“I think that is too late for my age”. Older refugees’ experiences of arrival in small and medium-sized towns in Germany

by Friederike Enßle-Reinhardt

Postdoctoral researcher at the human geography at Technische Universität Chemnitz

In the last years, researchers with different disciplinary backgrounds have stressed the need to differentiate within the broad group “the migrants” along intersectional categories, such as social class, legal status, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, bodily (in)ability or age. In this blog post, we focus on age as a factor of difference and reflect on older refugees’ experiences of arrival in small and medium-sized towns and rural areas (SMsTRAs) in Germany. 

More than a number: Age(ing) as a socially constructed category

The age of a person is often taken for granted as an objective, countable category. However, aging studies highlight the need to differentiate between four different dimensions of age: (1) chronological age referring to lived lifetime in years; (2) biological age that manifests in the aging of the body, (3) psychological age encompassing a person’s self-perception of his*her age and according age-related behaviour; and (4) social age, in the sense of age-appropriate social conduct [van Dyk, S. (2015) Soziologie des Alters, Bielefeld: transcript.]. The four dimensions are closely interrelated, yet they do not necessarily advance synchronically in one person. Thus, what individuals and society deem appropriate for a certain age in years differs between social and cultural contexts. Some of our interviewees who had worked physically hard since adolescence or who experienced motherhood already in their late teen years, feel part of the older generation in their mid-40s. Additionally, traumatic experiences and worries about those left behind can play out as psychological aging effects as shows for example in our interview with Rania, a 38 year-old woman from Afghanistan: 

I.: “Have you ever thought about starting a vocational training here? Maybe when your kids are a bit older?“
Rania: “I think that is too late for my age. I am almost 40 years old. No, I don’t think I can do that. I have so many things in my head, I have no space in my mind to learn and start a vocational training.”
I.: “You mean that is all full with problems and memories?”
Rania:” Yes, exactly, that’s it! If you want to start a new thing, you should have a free mind if you want to start something new, a new position or training.”

The interview passage also points to a double meaning of “too old”. As a mother of four children, aged between 18 and 7 years, Rania has been  responsible for her own family in her 20s in a country of war and poverty and brought her family all the way to Germany over the dangerous Balkan route. Due to her biography as a refugee mother, she is more advanced in life as compared to a German-born woman at the age of 38. On the other, Rania feels that her head is filled with memories and worries about left-behind family members and friends, but also about her children and their future lives. There is simply no mental space to start new things for herself, her mind feels full – and old. 

For the German social system, however, her chronological age is at the foreground: there are 28 more years where she could potentially contribute to the labour market, so all measures and programs aim at bringing her into work. Her example clearly demonstrated that “being an older person” does not depend on numbers of lived years only but is a negotiable, contested and highly individual social variable. In this sense, the empirical insights below do not only refer to refugees aged 60 years and older but may – according to a person’s self-perception and his*her biography – also apply to younger people.

Arriving in SMsTRAs as an older refugee: a differentiated picture

Our interviews with post-2014 migrants in German SMsTRAs showed that smaller localities can be difficult places to arrive for older people, but also be sources of support and social inclusion. We reflect on three topics below.

Social Isolation and Loneliness

Due to concentration and memory problems it can be especially difficult to learn a new language for older people. This is especially true in the light of psychological aging effects caused by trauma. However, limited German knowledge turned out as a major issue in SMsTRAs for older people. As migrant communities in small towns and rural areas in Germany can be very small (if existing at all), it is a challenge for older refugees to find someone to talk to. Social isolation and loneliness thus evolve as severe problems, especially as meeting places for older locals are rarely designed as intercultural spaces of encounter. One young woman from Syria recounts about her grandmother: 

My grandma has always been a very sociable person. In our culture, we love to go from neighbor to neighbor. We don’t like to be at home, but we want to be in social interaction all the time. And this is very difficult here because she does not speak the language. […] And also if she knew German… I have the impression that the older you get the more difficult it becomes to accept different values and find similar interests or thoughts.  With German knowledge, she could communicate with others, but not on a higher basis, I think. […]” (Elisar, 18 years old from Syria).

Challenges to enter the labor market

Elisar’s thoughts also touch upon findings on older refugees’ challenges to find work. Some labour market actors who were interviewed in the scope of this project argue that older refugees (understood here as 40+) would have less flexibility, refuse to accept their new, often downgraded position and struggle to adjust to working modes in Germany. Across localities, employers and local employment offices agreed that it would be more promising to focus on young people and train them from the start in Germany instead of integrating older migrants in a running business and invest time in the acknowledgement of certificates. This is particularly evident in SMsTRAs where employers and employees are less used to work in international teams. Correspondingly, older refugees struggle to find work unless they are willing to take low-paid jobs, often far below their actual qualification. Across our interviews with 53 forced migrants, there was no person above 40 years who could continue his*her previous professional career. The devaluation of a persons’ professional expertise, combined with the loss of everything one has achieved in life before the flight, is a major stress factor for older migrants. 

Caring Volunteers in SMsTRAs

On the other, we encountered very engaged, easy to access support structures by local volunteers across SMsTRAs. Strong private support structures and dense social networks prove to be an important support that SMsTRAs can offer. Local volunteers are especially relevant for people outside the education system or labor market who cannot access social contact there. These older migrants are at risk to lack reasons to leave the house and become very lonely. Nadira, 55 years old from Syria tells us: 

In the beginning, I was so stressed, because I did not speak German and I didn’t know anyone. I was searching for someone who could listen to me, but I could not find anyone. I was so so so stressed. But then, I met this woman and now it is better. She helps me with official letters, and we talk. Only talking, just like that.”

Nadira has met her friend in an international café that is organized by a local refugee-support group and situated at the market square of the small town. Once she had the courage to enter the café, she was carefully looked after by the volunteer women working there. As many volunteers in German SMsTRAs are people in retirement, there could be multiple connecting factors between older newcomers and older supporters if language barriers can be overcome. 

Our reflections on older refugees’ experiences of arrival highlight the importance to acknowledge special challenges and needs of specific migrant groups. To build cohesive communities, it seems crucial to include people who are outside the “mainstream integration systems” of education and the labor market and offer places of encounter for more vulnerable community members, such as older refugees. 

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