I hate this word: “Refugee”

by Rebecca A. Watson on July 18, 2016

in characters, Germany, life, The Southern Movement

Awhile back I wrote about how I was working on a project I am really excited about. I live next to a center for asylum seekers, and Germany has been in the news a lot throughout the last year for the number of people it’s accepted from war-torn countries. Why not interview some of these folks? Why not tell their stories?

I talk to many kids outside the center (Neka is a big draw). There are a lot of families around my neighborhood from Afghanistan, Syria and Iran. The easiest place for me to start, though, was with my niece’s father, Omar. Omar is Kurdish and grew up in Syria, in Aleppo, the biggest city in Syria. He lived there until 2012, when bombings forced him and his family out. While his father and a few of his brothers went north, he moved to Turkey, which is where he met my sister.

omar n fam smaller

Since then, so many things have happened in Omar’s life, and he has shared many stories I would love to relate in my writing as well. Once my mother-in-law said of the plants in my garden that didn’t die after my weeks-long vacation: It’s amazing to see what life will go through to survive. I feel so blessed that he has opened up his life to me and to my readers.

“I want to help here as much as I can,” he said, “and I will do my best to give you a good idea about what’s going on and the reason behind how all those people came — the southern movement to here.”

The stories he has told me remind me that everywhere there are amazing people doing incredible things. And there are also abuses of power so vulgar they seem to come from a storybook, not possibly from real life. Interestingly, some of those abuses that seemed so disturbing, particularly within the media and election cycles, seem eerily familiar to what the U.S. is going through right now.

One thing he said that he really wanted to make a point about was about the word “refugee.” One of my goals with this project is to give a perspective that many mainstream media outlets don’t give, and when I told him that he said this:

“They never take the point of view of the people who are going through this agony and this misery; they don’t. They feel they are so much better than just a human being. That they are much better than him.

“But they don’t know what he has been through. They don’t know that this man had a good life before this word showed up. He had good plans for himself, and he was as human as a human being is before being touched by another person who says, “Oh, he’s a ‘refugee.’ ”

And so sometimes I hate this word. This “refugee” word. It seems like it’s discrimination against us.”

As a writer who understands the power of words, he described this in a way I could really comprehend. And as someone who has seen myself described in the newspaper as “the victim,” I could, in a small way, relate. Before a word comes along like that, you are defined by your goals and your reality. After that, you feel less in control of your fate, like the word hijacked your future.

Omar studied English literature in Aleppo, spoke four languages and planned to pursue a masters in linguistics before the word “refugee” touched him. Now he lives in Germany, studies German so he can resume his degree and navigate his way through a completely new culture, not to mention the bureaucracy involved in moving to save his life. This word didn’t just hijack his future, it demanded his identity, his status, as well.

“Refugee. It’s a word that identifies us. It’s like, ‘Ok, this is Human Number One, Two, Three. And this is a refugee.’ It tells me that I am less than the others, you know? I’m not really a citizen. I’m not really a normal human being.”

I plan to write more about Omar and his life, both in Germany now and what happened in his past. I will do my best to avoid the word “refugee”, especially as I understand and share his story. I hope you will consider his argument as well. Please share this post with your friends.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Derung July 19, 2016 at 3:57 am

This is such a well written, beautiful piece. I look forward to reading more of his story.


Andrea July 19, 2016 at 12:04 pm

Of naming & shaming!

I like the generic term migrant, but I would like if it were as simple (and precise) as this:
• staying people
• moving people
• transiting people

It would convey a proper sense of purpose & direction. Nothing compared to expats/tourist positive VS economic migrant negative discrimation!

Personally, when “home” in Sicily, I feel like a transiting person: I’m there but for a fleeting time.
In Berlin I feel like a short-term stayer, long term mover.

Life will unfold its paths on us, we let our souls walk on them — misquoting Gibran.


Jacque December 21, 2016 at 3:07 am

Thanks for sharing Omar’s story. You have the gift of writing. This piece was very well written and gave me such a new perspective of Omar’s life and others like him.


Rebecca A. Watson December 21, 2016 at 9:02 am

Thank you Jacque 🙂 I am glad the writing spoke to you


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: