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John Riceburg: Trapped on a lonely island

People are terrified – especially of refugees. John looks at where that fear comes from.

Image for John Riceburg: Trapped on a lonely island
Cropped from a photo by Daniel Dietrich (Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Imagine yourself on a tiny island in the ocean – not even an island, just a pile of sand, a few square meters that barely rise above the water. It’s not unpleasant: the water is warm, the breeze is cool, there’s even a palm tree. But each wave pulls away a few grains of sand. You have to shovel sand back out of the water – constantly, frantically, with arms and legs – or your island will disappear. You’ll drown. It goes without saying that you need to keep other people away from the island by any means possible.

This is a vision I had while reading Spiegel’s “Operation Wunderkind” cover story earlier this month. It’s about hyperactive parents: the ones who sign up their newborn for a bilingual English-Chinese Kita, and have them taking violin lessons at 18 months. You know the kind. Why are they like that? One expert postulated it’s a product of fear: For countless generations, people have just assumed their children would be better off but today’s parents are worried that a child without a perfect resume will starve out on the streets.

That beautiful and yet terrifying island is a good metaphor for modern life. If you’re not constantly optimizing yourself, you’ll fall behind and eventually fall out of the race altogether. I for one can admit that I’m paralyzed by fear about the future. I’ve had problems with my mental health, so how can I know I won’t end up like my sick old neighbour, who was kicked out of his apartment in the middle of the winter as a result of his illness?

I just did an interview with a friend of a Syrian refugee living in Saxony. Apparently, an old woman passing him on the street spit on him – spit on him! What could a senior citizen possibly have to fear from a refugee? Many people, especially in the former East, say they feel like they’re being “overrun”. But the numbers speak for themselves: In Saxony, there is just one refugee for every 238 (!) residents. As the SPD put it on Facebook: “If there’s 80 people in a bar, and one more walks in, is it ‘overrun’?”

Maybe the old woman in this story is an incurable Nazi. But I can more easily imagine that all kinds of things in her life terrify her: she could lose her job and be subject to the degradation of Hartz IV; She could lose her apartment and be forced to move out of her Kiez. And even getting food at the end of the month can be a constant worry if all you’ve got is a small pension based on your former East German salary. What if she loses one of a very small number of friends and neighbors who provide a precarious safety net?

It’s hard to think about the evil system that is designed to make us all afraid. Where could one even start to protest? A rally at the Jobcenter? Or a hunger strike at the Kanzleramt? It’s so much easier to project all that fear onto a helpless Syrian on the street.

As a member of the Kreativprekariat, I’m supposed to feel free. On one day, I’m a freelance journalist. On the next, I’m giving walking tours. Then I’m a translator. And on my breaks I’m an academic. And sometimes that’s fun. But sometimes the lack of security is overwhelming. 

The little island from my vision is no fun at all. Three years ago, Exberliner reported on old people who were also terrified of losing their means of survival, kicked out of their homes and recreation centers by rising rents. But instead of stewing in their Angst, they joined together with other people in the same situation. They fought back – and they won. I like to think the old people with these experiences of collective struggle are not so worried about refugees. They’ve built a much bigger and safer island for themselves.