08.03.2017

Syrian Women in Berlin: We feel like we are Living in a Large Prison

Nisren Habib on the sexualized violence in mass-accommodation facilities, refugee women's concerns and possibilities of fostering integration.

Nisren Habib is researching the situation of Syrian refugee women in Berlin at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. She is a network and operating technology engineer by training with a diploma in women's studies and has worked as a refugee advocate in Lebanon. She currently lives in Berlin. She presented her findings at the FES Congress on Integration and spoke about it in an interview with the WZB. We spoke to Nisren Habib about which gender-specific problems refugee women face, which issues move them and which measures could be adopted in order to support them.

 

FES: Which factors have to be taken into consideration in Germany in order to support Syrian women's integration?

Nisren Habib: First, I would like to point out that I have spoken to 46 Syrian refugee women in Berlin for my research project, so my conclusions only refer to this particular group. There are two parties involved in the integration of Syrian women: the women themselves and German society. Integration cannot be achieved by one side alone. All Syrians urgently need language and integration classes so that they can quickly play a part in their new environment. But classes alone are not enough. Many Syrians, particularly those that came here within the last two years, are caught in transitional situations where they find themselves living in emergency shelters and initial reception centers with an unresolved residence status. Most have difficulties finding an apartment. Others are waiting for a decision on their residence status. For many, the most urgent question is what will happen to the families they left behind.

Most women you talked to live in one of the large mass accommodation facilities in Berlin. Which gender-specific problems are they struggling with there?

For these Syrian refugee women, the biggest challenge is living in such a place for six to 18 months or even longer. There is no privacy, either for them as human beings or as women. Some live in gymnasiums or small cubicles that are only separated by some fabric. Others live in communal rooms or rooms they cannot lock. The communal bathrooms and kitchens make many women feel like they are living in a large prison. Some experience sexual harassment partly by other refugees, partly by employees of the organizations in charge of running the institutions.

Another important aspect is that new communities evolve in these institutions which are “neither Syrian nor German.” In these communities, many women feel like they are under permanent surveillance. They feel that they have to behave in a certain way, not because they really want to, but so that they are not constantly judged. They do not feel like they are in a place in which men and women have equal rights and where they can do what they like.

At the same time, the women are limited in their contact with German society and only interact with security guards, social workers and sometimes volunteers. At times these interactions foster negative images of both German and Syrian society simply because such situations can be tense.  

FES: Which factors have to be taken into consideration in Germany in order to support Syrian women's integration?

Nisren Habib: First, I would like to point out that I have spoken to 46 Syrian refugee women in Berlin for my research project, so my conclusions only refer to this particular group. There are two parties involved in the integration of Syrian women: the women themselves and German society. Integration cannot be achieved by one side alone. All Syrians urgently need language and integration classes so that they can quickly play a part in their new environment. But classes alone are not enough. Many Syrians, particularly those that came here within the last two years, are caught in transitional situations where they find themselves living in emergency shelters and initial reception centers with an unresolved residence status. Most have difficulties finding an apartment. Others are waiting for a decision on their residence status. For many, the most urgent question is what will happen to the families they left behind.

Most women you talked to live in one of the large mass accommodation facilities in Berlin. Which gender-specific problems are they struggling with there?

For these Syrian refugee women, the biggest challenge is living in such a place for six to 18 months or even longer. There is no privacy, either for them as human beings or as women. Some live in gymnasiums or small cubicles that are only separated by some fabric. Others live in communal rooms or rooms they cannot lock. The communal bathrooms and kitchens make many women feel like they are living in a large prison. Some experience sexual harassment partly by other refugees, partly by employees of the organizations in charge of running the institutions.

Another important aspect is that new communities evolve in these institutions which are “neither Syrian nor German.” In these communities, many women feel like they are under permanent surveillance. They feel that they have to behave in a certain way, not because they really want to, but so that they are not constantly judged. They do not feel like they are in a place in which men and women have equal rights and where they can do what they like.

At the same time, the women are limited in their contact with German society and only interact with security guards, social workers and sometimes volunteers. At times these interactions foster negative images of both German and Syrian society simply because such situations can be tense.  

FES: Which factors have to be taken into consideration in Germany in order to support Syrian women's integration?

Nisren Habib: First, I would like to point out that I have spoken to 46 Syrian refugee women in Berlin for my research project, so my conclusions only refer to this particular group. There are two parties involved in the integration of Syrian women: the women themselves and German society. Integration cannot be achieved by one side alone. All Syrians urgently need language and integration classes so that they can quickly play a part in their new environment. But classes alone are not enough. Many Syrians, particularly those that came here within the last two years, are caught in transitional situations where they find themselves living in emergency shelters and initial reception centers with an unresolved residence status. Most have difficulties finding an apartment. Others are waiting for a decision on their residence status. For many, the most urgent question is what will happen to the families they left behind.

Most women you talked to live in one of the large mass accommodation facilities in Berlin. Which gender-specific problems are they struggling with there?

For these Syrian refugee women, the biggest challenge is living in such a place for six to 18 months or even longer. There is no privacy, either for them as human beings or as women. Some live in gymnasiums or small cubicles that are only separated by some fabric. Others live in communal rooms or rooms they cannot lock. The communal bathrooms and kitchens make many women feel like they are living in a large prison. Some experience sexual harassment partly by other refugees, partly by employees of the organizations in charge of running the institutions.

Another important aspect is that new communities evolve in these institutions which are “neither Syrian nor German.” In these communities, many women feel like they are under permanent surveillance. They feel that they have to behave in a certain way, not because they really want to, but so that they are not constantly judged. They do not feel like they are in a place in which men and women have equal rights and where they can do what they like.

At the same time, the women are limited in their contact with German society and only interact with security guards, social workers and sometimes volunteers. At times these interactions foster negative images of both German and Syrian society simply because such situations can be tense.  

About half of the questioned women are single, the other half married. Only a few are either divorced or married but in Berlin without their husband. Do you believe that their marital statuses and gender relations within their marriages play a role when it comes to integration?

Yes, I believe they do, but it depends on which group the woman belongs to. Single women desperately want to start their new life, find an apartment, work or further their education. This is true especially if they have to send money back home to relatives they had to leave behind in Syria until they can be reunified. Many single women struggle with feelings of guilt because they are not able to bring over their families – who are living in extremely dangerous conditions – while the women themselves are safe in Berlin. Many married women who had to leave their husbands behind, have to take care of children who are further traumatized by the separation from their father and sometimes siblings. When asked about their future plans, these women always reply: “Move into an apartment and begin family reunification proceedings.” However, this is very difficult due to a new regulation that grants Syrian refugees protection for one year but does not grant the right to family reunification during this time.

Your research suggests that there are some measures to increase the likelihood that Syrian women integrate well into German society. What are your most important suggestions?

The conditions in which asylum seekers are received in Berlin can sometimes have a negative impact on the possibilities and motivation of these women to integrate into German society. To ensure a strong start to the integration process, it is vital to limit their stay in emergency shelters and initial reception centers, as well as speed up the placement into actual apartments in Berlin. Until then, the facilities have to be better supervised so that sexual harassment and the invasion of privacy are prevented. This would help all the women there, not just the Syrian ones.

Further, the psychosocial support for Syrian refugees should be redesigned to be more participatory. This would undoubtedly lead to better results, give refugees the feeling that they are understood and respected and motivate them to become more active and think less negatively.

While there are German volunteers that support particularly the Syrian women, they cannot always be there for them. Sometimes these volunteers are the only ones who are there for the women at all. This can lead to difficult dependencies in which the volunteers unconsciously interfere in the women's lives. Therefore, I strongly advocate for thought-out programs and activities in which Berlin as a whole – women, men, youths and children – can interact with the Syrian refugees. This can help to reduce the prejudice on both sides and could lead to more positive, mutual relationships.

nach oben