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Ukraine war

Why didn’t Syrian refugees get the same welcome?

Today’s refugees from Ukraine have received an outstanding reception – why didn’t those fleeing Syria get the same help?

A volunteer helps Syrian refugees board a bus to temporary accommodation in Berlin, September 2015. But why has the broader reaction to Ukrainian refugees been so different in 2022? Photo: IMAGO / POP-EYE / Ben Kriemann

Five days after Russia invaded Ukraine, I bicycled to the Russian Embassy on Unter den Linden to see if any demonstrators had showed up. I’ve been inside the ostentatious building, working as an interpreter: it has a sweeping staircase, thick carpets and a general hush, oil portraits of dignitaries on the walls and low lighting – décor to impress and intimidate.

A couple hundred people held up signs in Russian, Ukrainian, German and English: “Hands off!” “Peace in Ukraine!” The following day, more than 100,000 people came together between Brandenburg Gate and the Siegessäule to protest against Russia’s war.

This war feels close. Not so much because of actual danger for Berlin, or even Putin’s nuclear threat. But because almost all of us in Germany have neighbours and acquaintances from Ukraine and Russia. Because a few days ago I walked by a poster in Mitte that read: “I own and run a Georgian restaurant. I am driving to the Ukrainian border again on Saturday with my transporter. I’m collecting the following items: …”

Poland serves as a geographical buffer between us and this country where civilian infrastructure is being indiscriminately destroyed. Most trains across Poland arrive first at Berlin’s Central Station, where volunteers, some with Ukrainian roots, work as greeters and interpreters, guiding new arrivals to food, drinking water and transport. The vast majority of people on these packed trains are now Ukrainian refugees. Berliners set out in their cars, driving the 900 kilometres to the Polish-Ukrainian border with clothing, food and offers of accommodation.

Although over 50 percent of the 2015 refugees are now gainfully employed, many are still stalled in their attempts to integrate into German society.

We’ve been here before. A Munich friend who opened her house last week to, in her words, a “little family from Odesa – mother, son (14), and doggie”, also got her teenaged kids involved in football games and singalong circles with teenage Syrian refugees in 2016.

As an American who has lived in Berlin for decades, I well remember the autumn of 2015, when over 900,000 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and other mostly Middle Eastern countries took shelter in Germany. My adopted country exhibited an astonishing “welcome culture”. But an ugly anti-immigrant backlash quickly followed, calling into question the wellsprings of generosity I’d observed around us.

The wave of help feels familiar. This time, however, politicians are offering tangible, “unbureaucratic” help – free transport on the BVG/Deutsche Bahn, a three-year right to stay in Germany, jobs, language courses, health insurance – help refugees desperately need. Although over 50 percent of the 2015 refugees are now gainfully employed, many are still stalled in their attempts to integrate into German society, “tolerated” but not explicitly supported.

The messages we hear about this particular group of refugees are different too – because these refugees are white, Christian, and almost exclusively women and children. The Minister of the Interior says: “We have war in the middle of Europe. What we need now is to save lives and help the women and children who have fled.”

Everywhere, there are undercurrents of racist rhetoric beneath this spontaneous wave of support. On the talk show hart aber fair, guests blustered about the cowardice of those who came here in 2015, not man enough to defend their homeland, unlike Ukrainians. On TikTok, comedian Trevor Noah quotes a CBS News reporter in Kyiv: “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, you know, like Iraq or Afghanistan. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully too – city where you wouldn’t expect that.” Noah’s response: “Wow. That was the careful version? What if you weren’t choosing your words carefully?”

Throughout August 2021, as Afghanistan collapsed, I biked by Afghan demonstrators outside the German Foreign Ministry, pleading for the rescue of family members and friends who had supported the German military as drivers and interpreters. Little was done for them. They are Muslim and, in German eyes, people of colour – thus, alien.

Afghan-Austrian journalist Emran Feroz wrote in Die Zeit against sorting refugees into classes, wondering why today’s generous official gestures were not offered to people from Syria and Afghanistan. Many commentators agreed with his assessment.

I am not only a German taxpayer, but also a German citizen. I swore allegiance to this nation’s constitution, whose Article 1 states: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” A double standard is being applied here by defining these refugees as European, as culturally closer to us – and explicitly for that reason as particularly deserving of our support.

Nancy Chapple was born and raised in the US. She has lived and worked as a writer, translator and musician, mostly in Berlin, for the past 35 years.

Read more: The queer Syrian asylum seekers who call Berlin home