By now, everyone has an opinion on immigration and Islamophobia – but some people’s opinions seem to matter more than others’. That is what I discovered on the morning after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, sitting down to talk politics over lukewarm coffee with a group of women refugees in Germany. “When things like this attack happens, or when bombs happen, we feel worse, we feel frightened,” says Fatima, a Muslim who escaped a forced marriage in Guinea-Bissau. “It affects us, always. It takes away our position here and it gets worse with every attack.”
I meet Fatima and her friends at a women’s centre in Halle, a shrinking post-industrial city in Saxony-Anhalt. The walls in town are angrily annotated with political graffiti – “No Islam in Europe” jostles for space against “Nazis out”. Public opinion here is split down the middle like an open palm brought down on a knife and the wound is pulling apart, becoming infected with racist resentment and political positioning. In the recent state elections, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party made significant gains, including in Halle.
“I’m under serious stress because of this political direction,” says Roya, a schoolteacher in her late fifties. “I’m frightened that I won’t get [officially] recognised as a refugee here. If that happens, I would say that death is better than to be exiled.”
Refugee women and volunteers meet regularly at the centre to support each other. It is a small miracle of communication across cultures – the conversation today involves five individuals and four languages. This is the daily work of crisis response that gets lost in the fire of public debate. Food and shelter alone do not make a sanctuary. People also need patience, understanding and friendship, even when they are suffering the kind of sustained trauma that can make them anxious and hard to relate to.
Roya has cancer and is a huge fan of Jesus Christ, which is the reason that she left Iran and sought asylum in Germany. She wears a pink plastic wristband covered with symbols: this one is about goodness, this one about surrender, this one about sin. It stuns me that a refugee with a life-threatening illness, who just wants the chance to give back to society by taking care of kids, should be so concerned with her own sinfulness. But everyone has their own way of coping with adversity.
The God Roya worships seems very different from the God in whose name parties such as the AfD would expel every asylum-seeker from Europe. The women meeting at this centre find themselves caught between violent zealots and frothing misogynists on both sides, trying to salvage some measure of security. “It’s not only Muslim men attacking white women,” says Fatima, looking down at her hands while she talks. “It’s also white or German men attacking migrant women.”
“I’m very sorry for the things that took place recently, especially in Cologne,” says Roya, who is the last person who needs to apologise. “Not all of us are like this. It happened like it was planned – as if the plan was to show that foreigners are bad, refugees are bad people.”
It is shocking how few Europeans have grasped that the men who rape and abuse women, who commit acts of terrorism in the name of a vengeful God, are the same men most refugees are running away from. In Germany, I find myself being asked repeatedly how European feminists should respond to sexism among (predominantly Muslim) migrants, particularly the mass sexual assaults that occurred in Cologne at New Year. And I have my opinions. I am angry that women are still held responsible for sexual violence done to them, angry that the issue is being exploited by cultural conservatives and outright fascists who care about violence against women only when it can be used to attack Muslims. But I can afford to be angry – I am someone with a platform and, more importantly, a passport. Roya, Fatima and their friends can’t afford to be angry, at least not in public.
“We refugees have to be careful what we’re doing,” says Roya. “Everything we’re doing is somehow representative. If a refugee crosses the street and [the light is] red, it’s not as if a German does it. We have to be a good example, because people are looking at us in a different way.”
For these women, trying to eke out a life in the no-man’s-land between Islamist extremism and European neo-fascism, solidarity is non-negotiable. The women of this group, migrant and non-migrant, are a vital source of support for one another. What I am supposed to say here is that in this space, every difference of language, background, age, race, religion and culture melts away and we are all just women together, sharing coffee and talking about our feelings. But that’s not true. What connects us is not that we are women but that we are trying.
The person working the hardest in this conversation is the 25-year-old Heike, a German citizen who organised the meeting at short notice, found a place for us to convene and is now tirelessly translating from Portuguese to German to English and back again, so that Fatima and I can communicate. Heike is not her real name. She does not want me to use her real name. Most of the women who do this sort of work aren’t in it for the glory.
Much of the invisible work that goes into managing a crisis on this scale is the work of translation, in every sense of the word. Europe is a continent where communication of all kinds is breaking down. Ordinary people are falling through the gaps in understanding as public opinion becomes more polarised and violent extremists dominate the news. What everyone in Europe needs – Muslims and Christians, refugees and citizens, men and women – are not just acts of compassion but acts of translation.
This article appears in the 30 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail