Syrians face psychological, behavioral barriers in host communities

Crowd lining up to buy Ramadan bread (marouk) and drinks in front of a Syrian store in Istanbul - March 23, 2023 (Enab Baladi)

Crowd lining up to buy Ramadan bread (marouk) and drinks in front of a Syrian store in Istanbul - March 23, 2023 (Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Yamen Moghrabi

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have left their homeland due to military operations, fear of arrest, or for economic and social reasons. Some have reached Europe, while others have settled in neighboring countries around Syria.

Despite continuous attempts to settle and the need for integration, which may involve changing behaviors, customs, traditions, and culture that a vast generation of Syrians grew up with, these steps do not seem easy or simple. This places a burden on those who have left for new countries, balancing between maintaining their behaviors and culture while accepting the new community, amidst rising conflicts with populist and far-right parties rejecting refugees, and others promoting ideas and cultures that may be completely different, sometimes even taboo.

Caught between these, the Syrian finds themselves forced into conditional integration, retaining a set of convictions and social behaviors, which ultimately becomes a burden for those who left their homeland involuntarily in search of safety.

Behavior is not only tied to customs and traditions, or ideological and religious beliefs, but also extends to consumer behavior and daily routines, which in turn are linked to psychological factors as well.

Conditional integration and acceptance of the other

Newly arrived refugees to new countries experience what is known as “cultural shock” or “civilizational shock.” This does not relate to a higher or lower civilizational difference between two societies but involves a set of behaviors exhibited by the refugee, revolving around confusion, tension, quick anger, and suspicion. This is considered natural, as pointed out by the Australian Cultural Orientation Program (Australia being one of the largest immigrant-receiving countries), especially since the refugee arrives with their behavior, lifestyle, personality, and identity as well.

Over time and without acclimatization or integration, the refugee finds themselves retaining behaviors that may hinder their new way of life, even if a long time has passed, whether in Australia, one of the European countries, or even Turkey.

Rama (21 years old), a university student who has been living in Turkey for about 11 years, told Enab Baladi that integration does not only depend on behaviors or culture a person is used to. She participates in university activities, holiday and celebration rituals, and eating customs, but it requires acceptance from the other party.

What Rama observed is a “hidden barrier or deterrent” from most of the other students. They talk to her, but she does not feel they want her to be their friend or that they have the ability to accept differences.

Rama, who is fluent in Turkish and has also obtained citizenship, mentioned that she tried many times to form friendships with Turkish girls from her class, making efforts to create good situations so they could accept her more since she is the only foreigner in her class, but this barrier still exists.

Syrian young woman Hadeel, residing in the Sivas province where she studies, told Enab Baladi that speaking in Arabic in a restaurant or a public place exposed her to racism, even though her voice was low, and the music was much louder.

Hadeel is fluent in Turkish and does not consider that speaking in Arabic with a Syrian friend is a behavior that needs to change to enhance integration.

Governments’ responsibility or refugees’?

According to the Australian Cultural Orientation Program, “cultural shock” is a natural response to a major life change and is divided into four stages.

The first is referred to as the “honeymoon” phase, viewing the new environment as exciting and interesting. Then comes the “shock” phase, where everything feels strange and confusing. The third stage is “adaptation” to the new lifestyle, and the fourth is “mastery,” where the refugee improves in doing things the new way.

A person may feel disappointment, frustration, embarrassment, fear, anger, guilt, sadness, and nostalgia for their old life, facing difficulty sleeping and feeling exhausted.

This shock leads the refugee to retain certain behaviors acquired from their previous community and close surroundings, related to customs, traditions, etc.

According to social researcher Safwan Moushli, in a conversation with Enab Baladi, the issue also involves the difference between the old and new environments, concerning views on life, customs, traditions, culture, and the ethical system, including the concepts of right and wrong and what is permissible and forbidden. All these change when moving from one country to another.

Moushli added that there is a problem with the host party as well, with the current spread of racism, which erupted with the rise of the modern nation-state since modern states accept holding all authority, whether religious, social, political, or cultural, in their hands. Hence, civil society organizations emerged to curb the power acquired by governments.

Some governments do not acknowledge the immigrant and continue to view them as a foreigner, not as a potential citizen, leading to different behaviors that can reach extreme levels at times.

Another aspect is related to the personal circumstances of the refugee, concerning integration or learning the language. The European countries organize integration courses to push refugees to overcome preconceived stereotypes, where the refugee deals with issues in the same way they dealt with them previously, which may completely differ between the two countries, according to Moushli.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the United States, migration is an important phenomenon for the development of human societies and an indispensable element that brings economic and social benefits.

As important as migration is from one country to another, it also has its impacts. According to the official website of the European Commission, immigrants and refugees face many changes when moving from their original country to a new home.

Moushli pointed out in his conversation with Enab Baladi that both the host government and refugees bear certain responsibilities. The host party needs to understand the needs and culture of the refugee and help them overcome obstacles through clear and defined steps, including integration courses, while the refugee should show flexibility in understanding the other and the nature of the different culture, and not have a rigid personality that completely rejects everything, staying attached only to the behaviors and habits acquired from a specific environment or age stage.

In countries prone to turmoil, hardship, and social crises, residents follow excessive consumer behavior, fearing what might happen, even if the conditions are normal and there are no problems or crises that could erupt. Bustling markets can empty at any sign of anxiety or fear.

Moushli continued that psychological comfort affects the health and academic performance of the refugee.

There are 5,011,833 Syrians outside Syria, most of whom live in neighboring countries (Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon), and Egypt, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) statistics.

Within the European Union, there are more than one million Syrian asylum seekers, with 59% in Germany and 11% in Sweden. Austria, Greece, the Netherlands, and France have between 2 to 5%, according to United Nations statistics.


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