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Since 2022, Social Science Works has published a large number of interviews with refugees in Germany. There were several motives for conducting these interviews. By learning more about the newcomers’ backgrounds, we hoped to help improve policies related to migration and integration. Knowledge of social, economic and political conditions in the home country and the motivations for leaving it could help distinguish between migrants and refugees, or provide insight into how difficult this distinction is to make. Knowledge of, among other things, education received, professions practiced, flight experiences, asylum procedure, accommodation, physical and mental health, discrimination faced, language education and integration courses in Germany could speed up integration.
In addition, an important motivation behind the interviews was to give newcomers a face, enable empathy and refute prejudice. Refugees around the world increasingly encounter discrimination, xenophobia and barbed wire. In the Western world, there is a direct link between the popularity of right-wing populist parties and perceived numbers of asylum seekers. By telling their story, we hoped it would make it easier for people to empathize with their position, develop understanding and reduce fears.
Were we successful in this effort? What (numbers of) people took note of the interviews? What could explain the indifference of many? An interim assessment.
The omnipresence of stories and storytellers
People like to tell stories. As a result, our culture is largely made up of storytelling. This is true of literature, the arts, science, film, radio and television, and social media. The news too is to a great extent made up of stories – a new episode in the gripping war between Russia and Ukraine; a new chapter in the riveting court case between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard; tensions, particularly personnel tensions, between the coalition parties as a result of differing preferences regarding tax relief.
A glance in a program guide for any given television night or for the offerings on Netflix, Disney, or Amazon (people spend most of their free time watching screens) reveals, that most of the programs are similarly composed of stories: Who committed the murder? Do the protagonists end up getting each other? Does the leading character finally reach his or her goal, having first overcome many barriers and setbacks? The ending is usually known, and the narratives usually proceed in very predictable ways. Nevertheless, we can’t get enough of them.
The need for stories is also psychologically essential. Almost everyone tries to make of his life a coherent and logical story, one in which all events are ultimately understandable, were in some sense inevitable and make sense. Events that do not fit into this are forgotten or reinterpreted, from the perspective of one’s carefully constructed personal story. A story provides an interpretive framework, harmony, unity, peace and an implicit justification: given everything that happened before, history could not really have happened any other way.
Given people’s fondness for storytelling, one might expect that the interviews with refugees that we published (both in German and English, and regularly as well in French and Farsi) on our website could count on a very large readership. The stories of those involved about their previous lives, the flight and long journey to Germany, their experiences in this country, their struggles to build a new life, are drawn from life, regularly exciting and not devoid of drama. They also teach us a lot about the human condition: what do people see as a good life, what are they willing to do to achieve it, what setbacks do we face in life?
Interest in interviews with refugees in German- and English-speaking countries
Although interest in the interviews continues to grow, so far this interest, in particular in Germany, has been somewhat disappointing. A single interview had more than four hundred readers, but the average number of people who opened an interview on our website did not exceed about two hundred worldwide. The overwhelming majority of these readers, website visitor statistics tell us, also did not come from Germany and certainly not from Brandenburg or Teltow-Fläming, the state and region where the interviews were conducted.
Before people can proceed to read a story, of course, they must first know of its existence. To this end, the interviews were first publicized (organically and, in Germany, through paid advertisements) on Facebook. This was done on our own page with more than 1,200 followers, as well as on those of pages of various organizations working for integration.[i] In addition, we used Twitter (Social Science Works has 1,800 followers) and Instagram (250 followers). The largest regional newspaper in Brandenburg, the Märkische Allgemeine Zeitung, also devoted coverage to the interviews on our website. In addition, German citizens, concerned officials, social workers, volunteers and refugees were made aware of the interviews in person, via email, in workshops and lectures. Finally, our website has on average about 500 visitors per week. These are mostly looking for other information, but are made aware of the interviews in various places on the website.
Hence, despite all these attempts to reach readers, we have found that interest in refugee stories is small. Even those people who might be (or perhaps should be) professionally interested have rarely, if ever, bothered to learn about their clients’ backgrounds through the interviews. One can think of the people working in Teltow-Fläming or Brandenburg at the Social Welfare Office, the Foreigners’ Office, the Job Center, the Labor Office and the regional government or the social workers at the asylum seekers’ centers, the municipal coordinators of integration efforts or the volunteer organizations.
Some data may illustrate this. Since 2022, our English-language website page “Interviews with refugees” has had 3039 visitors. The same page on the German part of our website (Gespräche mit Neuankömmlingen) attracted only 170 visitors in the same period, 5.6% of the number of English-language visitors. We see this pattern again with regard to the individual interviews. For example, the interview with Almar from Afghanistan was viewed by 345 people in English and only by 14 people in German (4%). The interview with Hamdiya from Iran, one of the most impressive interviews we conducted, had 279 visitors in English and just 7 in German (2.5%). The story of the Syrian architect Yagout, the first interview we published, was seen by 244 English and 40 German speakers (16%). The English interview with Nduka from Biafra had 164 readers, the German translation only one.
A large proportion of our readers are from the United States. Several American high school teachers appear to be using the interviews in their civics education. Students are asked to read one or more interviews and comment on them. In Serbia and Croatia, students at a drama school are using interviews to create a play through which they hope to generate more attention and empathy for the plight of refugees. Hamdiya’s story captures the imagination par excellence. There are also readers in countries like Ghana, Nigeria and Pakistan. Hopefully, through the interviews they will orient themselves to life in Germany, a life that is considerably less rosy than is often presented to them by stakeholders (see Blokland 2023: 206ff).
Still, interest in Germany and in Brandenburg in the backgrounds of the new arrivals is thus very limited. There are, of course, important exceptions. Ms. Antje Lüdde wrote as a comment on one of our interviews: “I have been involved in refugee assistance for a few years now and try to take care of our refugees. I am well acquainted with some of them. Nevertheless, I found your contribution very interesting. There is a big difference between learning together and drinking coffee, and reading an interview like this. You learn a lot more about the “inner life” of the people. Thank you very much for this and all the best for your future!”
Mrs. Lüdde’s country and regional peers could have read the interviews for exactly the reason she points out: to get an impression of the backgrounds of the people they teach German, provide benefits, mediate on the job market, provide temporary housing, or grant housing, work or residence permits. Perhaps they could perform their work more successfully, or at least with (even) more empathy, if they knew better the histories, problems, motivations, ambitions of the clients.
Even ordinary citizens who suddenly run into people in their street, at the bakery and in the supermarket who are patently “not from here” might be motivated to read about the backgrounds of these strangers. Perhaps not out of empathy or genuine interest, but at least out of curiosity. After all, one of the main drives of the human species is this very curiosity. The fact is, however, that the ups and downs of refugees leave most people virtually indifferent. This also seems to be true for many paid workers in the migration and integration sector. As we found out in our research in Brandenburg, not surprisingly many of them have to clue whatsoever who these people are at the other side of their counters or on their computer screens.
How to explain the indifference towards refugees?
How can this indifference be explained? For the professionals, in the first place, it may have to do with self-protection. Several officials told us they did not want to know too much about their clients, because that would make it harder to take decisions, especially when they needed to be tough. They also did not want to take problems home. The officials could assume that the situation of refugees was regularly distressing, and they chose to shield themselves from it for fear of the psychological strain it could bring.
This need for self-protection is understandable and legitimate. Everybody working in the social sector struggles with this issue. Yet finding a balance seems desirable. At one extreme is the civil servant or social worker who cares so much about the fate of his clients that, constantly overwhelmed by strong emotions, he can no longer do his job. The same emotions can make it impossible for him to treat clients with similar backgrounds equally, as required by law and regulations. At the other extreme are the officials who took part in the Wannsee-Konferenz and who, already by horribly adapting their use of language, together grandly succeeded in avoiding any possible empathy with their victims.[ii]
Different individuals, groups and cultures are at different positions on the above spectrum. Different organizational structures and cultures allow for different degrees of self-responsibility and empathy: the more bureaucratic and hierarchical, the more likely, on the one hand, that the same rules will be applied to everyone, and the easier, on the other hand, it becomes to let the suffering of others slide from one’s mind: I only apply the rules, I can’t do otherwise.
English political philosopher Norman Geras has also dealt with the theme of indifference in his The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy after the Holocaust (1998). In doing so, he focuses on the Holocaust. Needless to say, the fate of the Jews is in no way comparable to that of refugees in Europe or America. Refugees are not systematically persecuted and killed. Within the European Union, there is no state-supported and transposed ideology that qualifies refugees as inferior beings. The Holocaust is further one of the explanations for why Germany has been relatively benevolent in accepting refugees. The theme, however, is the indifference many can bring up to the fate of others. If it was already possible to be indifferent to the fate of Jews, how much compassion can refugees expect?
A shocking and intolerable fact of the mass murder of the Jews, Geras argues, is that so many did not want to know and so many wanted to forget as quickly as possible. While people were taken from their homes, taken down the streets, gathered in squares and platforms before being taken away, other people – neighbors, acquaintances, colleagues, friends – watched silently and, it seems, indifferently. Some, the testimonies of victims and onlookers reveal, hastily closed the shutters; others continued to water their flower boxes imperturbably and unmoved. Still others scolded and spat at the victims. And when the few survivors returned, they were ignored. This happened not only in Germany, but also in Poland, France, Hungary or the Netherlands.
How can we explain that people do not or rarely come to the aid of others in need? Geras fears that the answer lies in a contract that people have implicitly signed with each other, a contract of mutual indifference: we turn a blind eye to the misery of others, but we also absolve others of any obligation to help us, should we find ourselves in a similar situation. We do not help others, even if they are imprisoned, tortured, expelled from their homes, separated from their loved ones, even if they die of starvation, but neither will we count on them to come to our aid, should the same thing happen to us.
It is an unpleasant thought. However, anyone who brings to mind the horrors of our time, as well as the indifference of their spectators, will have difficulty suppressing it. “The state of affairs described by this contract of mutual indifference,” judges Geras, “is close enough to the actual state of affairs in our world as to portray accurately the relations generally prevailing between most of the people in it” (1998: 29).
One might object that a few can do little against the atrocities, that they take place in places too far away, that the injustices in question are too much an institutionalized part of a whole that can hardly be influenced, if at all. Geras is not convinced: people can each do small things that together and in the longer term can make a big difference. Individual protests also invite the protest of others, “while conversely silence, unconcern, complicity and the like feed upon themselves, they feed the same dispositions in others” (1998: 30).
Another objection Geras addresses is that indifference is not always the result of informed and conscious choices. People often do not know what happens or has happened to others. If one is ignorant of the misery of others, then one cannot be held responsible for one’s own inertia either. Geras, however, wonders how people today can hide behind a lack of information. Evidence of human suffering reaches us daily from all sides. Not knowing about it must be the result of choosing not to want to know.[iii] Similarly, many knew enough about the deportations of Jews, Roma, Sinti, homosexuals, the disabled, and others to decide not to ask any next questions.
One may further object that actively offering help requires too much of people’s solidarity. Perhaps we should be content with a liberal principle of non-intervention. Much is already gained when people leave each other alone. Geras, however, thinks this is a false contradiction. Not only positive but also negative rights lose their meaning through the contract of mutual indifference. After all, the right to non-intervention, to having a private domain in which one can do what is in one’s power, only acquires practical meaning when others come to one’s aid when this right is violated. If we do not come to the aid of others when they are imprisoned without trial, when they are expelled from their land, or when, through no fault of their own, they cannot build their own existence, can we still expect others to come to our aid when the same thing happens to us? When we do not protect the rights of others, we ourselves have no rights. When we do not feel morally obliged to assist those in need, we lose our own rights, argues Geras (1998: 40).
Nevertheless, Geras sees some bright spots. The contract can be qualified. First, there undeniably exist individuals who are sacrificing for others or devoting at least a non-negligible portion of their time and energy to alleviating the suffering of others. In no way does he wish to deny or belittle the, sometimes heroic, efforts and sacrifices of these people. On the contrary, each of these should be celebrated and exemplified.
Second, we should not ignore people’s circumstances. Some are more in a position to help, than others, and for this reason it may be more expected and asked of them. And societal structures and processes may promote indifference or, on the contrary, benevolence.
Overall, Geras derives hope from the fact that people who do not help regularly suffer from shame and remorse, even when they have absolutely nothing to blame. Italian author Primo Levi, for example, described in The Drowned and the Saved (1986) how much shame assailed him every time he was forced to watch others being tortured and murdered in Auschwitz. He felt shame, he thinks, because the crime was irrevocably chiseled into reality and because his will proved powerless to prevent it. Who or what inspires this shame is not of primary importance. It is there. Similarly, those who came to the aid of others during the war often explained their behavior with the simple observation: what else was I supposed to do? I felt addressed and responsible. So, I really had no choice (De Valk 1989).
In this spirit, one of the volunteers in Teltow-Fläming wrote an open letter to the refugees who came to his hometown in large numbers in 2015. He helped them with language lessons, with filling out endless forms from bureaucratic institutions, finding work or schools, shopping, visiting doctors and so on. In his letter he tries to explain why he does all this. He writes: “I am not a Christian, a Sunni, a Shiite, a Yezidi or an Alewit, a Jew or a Buddhist, a Hindu, or other adherent of any religion. It doesn’t matter to me if you belong to one of the different religions or by whom you are persecuted politically, religiously, or whatever. Furthermore, I am not interested in your political ideas about the world you want to live in. I am only aware that you are in a state of distress. Be it through religious or political persecution, war, civil war, or lack of economic perspective. You were or felt so threatened that you fled your countries. It is only for this reason that I help you.“[iv]
Blokland, Hans. 2021. Das Misstrauen der deutschen Bürger gegenüber den etablierten Medien und die Folgen für die Demokratie.
Blokland, Hans. 2023. Social media are useless for civic and political participation: experiences with a project in Germany.
Blokland, Hans. 2023. Migrationspolitik auf der Flucht: Erfahrungen von Neuankömmlingen mit Untätigkeit, Trägheit und Gleichgültigkeit. Bielefeld: Transcript.
Geras, Norman, 1998. The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy after the Holocaust. London & New York: Verso.
Levi, Primo. 1988. I sommersi e i salvati (The Drowned and the Saved, translation Raymond Rosenthal). New York: Simon and Schuster.
Valk, de Koos J.M. 1989. Ex oriente exemplum: over de herontdekking van waarden. In: Ilse Bulhof (ed.) Deugden in onze Tijd: Over de Mogelijkheid van een eigentijdse Deugdenethiek. Baarn: Ambo. Pp. 64-86.
[i] These are Facebook pages like that of Love Without Borders – For Refugees in Need (7.500 followers), Mit Herz für Flüchtlinge (7.200), Berlin Refugee Help (4.700), Helfen in Ludwigsfelde (159), and Potsdam Refugees Welcome (2.300).
[ii] At this meeting in February 1942, the Holocaust was bureaucratically organized. The academic background of most of the participants may have helped to find the right words. Of the 15 participants, eight had doctorates, six of them in law. Further, Bildung does not always seem to promote humanity, empathy or tolerance. Dr. George Leibbrandt (1899 – 1982), for example, studied theology, philosophy, history and economics in Tübingen, Marburg, Leipzig and London, and undertook study tours to Paris, London, Russia and the United States. He was considered a specialist in “Volkstumfragen” (issues connected with tradition, culture, folklore, values of a particular people), which explains his presence at the conference. In the 1950s he was, among other things, a valued advisor to Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (see the website of the “Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz” (https://www.ghwk.de/de). A confrontational, minutes-based docudrama about the Wannsee talks is Die Wannsee-Konferenz, directed by Matti Geschonnek and released in 2022.
[iii] It should be noted that many German citizens, especially in the former GDR, are difficult to reach with information. Distrust of the press and of knowledge holders from science, among others, is high (Blokland 2021). Newspapers and weekly magazines are relatively little read, public broadcasters hardly listened to. People spend a lot of time on social media, and the echo chambers in which they have locked themselves here make it relatively easy to cut themselves off from unwelcome information (Blokland 2023).
[iv] The letter was dated June 6, 2016, and was distributed to the refugees in his hometown.