How would you feel if your adopted host nation, the new country you have decided to come to live in, work in, pay your taxes in and of course one day in the future to send your children to school in, would demand from you and your family to abandon, to shelve everything you ever knew about your culture, history and way of life?Thus said, how would you react if that same host nation asked you to become a completely naturalized individual of that state without any further encouragement to completely abandon life according to your tried and tested traditions, to remember, cherish or tell others about your very own fascinating, proud, fine country from where you or your parents originally hailed? A nightmare scenario for sure.
Yet exactly this has become standard integration fare on many European politicians and governments' political agenda menus.
When in Rome, versus do your own thing
Reasons for packing an entire household worth of belongings are manifold. In a positive sense, they may be based on personal career choices – like deciding to study abroad or opting to rejoin family members living overseas – yet in the worst case and without any time left to pack anything, it is due to political or (civil) war situations forcing innocent people to flee across borders or even across oceans.
Granted, in the latter scenario, innocent victims of unrest, war and crimes against humanity will have different worries on their minds at first. It is fully understandable that considering the potential levels of integrating into society of the nation that gives you shelter is no priority as you just managed to get there alive, probably hoping that one day, in the not-too-distant future, when peace returns to your home country, you will help to rebuild it and make sure democracy arrives.
However, when talking about the other reasons for moving, we arrive at something totally different – even if economic considerations prompted us to get going, it was us who out of a free will decided to relocate, move and stay at least for a considerable amount of time, perhaps even for good. Then at once two very complicated choices have to be made. On the one hand, and in an abridged version, we could resort to the "when in Rome" mindset, while on the other, we could resort to sticking to our own ways of life, only learning the basics of the host nations language, if at all, and so on and so forth.
Adaptation, integration, assimilation
All three concepts are up to a certain extent intertwined, although it makes sense to draw a number of logistical boundaries. In layman's terms, a person who belongs to a minority group in a given society and who step by step adapts to her or his new country's customs and culture, including religion, ultimately will become fully assimilated once the adaptation process has been 100 percent completed.
European mainstream policies, up until today, basically rely on exactly this assumption. In other words, although giving some time to all newcomers, they favor the approach that this adaptation process must in the end lead to only the one goal of complete adaptation equaling assimilation.
Yet between these two ultimately connected concepts lies the real key to a happy, mutually rewarding life abroad – living according to various levels of integration linked to individual life's circumstances – think age, level of education, or type of job – but always in sync with ones newfound home's expectations and possibilities.
Ill-fated assimilation strategies target all
It is a widespread cliché to believe that European societies welcome everyone else but men and women from Muslim communities. What is more, even the related assumption that each and every politician or stakeholder is anti-Islamic is totally wrong. What is true, instead, is that those who have singled out Islam as a threat to European welfare and "coherent societies" cleverly manipulated many mainstream media outlets and, unfortunately, very often dominate the public discourse from party conferences to prime time television talk shows.
But there is more at stake. If we then look closer at many present-day European societies, we arrive at a related, albeit even more shocking, conclusion.
The fear of the other is more widespread than ever, and even aiming at building a common European house (a term used by supporters of an ever closer political union) has not changed those perceptions. The other can be anyone, including you or me, who simply were not born in the town or city where you were born. Correct, if a man of European origin but from another country moves to a town or neighborhood where mostly other white people live, he will face fewer challenges in a sense of getting accepted and integrated than if a person with a different color were to do the same.
But the principle remains that far too many can tolerate the foreign restaurant owner who brings them back culinary souvenirs from where they spent a fortnight under palm trees on vacation abroad – but to accept that person truly into our midst is a different story. And if that one foreign family becomes one day, two and then three and then more, no matter whether from a neighboring European country or from much further afield, the concept of the other is very much alive.
These observations are of course non-scientific. They are of a personal nature, and I could easily present a long list of countries and locations where I personally overheard derogatory comments vis-à-vis foreign citizens who have come to live among us. Actually, it happened to me, too. Not of a verbally violent nature, but with the underlying current of well, he is not from around here, not even from our country, so what is he up to here?
But now pointing the finger would further accelerate misperceptions and misunderstandings. What is required now are two cleverly intertwined approaches of building bridges. Starting with all new arrivals, we must do our contribution to take away that above-mentioned what-are-they-up-to-here feeling, regardless of whether it is right or, as I argue, of course, wrong.
Language is vital in this regard. An adult can easily learn up to 5,000 words a year (roughly 10 words a day) besides working or studying. Imagine – in two years we would be able to use a quarter of a full sized dictionary by heart. This is the big catch – as we are new arrivals it is us that must adapt to our home nation's language, not the other way around.
We must show respect toward our new environment – small details matter, such as where to deposit household waste and noise levels in one's apartment. Let me give you another personal example. I am blessed to have a large Turkish family. When we meet in summer, one could easily say a small coach is required to shuttle us back and forth. Turkish families are big with all generations often living under one roof. We make noise, we laugh, the children party. Most Western families tend to be nucleus, with the wider family being a) much smaller, and b) often living far from each other. Hence apartments are often smaller and there is basically less noise.
Allowing foreign residents to integrate enriches a society. It does not remain static, it becomes vibrant. It turns a one-sided culture into a multicultural model in which everyone benefits. It does not imply that the host nations' values and traditions will be threatened – they must stay fully intact. But it should never require new arrivals to abandon their own backgrounds and ways of life. Side by side is one term, respectful co-existence another.
A European citizen becoming a resident in another non-European country would not want to assimilate, forgetting everything he or she ever cherished and trusted and valued. Why should foreign citizens be asked to do just that when over here?
Assimilation policies divide already fragile societies; integration models without the need for a 100 percent or even 75 percent adaptation are the better solution. That includes respecting different dress codes, personal attire and of course religion.
As I mentioned Turkey in my piece already, I will finish with a related comment. Many foreigners have made Turkey their home. As long as the foreigner is ready to be integrated, Turkish people allow her or him to do exactly that with open arms. But never have I heard of the requirement to fully assimilate, as if ones' traditions and cultural backgrounds are no more. To the contrary, foreign residents living in Turkey have become part of the above mentioned side-by-side, happy co-existence model culturally enriching their adopted nation in return. If finally one day Europe welcomes Turkey as a full EU member, European countries could learn much from Turkey in this regard.
* Political analyst, journalist
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