By Noura Kamal
People need much effort to cope with unstable social environments and to get used to changes in their surroundings. But what if individuals were forced to leave their homeland? How will they be able to adapt to the circumstances they face in societies in which they may not even know the language?
War is among the main causes of displacement world-wide. As Edna Lomsky-Feder explains, “The personal memory of war is not homogeneous but, rather, multicolored: Some remember the war as a traumatic experience and others as a heroic event; some recall it as an experience that obstructs personal development, and others as an empowering and fortifying one” (Lomsky-Feder 2004, p. 82). That is, each individual has his/her own way of dealing with crises, and of telling their story. Particularly among refugees, these diverse expressions, or narratives, can provide us with countless aspects of human behavior during crises and in their aftermath. How asylum seekers cope with distress in their new place of living features prominently in the responses of a sample of Syrian interviewees.
As researchers, we must be careful when we reflect upon their stories. However, trying to look deeper into their narratives, highlighting certain aspects in detriment of others, can reveal important aspects of human lives, not least about how people confront the challenges of a journey in search of peace and dignity. But how do asylum seekers cope with war and flight?
In my contribution to the book entitled “From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna”, I analyzed fifteen narrations by Syrians of different generations and affiliations to reflect upon the asylum seekers’ experiences of exile. While these narratives vary in expression, they also feature common themes. Most importantly, they express how hard the interviewed Syrians tried to be part of Viennese society and adapt to the obstacles they face in this new context. For many, voluntary work was the first step to overcome the idea that they are asylum seekers and prove for themselves that they can integrate and be part of the local Viennese society. Nonetheless, trying to be independent financially or achieving their personal satisfaction by continuing their education was also a vital aim for many in the sample. For many asylum seekers their self-confidence hinges on their ability to control their own lives and to contribute to the new environment. They much preferred to be productive members of their new society rather than being passive individuals. However, the income generated by regular work means they would lose the social welfare money. Sometimes this is not doable for members of large families, since the working family members’ salary cannot not provide for the whole family. If a man, for example, starts working, his wife and children at working age will stop receiving social benefits. Given this obstacle, they decided to contribute to their integration by engaging in social voluntary work. Many assisted in taking care of new asylum seekers arriving at the main stations in Vienna, such as Hauptbahnhof and Westbahnhof. But there were other forms of engagement as well. Thus a man in his mid-forties explained that during the process of looking for a job he had worked carrying wood for two months.
Despite the Syrian asylum seekers’ efforts to integrate into the new society, their experience of flight and exile affected their well-being. As Allen Feldman states: “There is no doubt that memories of the past say a great deal about people’s attitudes in and towards the present” (Feldman 2006, p. 15). Both men and women tried to find their way to a future that could give them hope and peace. The individual narratives showed that the personal relations and the background of each individual had a strong influence on how they adapted. Their political inclinations likewise affected their ability to cope with their suffering. The narratives reflected the impact of their social and political situation. Not all the asylum seekers from Syria faced the same hardships, whether during the war, or through their journey to Europe. It was easier for an individual with a wide range of relations beyond Syria to come to Vienna than it was for those who had no relations outside of Syria. In addition, political affiliations influenced the amount of support an asylum seeker received in adapting to the new circumstances. Finally, wealthy individuals found their way to Europe faster and easier than those who had a precarious income. It was noticeable from the interviews that traumatic experiences influenced how the Syrian asylum seekers communicated with strangers. Apparently, fear of others belonging to another religion made it harder for them to develop new relations.
The brief answers a married woman with five daughters gave during the interview reflect her fear of being open. This especially came to light at the end of the interview, when she said that, even in Austria, she was afraid of telling others that she is Yezidi. Her brief answers may be understood in the light of David Morris’ words that: “the silence of suffering also points to very practical breakdowns of speech (…) the voicelessness of suffering often resembles the quiet retreat of people who live with chronic pain” (Morris 1997, p. 28).
However, in spite of their fears, the persons interviewed asserted strong agency. They were dealing with their experiences and reflecting upon them with a positive attitude. Regardless of their different affiliations, social belongings and social standing, Syrians asylum seekers found in Austria a good place to start over, especially the members of the younger generation, who hope to continue their education or to be part of the labor force, and thus want to contribute to their new society. But the members of the older generation found it hard to move forward. An elderly woman said that if the war in Syria came to an end she would definitely return. At the same time, she emphasized that her children would be free to choose their own path.
Feldman A. (2006), Home as a Refrain: Remembering and Living Displacement in Gaza. In: History and Memory, Special Issue: Home and Beyond, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 10-47.
Lomsky-Feder E. (2004), Life Stories, War, and Veterans: On the Social Distribution of Memories. In: Ethos, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 82-109.
Morris D. (1997), About Suffering: Voice, Genre, and Moral Community. In: Kleinman, A., Das V. and Lock M. (eds.): Social Suffering, Berkeley, University of California Press, pp. 25-45.
Noura Kamal is a social anthropologist and researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences Institute for Social Anthropology. She is a doctor in social and cultural anthropology (University of Vienna). Her thesis discusses the scope of agency in Nablus/Palestine under immediate siege and under regular Israeli occupation. Her current research focuses on the Yemeni post-1962 intellectual discourse regarding changes in the perception and understanding of tribes and tribalism in northern Yemen.