This article was originally written for Yossi Bartal’s course, “Seemingly Inseparable: Reporting and Debating Israel-Palestine, Antisemitism, and Racism in German Media,” at Bard College Berlin
Growing up in a small community in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I felt like I never quite fit in. As a young girl with immigrant parents from Ukraine, there seemed to be a great disconnect between myself and the bubble I was growing up in. When I would tell my friends I was actually from Ukraine, they seemed to think I was making the place up, having never heard of it in the first place. One incident in school particularly always sticks out: In eighth grade my peers and I were heavily focused on our futures as the paths of our further education were about to be decided for us within the upcoming high school acceptance letters. Having an immigrant mother, who was extremely unfamiliar with the American education system, and a father who seemed to be light years away from me while living in Ukraine, the process in itself was very difficult. As I received my entry test results, a classmate began to spread vicious rumors about me, claiming I had received my high scores not due to my own merit, but rather special treatment due to having immigrant first generation low income parents from a “dirt poor country.” He and other kids couldn’t point Ukraine out on a map but viewed me as a migrant threat to their own entries to schools, when I myself had been born in the center of Los Angeles. The sad irony was that I had never mentioned my immigrant background to any of the schools I applied to, rather than seeing it as helpful I viewed it as embarrassing, just wanting to escape the feeling of being an outsider. Silence about the country that was an economically mauled relic of the Soviet Union, which my parents came from and worked so hard to leave, became a burden and my best strategy to fit in.
How intriguing is the current spotlight on Ukraine and the great care so many people have for the country. I had to think to myself, comparing this sudden burst of interest with my own past experiences, about an abuse of power, and about refugees. I often found myself questioning where this support for Ukraine was in 2014 when the war began? Where was this nonstop news coverage for the thousands of deaths in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine? Or those refugees dying in the Mediterranean who escaped violence for freedom and safety? According to the United Nations, more than 3,000 people died or went missing last year alone while attempting to cross the Mediterranean and the Atlantic hoping to reach Europe. Of course this extreme support that we’re seeing now should’ve existed in all of these instances in the first place, but is any of it real? Or rather a narcissistic goal as countries are seeing how the conflict between Russia and Ukraine would impact them? This is a topic that I feel compelled to explore, as the intentions differ greatly from the actual actions we’re seeing implemented by the various countries involved. Having visited my father in Ukraine just two days before the war began in late February, the distinction between the two realities seemed unprecedented. Just days prior to the slaughter begun by Russian soldiers, people in Ukraine were laughing and dancing, all seemed right in the world and no one would have guessed the extremes that violence would reach in the approaching week. Soon these people would become refugees, seeking asylum in various countries throughout Europe, though specifically in Germany where they were being welcomed with open arms.
As we see Ukrainian refugees being welcomed into various countries, the hypocrisy seems too widespread to ignore. First I believe we must investigate the term “refugee” and define it clearly as it seems the word has a different definition for the various people – the variety of meaning largely having to do with the race and birthplace of said “refugee.” When viewed on the UN’s website, the definition is defined as, “someone who has fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and has crossed an international border to find safety in another country.” Though this definition seems simple enough to define a group of people, it doesn’t possess the same results for all. Hannah Arendt also addressed this discrepancy in her essay “We Refugees,” as she defines a refugee as someone who, “used to be a person driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held.” Though this definition is no longer so clear as she states, “Well, it is true we have had to seek refuge; but we committed no acts and most of us never dreamt of having any radical opinion. With us the meaning of the term ‘refugee’ has changed. Refugees are those of us who have been so unfortunate as to arrive in a new country without means and have to be helped by Refugee Committees.” Although she made this statement almost 80 years ago when refugees were viewed as individuals who had to escape based on individual conviction, the relevancy it holds to our present is still, if not more, significant. As we watch Polish volunteers welcome Ukrainian refugees with open arms, we must remember the way they declined Syrians and Iraqis, who were also at the border, desperately begging for protection. This treatment towards POC refugees is still continuing in Poland today, pushing back thousands of refugees on the Belorussian border during the preceding months. In the last year, thousands of individuals from Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Africa attempted to reach the European Union by illegally entering Poland and were met with violence and exclusion. As mentioned in journalist Maëva Poulet’s Article, “Migrants turned away at Belarus-Poland border,” a man from Iraqi Kurdistan sent activists a video begging for help stating, “It’s four in the morning. As you can see, they have pushed us back to Belarus, we are wet.” This Kurdish man filmed the dire conditions they’re living in with only a fire to keep them warm.
This portrays the discrepancy in treatment due to skin color, as although Ukranians attempting to escape the war are viewed as “real refugees,” they are also white, allowing European countries to view them as their own, not the way they view Middle Eastern refugees who the media and right wing politicians prefer to portray as criminals. In the portrayal of refugees in the present there exists the distinction of victims vs. villains. As we see Middle Eastern refugees attempt to secure asylum, we also see governments and citizens accuse them of stealing jobs and creating unsafe environments in the countries they enter. As columnist James Traub wrote, a European diplomat in Brussels told him it was unreasonable to expect a French city that was experiencing great unemployment numbers to accept refugees who would “steal” these jobs. These statements often have no credibility or evidence but rather a great amount of stereotypical accusations. In his article, “The Moral Realism of Europe’s Refugee Hypocrisy,” Traub investigated the discrimination as he wrote, “Signatories cannot decide who to accept. Yet that is just what happened when Arab Muslims, rather than remaining in other Arab or Muslim countries, crossed into Europe – the one region of the world, ironically, most deeply dedicated to the Enlightenment principle of universal rights.” The debate then becomes a question of nationalism as many on the right look down on refugees for leaving their countries, using the excuse that if they truly loved their country they would’ve fought for it rather than leaving. These kinds of accusations seem completely unreasonable as it’s the projection of people’s selfishness and assumptions about a situation they most likely know nothing about, that of a refugee seeking safety. The response of Germany specifically to Syrian refugees in 2015 by then Chancellor Angela Merkel, in comparison to Germany’s response now to Ukrainian refugees by Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, has perhaps been the most fascinating of all. In 2015, Merkel promised that Germany would accept every Syrian refugee that made it to Europe, while only a few months later she was working on a deal with Turkey to choke off the flow of refugees in order to increase her likability by the public. In present day Germany, Faeser’s actions have been different as she promised Germany would take refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine no matter their nationality. As is showcased through the experiences of the African students studying in Ukraine who were denied refuge in Poland and various European countries, however, this wasn’t the case. With a visa waiver in place and a large wave of social assistance from German citizens, Ukrainian refugees are being granted a promise of hope. With over 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees having entered neighboring countries, we can see how the treatment differs in Germany’s past responses to refugees. Perhaps if this solidarity we see in the present had existed in the past, many lives could have potentially been saved and a more peaceful world could’ve flourished.
The hypocritical treatment of Germany towards refugees can also be seen in the country’s treatment of Ukraine in terms of geopolitical relations. Europe, and specifically Germany, possesses a great dependence on Russia due to its role in the provisions of carbon energy sources. While in 2021 the European Union imported 155 billion cubic meters of Russian gas, the EU tends to depend on Russia for 45% of its gas imports and 40% for its consumption. The present tensions have created a fear of disruption of Russians gas within the EU as major economic damages are believed to occur globally. In turn this would create a rise in energy shortages as well as lead to higher prices for European customers. Though these choices on Germany’s part appear to be completely self-serving, a group of economists at the Leopoldina National Academy of Sciences contended in a March 2022 report that a short term stop of Russian gas deliveries would be manageable if Germany were to increase its reliance on other energy sources. Chief executive of BASF claimed that turning off the taps would cause “irreversible damage.” The transition from Russian natural gas to an alternative option would take four to five years rather than a few weeks. As the government released their budget of €457.6 billion for 2022, they have the funds to take real action and detach themselves from Russia’s hold. While possessing these ties with Russia, Germany has been reluctant to send weapons to Ukraine as a report came out recently from a British newspaper that stated how Germany sent missiles, guns, and rockets to Putin’s regime after the 2014 Crimea conflict despite there being an arms embargo against Russia. While Germany has made excuses for sending weapons to Russia, including the claim that the weapons were meant for civilian use, the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has defended the government’s choice to not send weapons to Kyiv, stating that it simply does not have enough stocks. Although they’ve changed the policy since then, Germany’s initial choice of funding Russia’s fight against Ukraine is deeply concerning as it goes directly against their acceptance of Ukrainian refugees into the country. Germany’s hypocrisy is often seen through the country’s use of memory politics, the methods of a country coming to terms with its past through acts of reparations and restorative justice. Rather than taking action and responsibility in a sincere attempt to adequately address and compensate for Germany’s World War II-era history, there’s a facade upheld by Germany which is designed to escape and move on from its past, rather than putting in the work to create a better, and more welcoming future.
While we look at all the various issues this war has brought to the center stage, we must think about the ties that morality holds with politics, specifically for Germany. The country has a difficult time figuring out how to acknowledge the past and grow from it, using memory politics to create a false history. There must be a complete restructuring of the way Germany approaches its treatment of refugees, as well as the complexities and repercussions from military conflicts more broadly. There can be no improvement politically without a change from within, as the selfishness exhibited throughout this war is prevalent everywhere, oftentimes with more consideration for how any particular decision or policy affects one’s own situation, rather than how they affects others.
Arendt made a great point in We Refugees speaking on the significance of confronting the past, stating, “if it is true that men seldom learn from history, it is also true that they may learn from personal experiences which, as in our case, are repeated time and again.” Action is needed rather than silence, as we must change our preconceived biases to create a better world for all.