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“Alles gut.. Alles kla”: The refugee experience and its empty pleasantries

“Alles gut.. Alles kla”: The refugee experience and its empty pleasantries

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Opinion Homeless Diversity Arab Migrants

Monday 25 March 202409:52 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

"ألس جوت، ألس كلار"... سترة واقية من الرصاص في ألمانيا


After arriving at the camp in Bonn Hagen, at the second asylum station where I was to receive a decision regarding my asylum, I was preoccupied with trying to obtain internet access. I asked a social worker, who pointed me to Chief Alexei, the first in charge in the camp. Alexei, a former citizen of the German Democratic Republic, is now a citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany following the German reunification.

Dear reader, if you Google the village of Bonn Hagen, you probably won’t find it. It's a remote village with a population of no more than a hundred. Its most prominent landmarks are the refugee camp, an old mill, and a grocery store with no attendant.

Alexei suggested I subscribe to the camp's internet package, at a cost of 10 euros. So, I filled out an application and purchased wifi. Upon completing the subscription, the sixty-year-old Chief asked me, “Alles gut?” ("All good?"). I replied, “Alles kla” (All is okay), despite my phone not connecting to the internet. I told Alexei, and in a cool tone, he explained, “Subscribing to the camp's internet application means you registered for it, but it doesn't necessarily mean you will be able to access the internet. The reception devices in the camp area are very weak.” I realized the meaning of the phrase, the law does not protect fools.

Dear reader, if you Google the village of Bonn Hagen, you probably won’t find it. It's a remote village in the state of Thuringia, with a population of no more than a hundred. Its most prominent landmarks are the refugee camp, an old mill, a restaurant frequented by some locals in the summer, and a grocery store with no attendant, selling milk, butter, and some canned goods.

“Are you okay?”, “Are things going well for you?”, “Is something bothering you?” have all become: “Alles gut?” But is the person asking really willing to listen to the answer?

During the first three months of the asylum application process, the phrase I heard most from the German workers was, “Alles gut?”, to which most refugees would respond, as though under a spell, “Alles kla.”

“Are you okay?”, “Are things going well for you?”, “Is something bothering you?” have all become: “Alles gut?” But is the person asking really willing to listen to the answer?

In almost all languages, metaphors exist. Certain questions and common pleasantries should not be taken so literally. However, this process can sometimes rob sentiments and phrases of their original meaning, leaving them devoid of both literal and metaphorical meaning. When I subscribed to the camp’s internet package, I assumed I would receive guaranteed access to the network. This was my literal understanding of subscription. Whereas in reality, this was a (false) assumption on my part. Similarly, if someone asks you about your affairs, it might just be a courtesy.

An eighty-year-old German woman in a café asked me why I speak English instead of German, and so I explained, in vain, that I'm a refugee of only a few months. My justification did not satisfy her, and she went on to talk about the necessity of speaking German. Meeting this lady made me realize that I am not okay, and that my journey of asylum might be a rocky one.

The German press often refers to the “welcome culture”, or open-door policy, pursued by Angela Merkel, Germany’s former chancellor, in 2015. This meant those fleeing from the horrors of war in Syria were welcome to Germany. Across Europe, this policy was accompanied by a number of terms that emphasize the concept of integration. This was especially heightened after the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the global economy, and revealed flaws in the European welfare system.

It’s unsurprising to me, a journalist who has worked in several countries, that an eighty-year-old German woman in a café asks me why I speak English instead of German, and for me to have to explain, in vain, that I'm a refugee of only a few months. My justification did not satisfy her, and she went on to talk extensively about the necessity of speaking German, which was relayed by a long-time refugee who happened to be seated near me. Her enthusiasm for her language did not come as a shock, as I had previously read, in various contexts, about the nationalistic bias when it comes to language among Germans, especially the elderly.

Most Germans in administrative positions that I have interacted with, even the family doctor, have asked me the harmful question, “Alles gut?” I have tried repeatedly to explain that I am not, in fact, okay, but with no hint of interest from the person asking, I choose to bite my tongue. I now answer “Alles kla,” everything is fine, every time.

Meeting this lady made me realize that I am not okay, and that my journey of asylum might be a rocky one. And this feeling continued, with a number of other situations where I found myself listening to lectures about the importance of being “a good person” (meaning “a good refugee”) who is able to rapidly integrate, not only in the labor market, but also in language, culture, and customs. In short, in this context, a “good person” must undergo an almost radical transformation in all aspects of their daily life.

Most Germans in administrative positions that I have interacted with, and even the family doctor, have asked me the harmful question, “Alles gut?” I have tried repeatedly to explain that I am not, in fact, okay, but with no hint of interest from the person asking, I choose to bite my tongue. I now answer “Alles kla,” everything is fine, every time.

Alles gut... Alles kla” is a bulletproof vest, aimed at diverting any real knowledge of the thoughts, feelings, memories, pains, and tears that a person suffers alone.

If a refugee is able to flee oppression, bloodshed, detention and intimidation, it is to be afforded a moment of rest, a break, gather some strength, breathe freedom, and nurse his tender wounds – not for integration, which really feels like exile, and increased suffering. And yet, dear refugee: “Alles gut... Alles kla.”


* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Raseef22


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