I chose to travel to these two countries because they were the major receiving countries of asylum-seekers and have large populations that attained refugee status. Initially, both countries maintained “open-door” policies and accepted a great number of people fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries. In 2015, Sweden took in around 160,000, about two percent of its population. Germany took in over a million. Both countries have had shifts towards more restrictive policies since the initial inflows and I wanted to talk about the opportunities and pressures currently facing refugees on a day-to-day basis. Both countries have robust civil society networks that work with refugees and I was able to get a variety of viewpoints from different sectors as well as compare the differences between the German and Swedish governmental approaches.
I learned a great deal from this experience. It is one thing to read books and articles about the “refugee crisis” but quite another to talk to refugees themselves or those that work in the field. My conversations with refugees were especially impactful. I was amazed by the kindness and openness of the Syrian community in Berlin. Many had a sense of optimism and determination that is remarkable given their circumstances such as a lost home, career, or years of studies. By speaking with a wide variety of participants I was able to form a clear picture of the drivers that refugees consider when weighing their options of where and how to live.
I also learned lessons about managing an independent research project that will be valuable moving forward with my career. Performing large numbers of interviews requires a different sort of effort than the normal open-source research online and in books and journals that I usually do for a paper. Many times, finely laid plans in the United States do not turn out as you expected upon arriving in the research country, and I had to quickly adapt when interviews fell through or targets did not respond. Often it’s only by getting creative, hitting the pavement, and knocking on doors that interviews happen. This sort of firsthand experience is crucial when searching for a job in this field.
In all, my time in Stockholm and Berlin was extremely productive and interesting and I appreciate SSP’s help in realizing this project.