Have you too been mistaken for a refugee lately?
Well, you're not alone.
Recently while minding my own business at a spa in one of Germany's populous cities with two friends, I was taken aback when two ladies, who were strolling not so far from where we were standing, started critically analysing me and my dark-skinned friend. They probably thought we didn't speak a word of German. Their whispers were loud enough for us to listen to their conversation expressing confusion about our different complexions. On realising that we had been privy to their conversation, one of the ladies approached us.
"Excuse me, are you refugees?" she asked with a somewhat embarrassed smile. She then went on to tell us about the two female refugees from Eritrea that had recently moved into the apartment downstairs from hers.
"I'm sorry, this spa is huge and there are so many people!" she went on.
(We were the only PoC in the spa that day - not that it really mattered ... until now).
"But you're not from Eritrea, are you? You kind of look like the two Eritrean women ...," she went on. Silence ... Crickets. It was quite an awkward situation for all concerned especially the lady, whose face got redder every second before she eventually excused herself and strolled on with her friend.
A new form of othering?
With the recent migration of refugees to Germany, some minority communities seem to now face a new form of 'othering' in many parts of Germany. Let me add that I am aware of the challenges that refugees are facing here, which include the increasing anti-refugee sentiment in a few sections of society. However, these sentiments about refugees are also spilling over to other minority communities. The word refugee itself seems to now carry two connotations; one that evokes sympathy and the other, quite on the negative end of the bar, that evokes ostracisation, like you don't belong - kind of similar to the word Ausländer (German for "foreigner"). The version of the word refugee that evokes sympathy was felt about a year ago by a lady of turkish origin, born and raised in Germany, who was mistaken for a Syrian refugee. She wrote about her experience in an article that went viral on many internet platforms in Germany. In the article, she criticises the German Willkommenskultur for what she calls double standards. According to her, the Willkommenskultur in the sixties when her grand parents migrated from Turkey to Germany as Gastarbeiter was quite the oxymoron compared to teddy-bear welcoming committees that lined the central stations in Munich and Dortmund. More so, the readiness to accept third and forth generation Germans of turkish origin as part of German mainstream society is something she has hardly ever known.
Germany: A multicultural country
This is not to say that the Willkommenskultur hasn't been felt in many parts of Germany. However, even though this hospitality is widespread, there is a significant part of society that is quite sceptical about the recent immigrants - the fear of the unknown can subtly be felt in conversations at the dinner table or in the pub. German society is still divided on this issue. Just when most of society was beginning to come to terms with its large Turkish community (now in the third and fourth generation), the resettlers from the former Soviet Union, as well as incoming EU citizens mainly from Eastern Europe - in comes a new wave of immigrants. Something tells me that part of German society wasn't really ready for this (and the elephant in the room is; "Will they ever be?").
However, the recent migration of refugees could be one of the ways society might eventually begin to openly accept that multiculturalism and cultural diversity have long been a reality in Germany even though this has not been very evident in much of the country's mainstream spaces. For long, second, third and fourth generation minority communities (especially the Turkish community) in Germany have either been invisible, considered an exception to the norm, or mainly included in mainstream discourse when topics such as integration, assimilation, asylum-seeking etc. are trending. They are still sparsely represented in public spaces such as the civil service, politics, tertiary institutions etc., and carry the tag Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund in public discourse even though many of those that have lived here for generations have little rootedness in their supposed Heimat. This invisibility and othering is felt more in certain federal states such Bavaria (Bayern) - especially in the countryside, in parts of Saxony (Sachsen) - than in others, say, North-Rhine-Westphalia.
The German society, like every society, is in transition - especially as far as accepting cultural diversity is concerned. I am curious about its evolution in the next 20 or so years. I wonder whether in 20 years' time me and my friend would still be mistaken for the two Eritrean women or be simply seen as part of multicultural Germany.