Refugees Should Be Seen As Cultural Ambassadors — Not Cultural Threats

Eighty years ago, as civil war threatened the stability of their government, thousands of people were forced to seek refuge in other countries. They scattered to many different places, building communities and social networks, carving out spaces in their new societies. Although many arrived as day laborers and domestic workers, the countries in which they settled provided them with the rights and autonomy that allowed their socioeconomic ascent. They created cultural beacons — spaces for preserving what was being erased back home — that still exist today. Most chose to stay abroad after the initial conflict ended, and many were welcomed as citizens. Their contributions over time have helped shaped the contemporary culture of the country which accepted them, and many of their descendents occupy its upper socioeconomic class.

To a young American living under the current administration, this story is far removed from the reality of the current migration crisis to the point that it seems fictional, if not impossible. It is not; this is the story of Spaniards who fled the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent fascist dictatorship. Seeking the closest thing to home that they could find, many emigrated to former colonies that had been invaded by Spanish culture: Mexico, Uruguay, Cuba, and many other Latin American nations. Theirs is a story of successful social integration. Far from a one-time fluke in the history of migration, this is this is also the story of many other Europeans who found themselves in situations of irregular migration in the 20th century. One potent example is that of ethnic Russians who, after the fall of the USSR, found themselves stuck in territories that became satellite countries. The strong recognition of their rights as refugees and a perception that they represented the “real” Russian identity allowed their success in their new host countries. (Gattrell)

Today, as the world faces yet another migratory emergency, some vital questions must be considered. Why the discrepancy between the treatment of European refugees by countries of the Global South decades ago, and that of contemporary refugees from the Global South by the powerful nations of the world? The refugees of the past century enjoyed a level of autonomy that allowed them to serve as cultural ambassadors. What can today’s receiving nations — and their native citizens — do to respect refugees and their contributions to cultural globalization?  Both of these questions delve into necessary conversations about the meaning of ‘social integration’ and the ways nations assign cultural value to the refugees they choose to welcome.

Regarding the first question, the discrepancy is truly staggering. For example, upon arrival in Uruguay, Spaniards fleeing conflict were granted resident status and its accompanying freedoms and privileges. (Goicoechea) Because of their linguistic, religious, and cultural ties to Latin America, they were seen as extranjeros cercanos, or ‘close foreigners’, and as such they were  not seen as "other." Perceived as victims of war and fascism, they inspired empathy from the governments that welcomed them. The fact that they were white Europeans— perceived as more prestigious than nonwhite immigrants — further propelled their success. (Goicoechea) In their new homes, they established literary circles and institutions of higher learning, for example the prestigious Colegio Madrid of Mexico City (originally known as the Casa de España en México). It was founded with the direct support from then-President of Mexico Lázaro Cárdenas with the intention of harboring Spanish intellectuals displaced by the war. The prestigious Colegio Madrid in Mexico City, founded by a Spanish refugee in 1941, remains one of the most elite private schools in the country.

The situation in which many modern refugees find themselves is quite different. As Western nations begin to cope with the fact that housing refugees can be a long-term, if not permanent, task — a fact that Kenya and Jordan, home to two of the largest and oldest refugee camps on Earth, have long known to be true — explosive reactions to conversations about social integration and citizenship have erupted. Many contemptible responses have come from political leaders, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who in 2015 made his opposition to taking in Muslim refugees public. He has also claimed that “migration turned out to be the Trojan Horse of terrorism” and expressed his concern about the Muslim threat to Hungary’s “Christian identity”. He is not alone; other members of the Visegrad group share his thinking. Some scholars have noticed a disturbing trend among many Westerners who blame immigrants and refugees, simply for existing, for the recent rise in xenophobia and racism. (Pajares 91, 95) Lawsuits over the 2015 refugee relocation plan continue to strain the relationship between the EU and its member states. A recent ruling by the European Court of Justice supporting the relocation plan has created new controversies in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and other states.

Perhaps most tragic of all is the way in which Western nations have turned their borders into algorithms, assigning greater value to certain desired cultures over other unwanted ones, and in turn creating a deadly hierarchy. They allow a privileged handful through while denying the vast majority, leaving them to languish in ongoing statelessness or drown at sea. Moreover, hundreds of thousands have been stuck in European refugee camps, which are often overcrowded, isolated, and dangerous.  Europe, itself so recently wracked by wars that forced millions to flee has, to borrow a phrase from Albahari, repeatedly committed ‘crimes of peace’ against the contemporary counterparts to those past refugees as they expel millions in search of save haven today.

Despite these obstacles, hundreds of thousands of refugees have settled in Europe and North America in recent years. In the midst of all the fiery public rhetoric, there have been interesting academic advancements in how we think about the ‘social integration’ of immigrants and refugees in their countries of residence. This is important because without a well-developed and comprehensive understanding of social integration, it  is often neglected or mischaracterized by governments and native citizens. (Alencar and Deuze 152) We should, at least, have an understanding of social integration which, in the effort expended to form it, reflects the value of the people it concerns.  

There are some promising directions to follow. According to Pajares, citizen integration is “the process of the equalization of the rights…of immigrants with the rest of the population” which can be measured by the “conditions of equality and opportunities to all of the goods, services, and channels of participation that the society offers.” (99) Here, integration has more to do with rights than language and other cultural criteria. One must feel that they are contributing to society as an autonomous participant, not only in a cultural sense but also as an occupant of positions of socioeconomic and political power. (Olavide 172; Gil Andujar 131) Pajares also points to the ‘bipolarity’ of integration. This term refers to the fact that integration does not only affect immigrants, but society as a whole; both parties must work to make integration successful. Governments and their native citizens have a responsibility to foment social integration; this includes adapting to new celebrations, making government institutions of all levels more flexible and accessible, respecting new religious communities, and not restricting newcomers from the public sphere. Social integration should not be seen as a passive, purely cultural process. It requires positive government and citizen action. Some institutions have officially recognized this by adding language about bipolar integration into their guidelines, for example the Spanish Ministry of Work and Immigration. (page 97-8)  

The most crucial governmental step in allowing resettled persons to contribute in their new society is to grant access to the public sphere. The life of an undocumented immigrant is “a life on tiptoes”, made even more perilous by the lack of documentation. (+Social) It is a contradiction for governments to cry over the lack of ‘social integration’ of immigrants while simultaneously forcing undocumented immigrants  to live in the shadows. This is especially true for Muslim immigrants and refugees living in the West, who have to be wary of not only their documentation status, but also the near-constant government surveillance of their community spaces, places of worship, and even homes. Governments overseeing refugee camps must ensure that the refugees living under their care are not isolated from society; according to the foundational Refugee Convention of 1951, they must guarantee the same access to the judicial system (Article 16), public economy (17-18), public education system (Article 22), and other parts of the public sphere that other regular immigrants enjoy. The isolation of traditional refugee camps and detention centers doe not square with these entitlements.

To the argument that only documented refugees should enjoy said rights, it is widely accepted that undocumented refugees are to enjoy at least a level of rights slightly lesser than those of citizens and documented refugees; to deny any rights at all to those waiting in refugee camps was certainly not the intention of the Convention. (Edwards) Edwards argues for complete equality between the three groups when she writes that “refugee status is declaratory rather than determinative — that is, determining a person to be a refugee does not make her a refugee, but rather…recognizes she is a refugee (and, in most cases, was a refugee at the time of entry to the territory.” (523) This is important given the extensive processing time of application asylums; without this equality between undocumented and documented refugees, the level to which one enjoys access to the public sphere would be more arbitrary, based on paperwork instead of on whether or not an individual actually meets the requirements for resettlement.

From a citizen perspective, it is essential to recognize that the process of acculturation creates a spectrum between the country of origin and the country of residence, with those who have migrated vacillating between both extremes at any given time. This means balancing the maintenance of one's own culture and identities with the new social pressures of integration (Berry). Some would say that navigating this balance is the very definition of "social integration."(Alencar and Deuze) Without it, many immigrants suffer a “social death” upon arrival, stuck without autonomy yet dependent on the institutions of a government that does not care about the more nuanced social aspects of their health. (Bolzman) A xenophobic receiving society often makes this balance impossible, ironically making the ‘integration’ that they demand more difficult by pushing newly arrived people to the outskirts of society. One example is that of young, single Moroccan and Turkish men in Spain and Germany who —although irreligious in their countries of origin — formed ultraconservative religious enclaves as a response to the marginalization they experienced in Europe. (Pajares) Situations such as this can be avoided with positive government and civilian action to foster integration.      

Multiple scholars have also pointed to problems with our perception of "multiculturalism" and "cultural diversity." In many ways, the multiculturalism of today maintains racist understandings of other parts of the world. It runs the risk of creating a hierarchy of cultures, wherein receiving countries are the “point of reference” and all others are below. (Pajares) This way of thinking suggests that those from certain inferior (“shithole,” according to President Trump) cultures are not as valuable as more ‘advanced’ societies. Implicit in this is the mentality that an immigrant’s worth can be measured by their level of acceptance of and integration into the new society, coupled with the extent to which they have abandoned that of their origin. (Pajares) As a result of this xenophobic ideology, many cultural exchanges between native citizens and refugees are not exchanges at all, but rather condescending lessons about the country of residence. Worse, native citzens come to see their own culture as a way of liberating refugees from the shackles of their ‘backwards’ religions and customs. Moualhi has written about the perception of Muslim immigrant women by native Western women, a misunderstanding which can ruin what would be a chance to act in solidarity against real gender discrimination in the host society; for example, to focus less on the presence of the religious veil in public spaces and more on improving employment discrimation against women of color in Western nations. (Moualhi) An example of a more successful model in this area is Erden’s profile of a women’s collective in Turkey made up of refugees and native Anatolians. (Erden) By fostering cross-cultural understanding and solidarity, the collective fights local gender discrimination while empowering refugee women to live independently.   

With an understanding of multiculturalism that does away with Western/native exceptionalism, cultural exchanges between native and long-time citizens and refugees can be more effective. Exchanges should place refugee voices above those of all others; without this, they simply reinforce the cultural exceptionalism that young Westerners learn from birth. (Scott and Safdar) More importantly, refugees and immigrants from the Global South should be given space to set up cultural beacons like the Spanish did almost a century ago. One recent example of such a beacon is Generacion de la Amistad, a collective of writers and poets from Western Sahara living and working in Spain today. Another is the rising wave of young refugee poets  concentrated in London. Yet another is the Casa Arabe of Madrid, an institute which provides space for displaced persons from the Arab world to exhibit their art. I personally have attended exhibitions of works of refugee artists and seen the excitement and knowledge that such events can give to the native population. In many European and North American cities today, one will find similar exhibitions, food exchanges, concerts, and other events aimed at connecting refugee and native populations. Too many of them fall short of this goal by failing to prioritize the voices of the former.

Globalization demands more regulation of immigrant social integration than in the past. Given the risks of entering public spaces for many refugees and immigrants, especially those with irregular or undocumented status, exchanges must be undertaken carefully and with the most vulnerable attendees in mind. Spaces by and for the refugee community alone must be respected; even well-intentioned cultural exchanges can often end up serving native citizens more and deprive immigrant groups of their own private community. Many conversations about globalization invoke the threat of global cultural homogenization; if this process is happening, it is important to remember that to be stateless is not to be without culture, and that the people of those countries in conflict, at the bottom of the traditional hierarchy of nations, have a right to be cultural ambassadors.  



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