a pivotal experience: expat / refugee, American / Iraqi in Berlin

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Back in 2004 through 2007 I had lived in Prague (in the Czech Republic). I had fantasized about living in Europe for as long as I could remember – I was obsessed with European languages, loved watching foreign films, watched British TV when I could (which was not quite as easy as it is now), read European authors, and swooned anytime I met someone who had been there. Nowadays, Europe is “old hat” to me and I realize that it’s a fetishization of sorts but when I was young, Europe seemed the antithesis to growing up in a house situated in the middle of a corn field and not knowing anyone who had ever traveled outside the US let alone spoke another language. (My paternal side of the family is the Trump-voting sort, but no need to get into that here!)

Moving on – I did manage to escape the cornfield into the “big city” (Philadelphia) and fall into a tech career of sorts. The tech career gave me the financial means to start traveling and when the “dot com bubble burst” happened, I had traveled enough to have the confidence to pick up and go. I found a well known and reputable TEFL teaching certification program and off I went to Prague to get certified to teach English and stick around for awhile doing so. I threw the word “expat” around whenever I could – I was very proud of the fact that I had left and was doing something that so many people in my circle wanted to do. I had fodder for my blog, I learned more languages and I basked in the glow of people telling me I was so adventurous and brave. I felt cultured.

For various reasons (a completely different blog!), I returned to the States in 2007. I have long since begun to question the notion that I was an “expat” in a world of expats, refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants. I realized that this labeling was problematic but I only had a surface understanding as to why. (Though I, with my husband, have continued to travel abroad and continue to plot our return, as residents.)

The City of the Future, a CHID gateway class that I took in August 2015 caused me to rethink my role and privilege in urban spaces. The class itself and one of the required readings – The City and the City by China Mieville – caused me to see the city in a new light. I began to think about how different realities (different spaces, different rules, different social norms) could exist in one shared physical space. I see the complexity in concepts like sustainability, globalization, and security. I held these ideas in mind when I later took a class on Immigration, Displacement, and Return. This latter class only made me question further, and find discomfort in, my former label as an “expat”.

Finally, I went to Berlin on a short Summer A-Term study abroad program titled Negotiating Identities and Mediating Community. This was a service-oriented program in which we were partnered with an organization that worked closely with immigrant and refugee communities in Berlin. I, along with one of my classmates, was paired with an organization that was located across from and doing some work with people staying in the Buckow Container camp on the edge of Berlin. The organization and the man who runs it was absolutely wonderful and the experience left a huge, lasting impression on me.

Through this organization, I met my (friend) Mohamad, a young, Iraqi refugee who had been living in refugee camps in Berlin for a couple of years now. We had an immediate connection and bonded over our love of languages – he was encouraging and patient with my terrible modern standard Arabic and I was impressed and in awe of his German. (I had been learning German but didn’t know much at that point.)

We spent many, many hours wandering around Berlin and I feel so fortunate to have seen Berlin through his eyes. Went I went back to my hostel room after a few hours of wandering around Berlin, hopping on and off buses, being treated to Iraqi coffee and being shown the Iraqi restaurants on Sonnenallee (a street to which a number of posts will be dedicated), and seeing so many wonderful little nooks and crannies of Berlin that I’d otherwise have never seen, I realized that Mohamad was a flâneur. He spent much of his time just walking Berlin, getting to know the city – especially Kreuzberg and Neükolln. He, like me when I was younger, walked to escape – he’d said he didn’t know how so many of the other people in the camp with him could just stay there in their makeshift container apartments all day.

I will go more in detail into many of these aspects and issues with the flâneur as “he” is currently thought of. But I really began to understand in a way that fully sunk in – the seemingly simple ability to just walk with one foot in front of another wasn’t so simple. And not everyone was able or they were able in very different ways.

Mohamad made his way to Germany to escape the bombs and war in his home city in Iraq and after three years he still didn’t know if he would be granted residency. He had to go through border checks, have specific papers with him, and be registered.

When I wanted to move to Prague, I just decided to go. I got a visa but I didn’t need to – tens of thousands of Americans were living “in the black” pre-Schengen Zone in the Czech Republic. I could easily fly back and forth between the States and Prague (or any other city I felt like visiting). Customs officers left me alone. Even when I got frustrated with delays and missed connections, I knew I’d ultimately find my way back.

Mohamad needed to learn German before even being considered to seek employment. He was at B2 level in German and I was barely A1 yet when he and I went places together, Germans in shops, etc automatically deferred to me (white skin, blue eyes, lightish hair and German heritage) instead of him (darker skinned, dark hair and eyes, his Arab accent).

No one cared if spoke Czech, even though I learned. Czechs expressed excitement and warmth when they discovered I spoke some. My English was a good thing, it got me more private lessons (where all the money was) for teaching English.

And let’s not forget – I got to be an “expat”. Mohamad was a refugee.

There are more things to talk about, in regard to nationalism, identity, privilege, etc than I can quickly talk about here and that’s exactly what this thesis is about. I see how “Westerners” and white people (like me) frame their travel experiences, and this includes myself and how I thought of myself as a person who traveled and lived in Europe. I often time find it problematic.

White very different, Mohamad and I shared something in our experience as a flâneur. Neither he nor I blend and disappear into the crowd. We don’t “blend” for vastly different reasons and I still retain a great deal of privilege but if we talk about the flâneur and what it is, where do Mohamad and I, and every other person who doesn’t have a “Western” passport and/or isn’t white and/or isn’t male?


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