Syrian Refugees In Europe, Between Hope And Longing

Syria Deeply met with some young Syrians who have recently made it to Europe to seek asylum. With so much at stake, no two viewpoints are quite the same.

Solidarity with Kobane demonstration in The Hague, Netherlands
Solidarity with Kobane demonstration in The Hague, Netherlands
Omaima Jalloul and Orwa Ajjoub

Syrians have become familiar with the prospect of seeking asylum in faraway lands. Over the past four years, nearly 150,000 Syrian refugees have declared political asylum in the European Union, most of them resettling in Germany and Sweden. Thousands more have attempted to make the journey to Europe, wagering their savings and their safety for the chance to be smuggled to the Western continent by land or sea. The trip is often deadly.

Among those who make it to Europe, some have managed to adapt and settle down, while others find the social and cultural differences difficult to overcome. Syria Deeply met with some young Syrians who have recently made it to Europe to seek asylum. They shared their personal perspectives on the homeland they've left behind, and what it would mean to build a new life in Europe.

Fadi, 33, a photographer from Damascus now living in Sweden

I never thought about leaving Syria before the revolution. I had my own media office and I was working with a good number of newspapers and magazines. I used to make about 120,000 Syrian liras a month back then ($480), but after November 2011, I became wanted by the regime. A year later I was also wanted by ISIS. So I was forced to leave Syria.

I came to Europe for my children’s sake; I wanted to ensure a decent life for them. This is a country ruled by law, and if I were to describe it I would say that this is a whole different planet compared to the standards of the Arab world. Yet I haven’t made up my mind about staying here in Sweden because Syria needs constructive people at this stage and in the future. I feel the need to go back, especially when the war is over. I believe I should go back to work in social affairs. In the end, I didn’t leave Syria until I was forced to. But even if I did return, I want my kids to stay here.

Juliana, 32, a housewife from Idlib now living in the Netherlands

I always wanted to move to Europe, even before the revolution, but my husband disagreed with me. At the start of 2012 we decided to go to Turkey after receiving threats – being opponents of the regime and living in Latakia (a city known for supporting the Syrian government). We tried to settle in Turkey but it was in vain. There is no future for us and our children there, and most importantly we couldn’t get jobs.

I don’t consider going back to Syria even when the war is over, unless for a short visit to see who’s left of my friends and family. The society here is very welcoming and people are so friendly; they always try to help Syrians integrate into their community. Here in the Netherlands they pay special attention to the children, and children are already more capable of adapting, which in fact matters to me the most ... I know they will have a happy life in this country. And of course there’s another important reason: Our countries lack justice and law, and it’s hard for me to accept the idea of going backward again.

Tareq, 38, a former government employee from Latakia now living in Norway

When the war started in Syria I could no longer put food on the table for my family. I was also coming under threat from opponents of the regime because I belong to the Alawite sect, although I didn’t participate in this war in any way. I came here mainly to save my family from war, and to work and help my mother in Syria.

So far I haven't been able to adapt to living here, and I’m not happy. For me Europe is a big lie. Children are raised differently here ... I cannot accept my children living here as this society is morally corrupt. For now, though, I’m busy with procedures to bring my family here. I want them to come here and stay safe until the situation in Syria is peaceful enough for us to go back.

Samer, 26, a student from Damascus now living in Germany

I left Syria because of the security situation and, like all men, I was under threat of being arrested at a checkpoint, or getting kidnapped and disappearing. My family was scared that something would happen to me. Also, I had already planned to continue my education in Europe.

In the beginning I was looking forward to studying in Europe. Now I still have the same determination and I’m eagerly working on my PhD. Seeking asylum was not my goal, but I found that it’s the best way to continue my education as a Syrian. The routine of life here is boring. German people are very nice and they sympathize with the Syrian situation, but they’re still different from us. I’m a Middle Eastern man and I have certain customs and traditions that I don’t wish to change. I never cared about acquiring a foreign nationality, because I am a patriotic Syrian. Now I’m learning German, then I will continue my education, hoping to go back to my country as soon as possible.

Leen, 30, a translator from Damascus who now lives in Sweden

Ever since I was a little kid I’d always dreamed about traveling to Europe. The difference between our world and their world was very obvious to me. When our relatives who lived in Europe visited us I would admire their books, their toys and even their attitude. When I grew up my motivation to go was even greater as I understood the depth of why they’re different. Circumstances weren't in my favor, though, and I was unable to take such a radical decision. However, things began to deteriorate after the beginning of the revolution; I reached a point where my financial situation was getting worse, and my husband, who was an activist against the regime, had to leave Syria for security reasons. So I took the decision to find a new homeland where I can have a peaceful, dignified life with my husband and my two children.

Here in Sweden there are completely different standards: there is honesty, decency, individuality and above all humanity. These and many other concepts have made the community here very healthy. The thing that matters to me the most is that now I no longer have to worry about my kids’ future, their education, their health; everything they need will be taken care of. And the day when they become Swedes, they will have the choice to be whoever they wish to be.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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