Papers: Things Obtained in Displacement

This passport belongs to Aazad, a Kurdish-Iraqi-German citizen who migrated to Germany 26 years ago. He lives in Goettingen with his family, his wife and four children. He works in a kiosk. He has been given this passport after he was proved as a well-integrated migrant, considered as a German citizen.


Identity Papers vs. Sense of Belonging

Back in 1980 when the war broke out between Iraq and Iran, Iraq’s military force started to recruit the youth in the army. To avoid going to war, 18-year-old Aazad left Iraq for Poland, Kielce city. He studied engineering in the university there.

Having finished his studies at the university, Aazad left Poland for Germany and lived in different cities. He lived in Hamburg for some time, but finally, he settled in Goettingen, got married and started his family. “…I heard that Goettingen was the city of knowledge, education, and university. They said one could get language course and learn the language easier in Goettingen than other places”, Aazad explains his motivation about choosing to live in Goettingen. In the meantime, Aazad has obtained a German passport. He has four children. His daughter is a successful university student. He likes the life in Goettingen as he calls it a family-friendly a city.

I asked Aazad how he felt to be a German citizen and how he liked living in Germany. He replied very quickly: “I have the feeling that I am a stranger here (he used the word Ausländer in German language by which we communicated). No matter how long you are here, no matter how successful you are, no matter if you have the German papers… You are always an Ausländer.” To clarify, I asked Aazad to give examples of the experiences he has had in this regard and he explained: “Some German persons, when they ask your name and you tell your name, they hear it is not a German name, so they keep distance from you”. I asked what he meant by distance and how he realized that or whether he could give examples. He answered: “They become cautious (he used the German word vorsichtig). This happens and you understand that you are not German. They see your appearance (Aazad used the German word Aussehen) or hear your accent, then something changes, something is different and you feel it. You tell yourself again that I am always an Ausländer here. You doubt if you are well integrated [or if] you really are a German citizen (he used the German word deutscher Bürger)”. “It does not make a difference if you are rich and have a good job, in Germans’ eyes you are always poor, they look at you as a poor asylum seeker”. Aazad shared with me his experience when he used to work in a company as an engineer but he quit only because he was banned from some meetings due to being a foreigner.

“Nevertheless”, he added: “Life is good here. They help you when you are ill, hospitals and treatments are good. But you know in America for example, it is different; you are Kurd, they call you Kurdish-American. You are considered a citizen”. Aazad’s comparison between Germany and America, reminded me of the book ‘Wir Neuen Deutschen1’, in which the three authors - three women in their 30s, all German citizens with an immigration history - two were born in Germany, to parents who had immigrated from Turkey and Vietnam, respectively, the third fled to Germany with her parents from communist Poland in the late 80s, when she was 8 years old, all three are highly successful, now working together on the editorial staff of Die Zeit, one of Germany's highly regarded newspapers. And, yet, in various ways they remain outsiders, forever unable, despite their perfect language skills and native cultural fluency, to be regarded as fully German. This is a difference, as the authors themselves note, between Germany and America, where "American" is conferred by citizenship rather than ethnicity.

I asked Aazad where he considered his home and where he positioned his heart. He replied: “My home is here because my life is here…my heart is back in Kurdistan”. To end up feeling an outsider inside was perhaps the answer to the question of ‘where the Heimat2 is?’.

It seemed like this piece of paper that makes Aazad officially a citizen, does not make him feel at home; somewhere one feels they belong to. According to Birgitt Röttger-Rössler, belonging always includes a feeling of safety or security within a community of shared values, networks, and practices[1]. The fact that Aazad was not born and raised in Germany and thus does not completely share the same values, networks, and practices with the native community explains to some extent the feeling of alienation he is experiencing. However, these were not what Aazad spoke of. He referred to the signals he was receiving from the native community reverberating the notion that he did not belong there. To compare, I was interested to speak with Aazad’s daughter, Lina, born and raised in Germany, a smart university student who speaks a native German, to see what her attitude was.

I was lucky to find Lina in the kiosk in a couple of days that I went there again. Lina delineated this word ‘distance’ as a ‘wall’ which is suddenly built; like when the smile fades off some of the people’s faces or becomes fake or awkward. Some refuse to join eating with you.

Surprisingly, similar impressions happen with children of immigrants who are born and raised in Germany without recent migration history whom according to the parameters applied by German politicians, they might be considered exceptionally well integrated. Yet, they articulate feelings of non-belonging (Röttger-Rössler, 2018: 237-238).

I asked Aazad what his expectation or demand from the society was? How he liked to be treated? To my surprise, he answered: “Nothing. This is their land and they choose to be any way they would like better. We cannot tell them what to do or how to think. I just told you my feeling and how I feel for example, when I see some Europeans being so caring about a dog, they even cry for a dog when it is in trouble, but when it comes to a human being, it is not so. It seems like a show (he used the word Schauspiel)”. He continued: “when a crime happens by a German, after two days it disappears from the news, but if it is a migrant, they talk about it months and months”. Aazad also referred to the jobs that migrants usually have such as taxi driver which is 24/7 and covers no leave or holiday.

He added: “Although it would be good if they knew that migrants leave their homelands because they have to, due to war or conflict, but they always have this vision of going back. However, the governments who produce weapons usually take advantage of these wars through selling their products, so they do not let these wars end”.

Despite living a normal life, doing a normal job and being a good citizen, there was a sense of discontentment with life in Aazad’s air. To discover, I asked what he was lacking here.

Aazad came out from behind the counter and pointed to a tile on his shop floor and said: “this tile is of much worth here, but if it is removed from here and dropped somewhere outside, it is not of value anymore”. This example pictured the concept of up-rootedness in my mind, but more than that it meant Aazad lacked the sense of fulfillment. He was an educated man who used to be an engineer and as he said implicitly working in a kiosk was not what Aazad longed for.

Fischer writes in his book4, there are two types of happiness; one is ‘hedonic’ happiness of everyday contentment and the other is a broader sense of ‘life satisfaction’: the power over one’s destiny, the power to construct a life that one values, judged by the criteria of ‘wellbeing’ and ‘the good life’. Wellbeing also builds on cultural valuations of fairness and dignity. On the one hand, these include basic rights such as freedom from discrimination and exclusion. In a more expansive sense, they also entail the positive value of respect, a sense of being treated fairly (Fischer, 2014:7).

Elements involved in fulfillment of happiness are materialistic and non-materialistic. Material conditions (income, health, security) are important but most people are more than self-interested agents concerned only with material gains, even if we do fit that stereotype at times. There are also non-material qualities that define the good life: aspiration and opportunity, dignity and fairness, and commitments to larger purposes. People who feel they contribute importantly to a larger project, those that possess the agency and power to effect change, are more satisfied with their lives (ibid). This notion is further approved by the Capability approach; the capability of individuals to pursue the life that they themselves value. This pursuit requires material and non-material resources such as income, agency and freedom of choice in order to be converted into functionality and utility.

Accordingly, even though a passport as a materialistic means of happiness, makes rights, resources, freedom of movement, etc. accessible, but a passport alone cannot overcome this estrangement and discrimination. Experiences of exclusion and being left out not only take away dignity, but also unconsciously produce the conceptions of ‘they’ and ‘we’, which are also contradictory to the efforts of integration undertakings which are supposed to bind communities through equal participation.

Malihé Bayat Tork

[1] Topçu, Özlem/Bota, Alice/Pham, Khuê 2012: Wir Neuen Deutschen. Wer wir sind, was wir wollen. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt.

[2] German word for home country. According to the definition in German dictionary: Land, Landesteil oder Ort, in dem man [geboren und] aufgewachsen ist oder sich durch ständigen Aufenthalt zu Hause fühlt (oft als gefühlsbetonter Ausdruck enger Verbundenheit gegenüber einer bestimmten Gegend).

[3] Birgitt Röttger-Rössler: Multiple Belongings. On the Affective Dimension of Migration. In: Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 143 (2018), 237–262.

[4] Fischer, E.F. 2014: The Good Life: Aspiration, Dignity, and the Anthropology of Wellbeing. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

The Capability Approach

Introduced by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen (1979), applied in Human Development and Management (The capability approach is a theoretical framework that entails two core normative claims: first, the claim that the freedom to achieve well-being is of primary moral importance, and second, that freedom to achieve well-being is to be understood in terms of people's capabilities, that is, their real opportunities to do and be what they have reason to value. The approach has been developed in a variety of more specific normative theories, such as (partial) theories of social justice or accounts of development ethics. It has also led to a new and highly interdisciplinary literature in the social sciences resulting in new statistics and social indicators, and to a new policy paradigm which is mainly used in development studies, the so-called ‘human development approach’. Initially, Sen argued for five components in assessing capability:

1. The importance of real freedoms in the assessment of a person's advantage

2. Individual differences in the ability to transform resources into valuable activities

3. The multi-variate nature of activities giving rise to happiness

4. A balance of materialistic and nonmaterialistic factors in evaluating human welfare

5. Concern for the distribution of opportunities within society

Subsequently, and in collaboration particularly with political philosopher Martha Nussbaum, development economist Sudhir Anand and economic theorist James Foster, Sen has helped to make the capabilities approach predominant as a paradigm for policy debate in human development where it inspired the creation of the UN's Human Development Index (a popular measure of human development, capturing capabilities in health, education, and income). In addition, the approach has been operationalised with a high income country focus by Paul Anand and colleagues. Furthermore, since the creation of the Human Development and Capability Association in the early 2000s, the approach has been much discussed by political theorists, philosophers, and a range of social scientists, including those with a particular interest in human health.

The approach emphasizes functional capabilities ("substantive freedoms", such as the ability to live to old age, engage in economic transactions, or participate in political activities); these are construed in terms of the substantive freedoms people have reason to value, instead of utility (happiness, desire-fulfillment or choice) or access to resources (income, commodities, assets). Poverty is understood as capability-deprivation. It is noteworthy that the emphasis is not only on how humans actually function but also on their having the capability, which is a practical choice, "to achieve outcomes that they value and have reason to value". Everyone could be deprived of such capabilities in many ways, e.g. by ignorance, government oppression, lack of financial resources, or false consciousness.

This approach to human well-being emphasizes the importance of freedom of choice, individual heterogeneity and the multi-dimensional nature of welfare. In significant respects, the approach is consistent with the handling of choice within conventional microeconomics consumer theory, although its conceptual foundations enable it to acknowledge the existence of claims, like rights, which normatively dominate utility-based claims (see Sen 1979).

Readers who are interested in a discussion of the capability approach from the perspective of the social sciences are referred to Comim, Qizilbash and Alkire (eds., 2008) and Deneulin (ed., 2009)