For atheists, refugee camps can prolong sense of isolation
By outward appearance, Sally Abazeed defies every cliché of a female refugee from Syria. She doesn’t wear a headscarf, nor does she spend most of her time with small kids. But there’s something else that sets her apart from other refugees.
At 19 years old, Abazeed made the decision to leave everything she knew in search of freedom from religion. In Berlin’s refugee shelters, however, atheists like her find themselves a tiny minority, and often feel compelled to hide the fact that they’ve renounced their faith.
Abazeed says she was raised in a strict Muslim household. Every facet of her life controlled by Islamic doctrine: her dress, whom she could love, when she could go outside. She says her faith dissolved gradually as she grew up.
“Before I was more like, Islam has some good points, some bad points,” she said. “But then I quit all the religions and said that most of them are not true.”
When she finally stopped identifying with religion altogether, living with her family became unbearable.
“I can’t be myself with them,” She said. “I have to pretend to be someone else.”
Coming out as an atheist in Syria is virtually unheard of. Nearly 90 percent of Syrians are Muslim, and while Syria calls itself a secular society, Islam is deeply embedded in its constitution and social structure. Article 3 of the Syrian Arab Republic Constitution states that the president’s religion must be Islam, and that Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation.
With Islamic tradition so intertwined with politics, education and family, taking a stance against Islam means taking a stance against the very fabric of Syrian society.
Werner Schiffauer, a professor of Comparative Social and Cultural Anthropology at Europa-Universitaet Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder, says leaving Islam is judged more harshly than simple religious differences among groups.
“Apostates are generally considered to be traitors,” Schiffauer said. “So it evokes much stronger feelings than the others.”
Abazeed says she had some atheist friends in Damascus, with whom she could discuss her real interests: physics, the cosmos and language. Sharing ideas about the universe and physical properties offered them clues that God may not exist.
Yet coming to this conclusion meant little if she couldn’t live in a way that honored her new understanding of the world. She decided to leave home alone, without telling her family why.
For any young woman, making the journey to Europe would be dangerous and arduous. On top of this, Abazeed says she has suffered from borderline personality disorder since the age of 13. The layers of thin scars and still-healing cigarette burns on Abazeed’s inner forearms are physical manifestations of her inner mental turmoil. She says it’s a release to deal with her fear of loneliness.
Abazeed confronted these fears when she decided to travel alone to Europe. She carried a small backpack with some clothes, a blue-and-white striped journal, and a small purple pail with a seed inside, covered in saran wrap. The seed was a gift from a friend in Syria, for her to plant when she starts her new life in Germany. It still sits in her locker, waiting for a more stable home where roots can begin to grow.
When refugees arrive in Germany, they are placed into emergency shelters that provide food and basic amenities. The living conditions vary from camp to camp, but privacy is scarce. Some shelters use sheets tacked to the ceiling to imitate walls. Refugees’ mobility is controlled and monitored. Every mundane routine of daily life is performed together.
Zakarya Faizi, 30, says he fled Iran after the government caught wind of his participation in a Kurdish opposition group and interrogated him for three days.
Knowing the government would watch him and his family for his political activism, Faizi fled to Iraq, and has been transient ever since.
His gentle mannerisms can make it hard to believe he fought in an opposition group. His shy apology for speaking broken English contrasts the urgency with which he communicates his story. The left side of his clean-shaven face is expressionless, frozen in place by a birth defect.
Unlike Abazeed, Faizi was raised in a liberal Muslim family. He and his nine siblings were never pressured to pray or fast, though it was assumed that they were good Muslims.
Faizi says that, as a teenager, he began to question how a benevolent God could allow injustice to prevail with such indiscriminate wrath. The bullying he endured because of his appearance made it feel personal, he said.
“You know I have a problem with my left part of my face. That was a problem from birth. When I was a child that was so bad for me,” Faizi said. “When I grew up I think who is the God? And why must the God put a change between another culture and another people. Some people grow up in the rich family, and some people grow up in the poor family. Some people are handsome and some are ugly. It’s not balanced.”
Faizi prayed for solutions to his problems, to no avail. He eventually concluded that the teachings of Islam weren’t true. But he kept his renunciation of Islam secret. Islamic doctrine is too intimately interwoven in Iranian society for apostates like Faizi to live openly.
Given the extreme political climates in both Syria and Iran, it makes sense for people to shift away from a religion that’s strictly imposed by the government, Schiffauer said.
“People will just get more secular if religion is mixing with politics—and repression, of course. So the ethos of religion is harmed by that,” he said. “And the result is a distancing from religion.”
On the other hand, finding solidarity in religion can be a common response to conflict and upheaval. For Muslim families in refugee camps, living with like-minded people whose social expectations and practices are familiar can be a comfort.
“The role of religion is much more loaded in situations of a war, when you feel you are interpreted as being persecuted for political reasons,” Schiffauer said. “An attachment to religion becomes an act of solidarity.”
For atheists or apostates, that sense of solidarity can be elusive within refugee shelters. Since arriving in Germany seven months ago, Abazeed has lived in four different refugee camps. The first was a basketball court in a school. The second was Germany’s largest refugee shelter at Tempelhof Airport, which has a capacity for 7,000 refugees.
“I don’t say just like, ‘Yeah I’m an atheist,’ but sometimes just from my behavior they say, ‘the food is pork,’ and I say ‘I don’t care,’ or sometimes they say, ‘why do you wear open shirts?’” Abazeed said.
She didn’t experience any physical violence for identifying as an atheist, but verbal attacks and arguments occurred frequently. Sometimes, revealing her lack of religion meant losing the only people she had to talk to in the camps, which heightened her sense of loneliness and which she says drove her deeper into the grips of depression and self-harm.
Germany has debated how to best accommodate people from various religious and ethnic backgrounds in refugee camps. Some argue that separating people based on these categories would eliminate conflict between groups. Schiffauer says that while it’s certainly easier to live with likeminded people, strict separation isn’t a practical solution.
By setting up separate camps from the beginning, you’re already drawing divisive lines, he said. “So in a way, you reaffirm these categories through your policies.”
Despite the difficulties Abazeed faced while living with Muslims, she also said that separating camps based on religious beliefs is a shortsighted solution to a complex issue. Teaching tolerance is the best way to affect change, she said.
“It’s not necessary to help me in person, but just to maybe teach the other people to be more open to different people,” Abazeed said.
While both Faizi and Abazeed believe in tolerance, and want to be part of improving relations between different belief-systems, their reason for coming to Germany was to start a new life free from the social confines imposed on them by Islamic society. And to achieve this, Faizi says, they must have contact with German culture and people.
Instead, they live isolated in a social limbo, trapped within a bubble that floats tauntingly close to the expressive freedom they seek.
While dividing refugees by religion may be an inadequate standard practice, having separate living options for minorities in certain cases can make all the difference.
Abazeed’s situation has slowly improved since she was accepted into a small LGBT camp run by a private organization called Schwulenberatung Berlin. Because she is bisexual, Abazeed was accepted into the center.
Being atheist doesn’t make someone eligible to live there, but for many Muslims, homosexuality and atheism often go hand-in-hand, Abazeed said: “The religion won’t accept you for who you are if you are gay.”
Abazeed said the camp offers regular counseling groups, and a doctor comes every week to check up on the roughly 70 people who live in the center. People are open-minded and mostly fairly young. Abazeed is now the proud new owner of Nova, a little black dog with big eyes and light brown spots for eyebrows.
She also remains stuck, waiting for an overworked and convoluted bureaucratic system to process her asylum request. But her secular and nonreligious beliefs may ultimately ease her integration into German society once she leaves the camps, Schiffauer said. While society certainly creates space and opportunity structures for incoming religious communities, it is also welcoming for secularists, he said.
“A lot of structures in Germany are very secular and anti-religious,” Schiffauer said, “Like social democrats, labor unions, things like that.”
Since moving into LGBT housing, Abazeed has begun to feel the freedom she left home for 7 months ago. Slowly, she’s finding her solidarity.
“When I came here, first I wanted to be free, because in Syria I was wearing hijab, I was not allowed to go out, not to do anything,” Abazeed said. “And in the camps it was almost worse than Syria. But now it’s a little bit better, and I feel that here I am free.”
The purple pail now placed in her locker holds a seed. Everyday, Abazeed cultivates the possibility of a new life.