Syrian refugees transform language barrier into opportunity

Integration project for immigrants in Berlin, Germany - May 4, 2021 (Reuters)

Integration project for immigrants in Berlin, Germany - May 4, 2021 (Reuters)


Enab Baladi – Fatima al-Mohammad

Learning languages in asylum countries is the biggest challenge facing refugees for social integration and enabling them to engage in work and study, and facilitating their access to asylum rights.

While searching for a stable host country, Syrians were often forced to change several countries they sought refuge in, which posed the challenge of learning a new language each time in an attempt to integrate and settle in the host country.

“I finished studying Turkish and in the second week, I moved to Germany, starting from scratch, learning a new language.”

Badour Idris (26), originally from Homs and now residing in Germany, speaks English, German, and Turkish fluently, in addition to her mother tongue, Arabic.

Frequent changes to her country of asylum forced Badour to learn the language of each host country every time.

Badour told Enab Baladi that since her childhood, her father paid great attention to enrolling her in English and French language courses during the summer and had planned to send her to complete her academic education abroad when she grew up.

She was able to master English and French at a young age, which she believes played an important role in her proficiency in both languages.

Languages of asylum countries

Badour went to Turkey in 2018 and began studying Turkish to enter university. The closeness of the Arabic language to Turkish, in addition to the cultural similarities, made mastering Turkish relatively easy for her.

With the aim of entering university, Badour learned Turkish in just one year, the shortest duration she took to learn a new language. She strengthened her language skills through series, songs, cartoons, and by registering for intensive language training courses.

Badour told Enab Baladi that her father’s family reunification application to Germany was approved after she passed the Turkish language exam at the C1 level.

“I vividly remember, I took the C1 exam on Monday, and my flight was on Wednesday. The following Monday, I started from scratch learning German. It was extremely frustrating. It felt like someone took me down from the top of a mountain and asked me to climb it again,” said Badour.

New challenges

The independent German newspaper, Recklinghaeuser, reported in 2021 that the difficulties faced by new speakers of the language were due to its countless grammatical rules, sentence structures, and this leading to various issues for non-native speakers.

The length of words in German causes confusion even among native speakers, and there is a 67-letter word, making it a contender for one of the longest words in the world, according to the newspaper.

It added that the biggest difference from other languages lies in the grammatical and sentence structure; German is characterized by a unique structure with many different grammatical cases, and many native speakers find it difficult to put the correct forms in the correct order.

The beginning was not easy for Badour as she moved away from her dream of attending university to learn the language, causing her to face a psychological conflict between continuing her journey or giving it up, especially after learning that studying the German language would take two years or more.

She asked her father for two weeks before starting to learn German, to try to comprehend the new situation and accept that her university studies would be postponed again, asking herself whether she was going to spend her entire life learning languages.

Her father was the first to encourage her language learning, making her a strong girl standing on four legs, not just two, in her own words.

German was not an easy language for Badour, and it differed entirely from the other languages she had learned. To save time, she studied German two levels at a time, dedicating all her time each day to learning the language.

Despite her preference for positive learning through language practice, mixing with the local speakers and watching movies and series, she devoted all her time to combining all forms of learning from reading and writing to grammar, memorization, practice, and conversation with residents, as well as watching German cartoons, listening to songs, and viewing series and movies, as she mentioned to Enab Baladi.

Amid feelings of despair and frustration, Badour managed to achieve the sixth level (C2) certification in German, a moment she felt most proud of towards her accomplishment.

She considered German the only remaining bridge to securing her university studies and made great efforts to obtain a university seat. She later joined the Faculty of Architecture Engineering in Germany, and now, at the age of 27, she is only one semester and a project away from graduation.

During her conversation, she added that her language-learning journey made her realize that she has the ability and flexibility necessary to learn any language. The repeated learning of different languages has conditioned her brain to acquire any new language skill, and so, last month, she began learning Spanish because it is a global and important language.

Badour believes that languages cannot be simply categorized into levels, as they are a sea of knowledge and the learning process is continuous.

Each language is absolutely different from the others, and there are always terms that are difficult to find in another language.

Multilingual speakers

The official website of the US National Institutes of Health shared an article by Dr. Judith Kroll, from the University of California, stating that new research on multilingualism has changed our understanding of learning two or more languages and the effects of language learning on the brain, success, and wellbeing.

The research findings suggest that individuals who benefit from exposure to multiple languages have their brains protected against cognitive decline, which is reflected in healthy aging and avoiding strokes and dementia.

The research reported by Kroll suggests that having two languages enhances social interaction and economic advancement opportunities, increases cross-cultural understanding, and being multilingual creates flexibility in individuals when facing stressful circumstances.

A way to integrate

Abdul Malek Daghim (26) from Idlib city, moved to Turkey in 2014, and with the Syrian numbers still low in Turkey at the time, he felt it necessary to learn the host country’s language to complete his academic education and look for suitable job opportunities.

Abdul Malek told Enab Baladi that he went to the city of Karabük, Turkey, in 2015, and registered for training to obtain the C2 level certification. He lived in a large house with 12 Turkish students, being the only Arab among them, which forced him to speak in Turkish, contributing effectively and quickly to his language development, according to him.

Abdul Malek noticed that speaking the language of the host country’s people saved him from experiencing significant racism, believing that a large part of those situations were due to the Syrian refugees’ inability to defend themselves or their ideas due to not mastering the language.

Abdul Malek’s entrance into the Cinema and TV Department at Çanakkale University greatly enhanced his desire to learn languages in order to understand the culture of the country through its language, movies, series, and songs.

Once he mastered the language, he was able to assist with translation for Syrians within hospitals and government departments, as there were not many Turkish-speaking Syrians at the time, he said.

Abdul Malek attempted to clarify the misconceptions about Syrians to Turks by presenting educational videos explaining the situation in Syria and the Syrian revolution, through his social media pages and on various platforms.

He funded his university expenses by working as a sworn translator in the city of Çanakkale, in addition to beginning to translate short stories from Turkish to Arabic for publishing houses.

Doors opened by languages

The horizons that the language opened for Abdul Malek made him enthusiastic to learn English, and his grammatical background facilitated his start. Along with his university studies, he started taking English training courses, switched the language of his electronic devices, movies, music, series, YouTube videos, and bloggers, all to English. He compensated for the lack of English speakers in his surroundings by intensely joining the conversation sessions organized by the institute he joined, he said.

Knowing diverse cultures and different societies increased his interest in translation after realizing its importance in conveying messages and introducing civilizations. This led him to add English to his translations for books, in addition to working on translating letters and official emails to be sent to embassies, organizations, and others.

Back to square one

Abdul Malek moved to Germany in 2023, and Germany’s laws obligating refugees to learn German presented him with a new language-learning challenge. He began attending training courses since early 2023.

He believes that Germany’s requirement for refugees to learn the host country’s language to a certain level made life easier for them, enabling them to communicate without the need for an interpreter in government offices, hospitals, among others, and also reduced fraud against refugees.

He mentioned that not mixing with Germans made learning the language difficult but, in his opinion, having learned several languages contributed to his linguistic logic and understanding the rules of any language and constructing its sentences, making him learn faster than other people who spoke only one language; each new language learned made the subsequent one easier for him.

Syria tops the list of countries with refugees, with about six and a half million Syrian refugees around the world, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees figures, not including asylum seekers.


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