- Female Refugees in Rural GermanyA Local Aid Agency's Efforts to Build on Women's Experiences and Needs
On a rainy December morning in 2015, I walked across a parking lot in Wertheim, a small rural town in southwest Germany. Stuffed animals and children's books in hand, I was about to meet Walter Hörnig, one of the chairpersons of a local refugee aid agency that I had contacted while visiting family during my winter break. Like many other Germans, I wanted to do more than donate money and, in addition, offer hands-on-help welcoming refugees in my native community. I expected to be asked to sort through donated clothes. Instead, I received the opportunity to meet refugee families, to challenge public assumptions about refugees, and to reflect on displacement from a feminist perspective.
The idea behind Walter's and my house visits that morning was for me to introduce myself to refugee families so that, over the next weeks, I could offer to return to the apartments into which they had moved as part of a re-settlement program to take kids on excursions or help with everyday tasks that demanded the assistance of a fluent German speaker. We visited three families that day. Rarely have I been welcomed into a home this warmly. Everywhere we went, we were offered tea and snacks and people insisted that we stay for lunch. Already on that first day, many refugees generously shared some of their experiences with me in a mix of English and rudimentary German. What touched me especially were the women's stories—mostly ignored by mass media busy worrying about Muslim men changing German "culture." One account stood out due to its seeming impossibility: Maya was five months pregnant when she walked across Hungary in winter with her husband and toddler.1 She was determined to do everything to keep her children safe. Zainah was "luckier"; she, her husband, and their two small children made it to a reception camp in Turkey, where her husband left them to continue the dangerous journey on his own. He was successful and able to fly Zainah and the children to Germany after one year. [End Page 167]
On later trips to Germany I visited with more families and attended conversation sessions over coffee, community summer festivals, and other events. I would hear many more of these kinds of experiences that speak to refugee women's willpower. Too often, humanitarian organizations still perceive refugees as passive recipients of their aid. In fact, as Jane Freedman elaborates, problems in trying to "help" refugee women and asylum seekers often arise from representations of them as without agency. Due to such misperceptions, some aid organizations will not ask refugee women for their input and fail to appreciate their power.2 Yet in my conversations with refugee women, it became clear that they do not see themselves merely as victims but also as resources and change-makers, which makes it essential to include their input and voices in the design and assessment of relief programs for displaced people. Their stories defy gender norms regarding agency, family protection, and political activism; their experiences challenge our understandings of war and are hard to deal with on an emotional level; they demand accountability on the part of politicians, the media, and non-government organizations. And yet they often remain invisible due to their gender, economic status, citizenship status, and religious background. Because of their identities, refugee women in Germany live with varying and interrelated patterns and configurations of oppression. As their experiences are shaped by sexism, imperialism, racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia, an intersectional look at how they deal with displacement outside of refugee camps is indispensable.
The social construction of gender causes differently gendered groups to experience displacement in diverse ways. Yet only in the past two decades has gender finally become a stronger focus in efforts to analyze forced migration and support those affected by it. But as Jane Freedman, Zeynep Kivilcim, and Nurcan Özgür Baklacioğlu elaborate, "while the UNHCR and other international organizations and NGOs have adopted gender mainstreaming as a policy commitment, in practice gender issues are...