This week, in August 2022, I finally received the print copies of Citizens and Refugees: Stories from Afghanistan and Syria to Germany. I wrote the book, roughly speaking, between the summer of 2019 and the summer of 2020, though its origins go back to what became known as the “long summer of migration” in 2015. It was a time when I myself was deeply involved in supporting people who had fled from Afghanistan and Syria to Germany. This summer of migration is only seven years ago, and yet it somehow feels like old history, a distant past. I recall the last interview I did for the book, just a few days before the first Covid-19 lockdown in early 2020. There had been protests about the violent repulsion of refugees at the Greek-Turkish border. The “refugee crisis” was anything but over. But when the pandemic hit, the situation of refugees rapidly disappeared from the news. An era, it felt, came to an end. And with the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which again made millions of people flee, hundreds of thousands coming to Germany, the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan seem even less relevant. On a more personal level, most people I met in 2015 have moved on with their lives, they have settled down, found jobs or are studying, and many of them are in the process of becoming German citizens. All these developments indeed seem to make the summer of 2015 history, an issue of the past no longer relevant to our present; it makes the book I just received feel strangely outdated. It’s stunning how quickly this can happen.
And yet, when I turn to the stories the book is telling, they still speak to our present. For once, while the situation in Afghanistan and even more so in Syria receives little attention in most media, the violence there continues: in Syria, the dictatorial regime of Assad is still in power, and is still bombing the last holdout of the opposition in Idlib; in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have taken over after retreat of the international forces in the summer of 2021, millions are threatened by starvation. There are still reasons to flee these countries; it just has become much more difficult due to European border regimes. If anything is changing, then it is the slow fading away of hopeful memories of the revolution in Syria, of building a better society in Afghanistan. The future certainly looms dark.
And yet, this is exactly why the stories Citizens and Refugees is telling still matter, I believe. These are stories about people acting as citizens, for the common good, for a better future, in dire circumstances. They are about hopes, and disappointments; they are about belonging, and what makes belonging so difficult. And not least, these stories – histories, in the plural – overcome boundaries, they connect “our” political world of “the West” with what lies outside “our” borders. They introduce political voices still worth listening to. For these reasons, I still hope the book speaks to our present, even if the summer of 2015 might sometimes feel like a distant past.