Given the shocking results of Tuesday’s U.S. Presidential election, I wanted to chime in to share my brief experience of being an immigrant in Germany. It seems many of my fellow Americans either don’t value or have forgotten about the importance immigrants have always played in our country from military service to many of the modern innovations we often take for granted. We also don’t seem to appreciate how difficult it is to relocate to a foreign country from linguistic and cultural differences to the loneliness and isolation.
I’m not writing this to shame Trump supporters. I get that they’re people, too, who are probably perfectly decent, civil people. They like apple pie and fireworks as much as the next American. As true as that all may be, there’s no getting around the fact that they clearly valued their grievances more than the lives of millions of immigrants, Latin Americans, Muslim Americans, African-Americans, other peoples of color, and women—all of whom are at the top of President-elect Trump’s pecking order. I get being pissed about job loss and feeling like my voice isn’t being heard by a broken, corrupt political structure, but we shouldn’t be willing to upend the whole thing at the expense of millions of other Americans whose very lives and safety are on the line.
Let me state clearly and early on that I am very cognizant of the fact that I am a privileged immigrant. Yes, I came to Germany in large part to create a better life for myself and my family just as so many others who have made the journey to the United States (and those who continue to do so despite increasingly unwelcoming circumstances)—but it was not out of necessity. Nobody was going to kill me for having a dissenting political opinion nor was I scrounging to get by. I went from the height of the U.S. American privilege structure (being a white male) to basically the most privileged of immigrant experiences.
Still, I’ve gotten a little taste of what I’m sure immigrants to the United States must experience, and I feel somewhat compelled to share them as my small way of hopefully contributing to a positive dialogue surrounding the issue of immigration given that an openly xenophobic man who courted racist pulses within the country was just elected to arguably the most powerful position in the world. I’ve gone ahead and punctuated them with bolded subheads, so those who have skipped this rather long introduction full of run on sentences can still get the picture.
German, as I’m sure you’re aware, is not an easy language. Some, Germans and Americans alike, have brushed off the need for German language skills because “almost everyone speaks English.” This, I quickly discovered, is not true. Germans do possess greatly superior language skills than the average U.S. American, but that doesn’t make English the functioning language of day-to-day life. If you’re here on vacation, then you’ll be fine.
But life is not a vacation (which I realize sounds like the beginning to some unbearable inspirational poster), and I want to feel like I belong here just as so many immigrants to the United States do. I’ve needed to speak German in my many immigration-related appointments, my bills are in German, and the various notices I receive in the mail are in German. In fact, I just got something in the mail about a “Schneeplan” or “snow plan” that I’m still trying to figure out. Tomorrow, I’m off to extend my visa and have had to arrange a native German speaker to accompany me to, and I’m guessing here, make sure I don’t try to tell them I’m curious about something and instead mistakenly say, “Ich bin kurios” or “I’m odd.” (To be fair, that’s probably true, just not entirely relevant to the appointment.)
Luckily I’ve been mostly able to get by only because there are a plethora of language learning applications that I was able to access prior to moving to Germany. I’m also enrolled in a German course. Of course, access to those applications and the course required either money or English as a first language, because I’ve learned and am learning German based off English language skills. This is partly what I meant earlier about being a privileged immigrant. Methinks it’s a bit more difficult to learn English coming from an Arabic speaking background.
I want to be careful here, because some have used “cultural differences” as thinly veiled xenophobic reasoning not to allow immigrants.
“They have a different religion, speak a different language, and have a different culture. They just won’t fit in here and we wouldn’t want to do that to them!”
That’s dumb. Dumb, dumb, stupid, dumb.
Still, I don’t want to discount the difficulties of living within a different culture than your own. I’m only discounting that it’s reason enough to ban immigrants.
Germans, in general, are more direct than Americans. They won’t say, “Have you tried this?” or subtly make a suggestion. They’ll say, “Here. Do this. This is better.” It’s also more difficult to break into social circles. Not everyone you meet is a friend like in the States. The word “friend” is overused in German eyes. A friend in Germany is truly someone you consider to be very close and someone you would go to with an emergency or to confide in. Based on that criteria, I can count on one hand the “friends” I have in the States and that didn’t happen overnight.
Now imagine being from Mexico, Central America, Somalia, or Syria. You’re not only looking to bridge cultural differences, but you’re also still struggling with the memories of the possibly difficult life you left behind. (Privileged immigrant alert, this is not something with which I struggled. I have mostly happy memories from Cleveland and my family is perfectly safe.) In order to bridge those cultural differences, you need language skills, and for that I refer you back to the first subhead.
While Germany has largely been applauded for its welcoming attitude toward Syrian refugees and other immigrants (perhaps making up for being on the other side in the 20th Century), I won’t pretend the country is without its own contingent of populist, xenophobic rhetoric. My understanding is still limited, but it seems Chancellor Merkel’s open arms have given rise to the far-right Alternativ Für Deutschland, whose stance on refugees and immigrants appear to match closely with that of the President-elect of the United States.
(Side note, I can anecdotally share that Germans on the whole are incredibly warm and welcoming to both privileged immigrants like myself and refugees. I walk by a sign every morning with information on how to help Syrian refugees.)
It’s weird to hear some of the things said about immigrants and refugees while being an immigrant yourself. Of course, and here’s another privileged immigrant alert, I know they’re not talking about me. They’re talking about people who don’t look like them, and this is true outside of Germany as well. I remember a scene in Bill Bryson’s The Road To Little Dribbling in which he describes a conversation with a friend who lamented a perceived influx of immigrants to the United Kingdom.
“I’m an immigrant, too,” Bryson reminded him.
“You’re different!” was the gist of the response, and we of course know what that means.
Now let’s imagine you are the immigrant these far-right camps are talking about. You’ve risked your life to travel thousands of miles, sometimes across the globe, to create a safe and relatively stable existence for yourself and your family. You’ve taken steps to learn the language and bridge cultural divides in order to fit in as much as possible. You’ve committed yourself to your new country.
Then, just as you’re starting to get a grasp on the language, some of the first words you begin to understand is that you’re not as welcomed as you thought. I won’t pretend to know what’s going through the hearts and minds of those who have learned just enough English to understand that the President-elect of their new country wants to, as he has said repeatedly, “round them up.” I can only imagine that it’s heart-breaking and terrifying.
At least in Germany we have a leader who appears resolute and committed to a globalized, multi-cultural society, like President Obama. She’s also the only world leader who instead of offering fluff, boilerplate congratulations to the President-elect has, as The New York Times put it, “set conditions for cooperation.”
From Carol Giacomo’s piece:
“Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views,” she said in a statement, adding: “I offer the next President of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values.”
Immigrants tend to primarily relocate to urban areas, whether it’s in the United States or here in Germany. Unsurprisingly, it seems pretty clear through electoral maps that people within urban areas voted in favor of their immigrant neighbors. So there’s that silver lining.
Still, there’s clearly a disconnect between those urban areas and rural/suburban areas that voted for a man whose only editorial endorsements came from the National Enquirer and the Ku Klux Klan. I’m sure this piece will simply reverberate around the echo chamber of people who already agree with me and see the value in immigrants. If that’s the case, then I hope you can go one step further and actively work to make immigrants in your community feel at home, now more than ever.
In Cleveland, where I last lived in the States, there are organizations like The Refugee Response (once featured on Without A Path) and campaigns like the Cleveland Refugee Bike Project, which is currently fundraising to provide bikes and bike training to refugees. (You should donate if you can. They still need $3,293 as of this writing.)
Find out what organizations are available in your area and do what you can to help. Even if your hearts and minds are already with immigrants, we clearly haven’t done enough to help them—myself 100 percent included.