, just to have some fun, trying to soothe the anxiety drawn clearly on his cloudy face.
“By the way, I come from Homs, and you?”. “I am from Damascus, not exactly, Damascus suburbs” looking at me in the eye for the first time, forcing an artificial smile on his face. Indeed, I would never have known people like Jamiel, from a conservative Muslim family in Syria, but we could only have met. It is paradoxical that we were raised among barriers, socioreligious and political barriers, walls that prevented us from stepping over or penetrating barriers in order that we could communicate and “know” each other. Here, while we ‘integrate’ ourselves the way the German rules dictate, we probably could ‚integrate‘ love for each other, if not love, then respect, if not respect, then at least acknowledgement that we belong to the same geography and history.
Jamiel made sure not to share any personal information before he knew or felt that I was aligning politically with his side. The matter took a long time since, for me, Jamiel was an enemy until proven otherwise. By the end of the course, when we were heading back home, a train delay allowed us more time to talk a bit. I told him that we had fled from the old city to a nearby village because we were not willing to partake in any blood-shed. He looked at me attentively, then nodded spontaneously after I explained how our flat had been robbed and destroyed. And though he was still uncertain, it is likely that he needed to release his deep pain before exploding, to rain before he flooded. He said he is originally from Yarmouk Camp –an area inhabited by Palestinians since 1957 after being evacuated in 1948. He escaped the well-known hunger siege imposed by the regime and its allies on the district from June 2013 – Feb. 2014, and made his way to refuge leaving behind his wife with a child (Salma) living with her parents in Al-Midan neighbourhood. „Just temporarily“, Jamiel said, emphasising each letter of the word: “t-e-m-p-o-r-a-r-i-l-y”. I replied unthinkingly: “yes, I know, sure!”. He added as if he was asking himself, or maybe I thought he said something “Do you think ‘worry’ is genetic?”
We did not meet again until today. Jamiel, who was an engineer, said he started his education as an electrician in a nearby company a year and a half ago, and was now desperately looking for an apartment, because, without a rental contract, he would never be able to get his family out of Syria. I realised that this ‘temporariness’ he had previously hoped for, soon evaporated, together with his patience. Jamiel explained that he had tried everything he could think of to obtain a viewing appointment. “Every time I send a new application, I added another piece of information about me” he whined with a sarcastic tone in his voice. “Since I do not know who I am writing to, I avoided saying I’m a Muslim! Then in another, I thought ‘no it is better to refer to it’. I wrote in different ways and times that I have a job, I study, I have a daughter, I have a small garden because I like doing something useful. I shared my life-story with strangers, can you imagine! Am I applying for renting an apartment or proposing marriage?”. I couldn’t help laughing, I said: “Calm down, Jamiel. It is not a matter of religion at all, or let’s say, maybe it is sometimes, but..”. He interrupted me, winked and whispered: “You know, I did not know the word ‘racism’ until I came here”. I was shocked by his reasoning, confused because I did not want him to too readily judge the situation. Nonetheless, I did not hesitate to exclaim: “Words can be attired in different clothes, Jamiel, don’t you know that?”. Jamiel arched his eyebrows, but I proceeded before he could interrupt me: “Don’t you think we have always learnt and acted with discrimination against each other without moulding our actions into definite words! We have never accepted our differences, but to the contrary we have entrenched them!”. Jamiel did not expect me to turn the pointing finger at ‘us’; it is always easier to speak about ‘them’. His first remark was “I don’t know, this is not a topic I can imagine myself addressing just now. However, I didn’t mean it literally, I am rather lost and cannot explain why it is so hard to find a lodging in this country. Although I know there is a housing crisis overall now..”. I added quickly “yes, according to a friend, even Germans have a similar problem finding apartments”.
For a while, silence filled in the air around us. Only the pigeons pecked the breadcrumbs out of the cracks. Each retreated to rethink or maybe to find out what to say. After all, we share the same situation here, we share the same umbrella. I told him with compassion: “Jamiel, I think, it is simply a matter of who you are. We are anonymous to them”. He parroted wryly: “Simply!” And took a look at his watch. I added, “Well, I know it is complicated, but I’m sure you’ll find one. If I could, then surely you can”. He nodded, collected himself and showed composure then excused himself. He said there was still another friend of a friend he knew that would help him in his search and that he would be meeting them in an hour. Jamiel reiterated his appeal to me to let him know of any updates or just spread the word among friends. I confirmed, promised to do my best, and repeated hollow words before he left: “don’t worry, it will be okay”. I wished him luck and said good-by. Jamiel is a good person. I walked back home thinking naively: probably Jamiel needs to start anew explaining first how to pronounce his name. ‘J’ is like ‘Jeopardy’ in English and Jamiel means ‘beautiful’ in Arabic, would that be helpful?