Imagining 2030 is a series in which PS21 writers describe the world as they see it in 14 years time.
Caitlin Vito currently works at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and has also held positions with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
“Meine Damen und Herren, today’s lecture is on Syria.”
The university lecture hall is packed. I sit up. I can see the professor clearly from my spot in the back of the room. This lecture hits home, a little too close.
“Almost two decades of fighting has left this region traumatized. Over 50% of the population who used to live in the area of former Syria have either fled or been killed in the conflict…”
Syria was unravelling as my family fled 14 years ago. Part of a great exodus, for my parents getting out of our beloved, but disintegrating, country was worth almost anything – including the risk of death. When we arrived in Europe I was 6, my two brothers 4 and 2. We finally reached the ‘Promised Land’ – Germany – when I was 7. In fact, sometimes you can still catch a glimpse in the old newscasts covering the arrival of the beleaguered masses in Munich of my father holding my youngest brother, walking out of the train station.
“Almost one million Syrian refugees still languish in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, while another two million returned or were expelled back to the region, dividing themselves among the three new territories…”
I know I’m one of the lucky ones. We made it out just before the German government put a lid on their intake of refugees and migrants. Going from a stream to a trickle, Germany joined the rest of Europe and the West who had thrown up their hands in resignation. The große Grenzschließung – border closure – ensued. A “Berlin wall” for the 21st century.
The Western-funded refugee camps in Turkey were initially hailed as a ‘solution’ to the fleeing multitudes and a ‘great example of cooperation’ between the EU and Turkey. My father’s brother and his family still live in one of these camps. They cannot afford to come here through underground channels, and know that the likelihood of getting caught and deported is very high. I haven’t been to any of the camps but it sounds like a miserable place, one where people get in but never get out. It still beats being forced to return to what’s left of Syria, as many of those seeking refuge in other countries had to do.
The ‘truce’ between the warring parties, signed in 2017, has left the territories with a shaky ceasefire. Its signing had more to do with the sheer exhaustion of all sides involved, than with a workable solution. It’s no wonder then that there are still displaced Syrians trying to enter Europe, only to be deported, and then try again.
“The children of the Syrian refugees who settled in Germany before the große Grenzschließung are now referred to as “Merkel’s Kinder”…”
I am one of those children. And although my life has been unusual, it is by no means unique. I am one among the 3% of Germany’s population who are Middle Eastern refugees – many of them Syrians. My story has been told over the past decade and a half through statistics, UN special reports and countless debates. Our lives are part of the ‘lessons learned’ cropping up in government reports and in university course lectures – much like Rwanda.
“The Syrian refugee crisis changed Germany and Europe forever and integration remains a major challenge…”
These reports try to explain how the tragedy of Syria came to break a European community that had survived the Cold War and global financial crisis. It marked the end of an era. And while on a personal level most people have been kind, many still look at me and those like me as foreigners, and tensions persist.
The ongoing deportations of those who do not make it past Germany’s stringent migration and asylum laws has added further fuel to existing tensions. A few small doors remain open to come to Germany and other western countries: if you are either a) highly skilled or b) among a very select group of asylum seekers. Most are neither and have to try their luck coming illegally. Sinking ships full of people don’t shock the way they once did and the media doesn’t cover such frequent tragedies as much anymore. The only thing that separates me from those on the boats today is that my family came over when Europe was still clinging to the notion of living up to its own values and laws. At least there is no pretense anymore. The 1951 Refugee Convention now seems less like an international law for signatories and more like a light suggestion.
“What we find in the region today is the partition of Syria into three territories: one built from the remnants of Assad’s Syria; a Kurdish state in the north; and a Sunni dominated territory, closely linked to the neighbouring caliphate…”
I leave the lecture hall and walk down the street and into one of the many Syrian-owned Shawarma shops in Berlin. Now there is something that wasn’t foreseen – the peaceful coexistence of Syrian Shawarma and Turkish doner kebab shops. At least on a culinary level, we can all agree on good food.
Both my parents work just outside of the city, my mother at a senior’s home and my father on a construction site. These are tough jobs, but my parents are proud to make a living and be able to put me through university – even though fourteen years after their arrival, they are still paid less than their German colleagues. For me, I consider myself lucky. It has not always been easy but I’m attending university and I’m hopeful that my generation won’t be prisoners to the scars left by the tragedy that unfolded in our homeland. The fear driven barriers erected by governments and peoples are not set in stone. We, the next generation, have the opportunity to change them.
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Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.