The cultural challenges of the Syrian refugee crisis

Nervana Mahmoud
Thursday 17 Sep 2015

Beyond the dangers of arriving to safety, refugees face ongoing challenges that can come to define their lives, centred around their integration into, or alienation from, their new host societies

When refugees embark on the dangerous, often deadly, trip towards Europe, many of them are consciously aware that the price of settling in the Western world will include accepting different laws and ways of life.

The challenge of cultural differences, however, may not be a pressing issue for those desperate to survive the savagery of war zones.

Nonetheless, it is an essential part of what will shape their future success in their adoptive countries. Without a brave and honest assessment of the question of culture, those “lucky” refugees may not just be potential victims of racism and hatred; they could face an unsettling, unhappy future.

Historically, the dynamic of cultural expectations has always been reduced by both sides, the new settlers and the welcoming nations, to a few shallow cultural differences over relatively trivial aspects such as food habits and the exposure or concealment of women’s flesh. It is not.

The cultural divide involves far deeper issues, ranging from the subtlety of body language and eye contact to more overt actions, such as engaging with the local community and developing a sense of belonging.

“Miss Mahmoud, you are now a registered alien,” the female police officer with a masked face told me after giving me my police registration certificate. I was not a refugee or an asylum seeker. Still, I had to register with the police like all foreigners in the United Kingdom.

For months afterwards, the word “alien” preoccupied my thoughts. Although I was told it is a legal term that has nothing to do with ethnic, cultural, or religious differences, I still could not help but wonder how alien I would be in Britain.

I have always considered myself an Anglophile. I learned English at a very young age, read Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, W Somerset Maugham, and the Brontë family, and have listened to the BBC service religiously since my teenage years. None of these experiences has made my settlement in England easier.

Living in a country is a completely different experience than just reading a few books and watching a few programmes. Yes, I was alien, and I found England an alien place.

This sense of alienation eased off gradually, but only because I refused to remain alien. That does not mean I betrayed my native values and faith. Far from it, but I learned to weave them smoothly within the new fabric of my new society.

It is paramount to understand that the reasons and circumstances that compel anyone to move to a new country will only have short-term impacts on his/her future.

Those reasons will gradually become irrelevant to future success or failure; a part of the narratives that will always be recited in the past tense. The language barrier will also be solved in time.

The core issue for long-term survival and success, however, is the degree of alienation an immigrant feels in his/her newly adoptive community, and what he/she is willing to do to minimise it.

For every newcomer, the challenge is to strike a delicate balance between his/her own culture and the one of the adoptive country. This balance is tricky and may be difficult to achieve, but it is rewarding and offers long-term dividends.

First, it is important to understand that culture has never been a static phenomenon. The customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society are constantly changing.

Historically, Muslims in Andalucía were more cosmopolitan and more culturally open than other Muslim societies. In the modern era, cultures vary considerably in many Muslim countries. Customs and ways of life in Pakistan are different to those in Egypt, and both are different to the customs in Yemen, and so on. Even within the same countries, cultures have changed remarkably in recent decades.

The Middle East experienced a liberal era in the middle of the 20th century. For example, at the time, it was perfectly acceptable in many Muslim countries for women to uncover their hair, wear swimming costumes, and ride bikes.

Understanding the chronology of cultural diversity of one’s native country is the first step towards success in any host nation, as it protects against resenting or dismissing the local culture.

Second, there are big differences between Islam as a faith and Islam as a culture. Every Muslim society has its own traditions that some people wrongly consider as part of the faith.

For example, many male Muslims refuse to shake the hands of women (and vice versa). However, it is well known that Imam Abu-Hanifa, one of the founders of Islamic jurisdiction, sanctioned handshaking between men and women. Such a basic human greeting can build bridges between settling refugees and their local neighbours.

One article recounts the feelings of a female Syrian refugee in Brazil who has to explain why she doesn’t shake hands so people won’t get upset. Clearly, the practice is not right for her. The woman also feels awkward at the Brazilian tendency to hug each other. She admits that her greatest lament is loneliness.

This is not surprising, for if someone opts to embrace the strictest interpretation of Islam instead of the most lenient one, then disengagement from society and loneliness will indeed follow.

Islam as a faith has many liberal aspects that can help Muslims settling in Europe. It accepts diversity, welcomes non-Muslims, and tolerates non-practicing Muslims.

That was once the norm in many former Muslim societies, in Baghdad and Cordoba, and should be reinvigorated now among those newcomers to Europe.

Third, Muslims do not have to drink alcohol, eat pork, or change their dress code to fit in with the local community. Attitude is the core issue; not faith-related issues.

Another interesting story, this time from America, concerns a Muslim flight attendant who was suspended “for refusing to serve alcohol.” Charee Stanley, a Detroit-based flight attendant for ExpressJet, who filed a discrimination complaint, was not an immigrant, but a recent convert to Islam. Any newcomer to a Western country desperate to find a job could land up in a similar dilemma if the job involved serving alcohol.

The problem here is the flight attendant’s wrong expectations: she expected her colleagues to accept the extra work burden. Although the Muslim flight attendant had every right to refuse to serve alcohol, she should have sought a different job that did not include serving alcohol, instead of expecting her colleagues to bail her out.

It may be fair to describe those refugees who have been warmly welcomed in Germany as “lucky.” After all, they survived deadly cross-continental journeys to reach their destination. Nonetheless, this luck will not last, unless it is coupled with genuine efforts by them and their adoptive countries to help their integration in their local societies. Some of those refugees may try to “transplant” their native culture into their new homes and communities.

That approach may appear easier in the short term, but they will only achieve long-term success in their adoptive countries if they accept culture as a dynamic, evolving concept, and dig deeper within their faith for more liberal values that helped their ancestors to flourish in old Western communities such as Andalusia. Dogma and myopic conservatism will not help the refugees settling in Europe.

The writer is a doctor, commentator and writer on Middle East issues.You can follow her on twitter @Nervana_1

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