Belonging in Refuge: Cultural Logics of Refugee Incorporation in Contemporary Germany



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The 2015 refugee crisis in Europe and the corresponding settlement and integration of refugees in Germany thrust matters of deep symbolic relevance into public consciousness. En route and on arrival, contemporary refugees from North African and Middle Eastern countries became plot lines in the high drama of symbolically (re-)defining nationality and culture in Germany. Cast as both symbols of national rehabilitation and national decay, symbols of renewal and decline, of the success and the failure of liberal democracy, ‘the refugee’ became potent source material for imagining political community. Within this context of symbolic ambivalence, teachers in vocational schools across the country were tasked with educating and helping integrate young adults arriving as asylum-seekers. In educational settings, however, this high drama meets with the mundane procedures of administrators and the professional guidelines of educators. Refugee students and their teachers must negotiate across these larger discourses, weaving routes to belonging that straddle both administration and meaning. As the refugee crisis settles into this sober project of social integration, contemporary Germany faces the challenge of incorporating new migrants who are not only diverse, but largely illegible, as their social origins do not map onto existing bureaucratic systems. Living in this context, new migrants seeking asylum grapple not only with practical conditions of adjustment. They must make sense of themselves in relation to the public and institutional discourses which surround them, and they must make themselves make sense to institutional representatives. In this environment, schools become playgrounds of institutional discourse, providing the context to enact definitions of who the refugee is and who they should be in relation to state and society. How are asylum-seeking students being taught to navigate their host society? What forms of participation in public life are encouraged? How are the terms of inclusion set, redrawn, and contested through institutional contexts? To answer these questions, this dissertation investigates educational integration programs serving asylum-seeking young adults in Germany. It incorporates ethnographic data, in-depth interviews, as well as content analyses of curricular materials, public media campaigns, and policy documents. This approach captures state-led policies, institutional practices, and everyday contexts that mediate the integration of asylum-seeking youth in Germany. This research uncovers how the contemporary German integration project shapes the public lives and possible futures of refugee students and addresses the implications of this project for democratic integration.



Culture, Immigration, Migration