If you’ve lived in a place all your life, or even left for a few years but returned, you might not recognize how hard making friends can be. When I was growing up, my best friend was Patrick McMurphy. We were born 10 weeks apart, lived across the street from one another, played together nearly every day for the first 13 years of our lives. Of course we watched the same TV shows and movies, played the same games, just as millions of others did, but we also built our own storylines as we played with his G.I. Joe action figures and my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and of course we read all the same Marvel comics, together.
Our friends group grew around us: my little sister was central, and a few other neighborhood kids, and later some school friends came into the pack like David and Cyd and we’d all have our little adventures together. After I moved away, distance grew and we didn’t talk so often, but no extra words were needed whenever I’d see Patrick or David or Cyd. We picked up exactly where we’d left off. We were like siblings.
As I’ve lived in Europe over the past 12 years, I’ve been invited to parties among people who have the same kind of brotherhood, friends who have known each other since forever. It’s always lovely to be invited, but it’s also nearly impossible to break in. Those shared points of reference and storylines are missing. As a migrant, especially from a different language group, this is even more the case. I never knew Asterix & Obelix or Tintin or Sandmännchen/Nukkumatti/Jon Blund (same show, different languages), knew no European pop songs except for Nena’s 99 Red Balloons (I barely even knew ABBA), just like new migrants to the America of my youth didn’t know Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe or the X-Men (before all the movies had been made). Attempts at friendships may be made, but some things are harder to overcome. My first years in Germany, I had my wife and her social network and some migrant acquaintances from my language courses and that was it.
In my experience, adult friendships among males in Europe are some of the most difficult to create. Men in their 30s and 40s are working full time, and when they’re not working, family life takes priority, and thereafter they really need some time to just unwind, and in many receiving communities, if this unwinding is social, then it is happening with men they already knew from their childhoods. Naturally these are vast generalizations and there are exceptions, but in my 12 years in Europe, the wide majority of my friendships have been with other migrants or with women.
Prior to 2015, the German men with whom I became friends I met in large part through their wives or my own. (Sport is an important exception here, providing social contacts and the growth of greater intimacy through shared experience, and anyone working in integration and accompaniment of migrant men should absolutely be talking to them about joining a local football club, but unfortunately the push for this wasn’t very strong back in 2015).
This began to change in 2015 and 2016, with my friends from Aleppo who had ended up in the small town of Unkel, just as I had two years earlier, and who were searching desperately for friendship and brotherhood, as I had been. They came from places, as did I, where people met on the street, drank coffee and tea together, where creating new friendships was a simple thing. I had not expected it to be this hard in Germany, but it was, and though they hadn’t been here as long, these other newcomers felt the loneliness as well. Of the 300-some refugees and asylum-seekers in my village, perhaps a third are men in my age range. Yet over the first years here, I was the only male in their age range they would meet.
This is less true for female-female friendships. In the places in which I’ve lived in Europe, knitting groups, parents’ groups, book clubs, cooking groups and children’s playgroups are all majority-female spaces in which adult friendships seem to blossom. Certainly, I’ve witnessed a certain degree of segregation based on skin color and language in these spaces, but an infrastructure does exist to allow for the creation of friendship despite this.
Sadly, I can report as a man who has taken full advantage of Germany’s parental leave benefits and spent the bulk of the first two years of both my sons’ lives as a full-time dad, that for all of Germany’s lip service to gender equality these parental spaces are not especially welcoming to fathers. In my experience, helpers in Western and Northern Europe are majority female and overwhelmingly “White Feminists”. They often try to help migrant women to break the chains of patriarchy that have oppressed them in their homelands, and view migrant men as the oppressors of their women, regardless of the truth value in these assumptions. To the migrant fathers I know who were put in the potentially-wonderful position of full-time fathering by their asylum situations, this is yet another point of isolation and alienation, especially when for the aforementioned reasons so few European men are coming to befriend them.
As I write this I’m just coming back from the administrative offices of our region, getting my friend Abdullh’s baby daughter registered. It’s been needlessly difficult, going through this bureaucracy, but when we’re going through it together, Abdullh can laugh about the ridiculousness of it. I remember going through bureaucracy with him years ago, when we’d first met, before we were brothers, and it was a different experience. The feeling of having someone you trust with you as you make your way through the cold inhumanity of migration bureaucracy makes all the difference. I know I couldn’t have done it without my wife supporting me, and I know that our friendship makes this easier for Abdullh.
I was 23 and had just moved to rural Serbia when I logged on to the ancient PC at the house I was staying at and received the Instant Message telling me that Patrick had died. If it weren’t for the friendship and support that night of Zolika, the man who was basically my surrogate father during my time in the Balkans, that message might have killed me. As it was, I sat with Zolika and drank my first Rakija and toasted Patrick’s memory and tried to tell stories in broken Serbian since Zolika’s English was non-existent. I’ve had similar evenings with Syrian friends as they told me about how much they missed their friends killed by the Syrian regime or by ISIS and we talked about those memories. Being left alone after a loss like that would be devastating, and is a real risk for migrants in Europe.
Friendship is the key to integration, to belonging, and to maintaining a sense of who we are. Accompanying and helping migrants and refugees out of a sense of charity is nice, but it’s not enough. Friendship, brotherhood and sisterhood is vital, and adult migrant men in Europe are often denied this through the more distant friendship-cultures of Europe. The rare men from European receiving communities who step up and make friends with migrants are heroes, and we need more of them.
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Zachary Gallant, originally from the USA, lives in Unkel, Germany, with his wife Katarina Gallant and their two children. Zachary holds an M.A. in International Politics and is the author of War: A Children’s Book and The Forgotten War Crimes.
Together with other migrants and people originating from Unkel he started Integrationswerkstatt, maintaining relationships and integration through cooperative work in a bike repair workshop and community garden, through shared play on the basketball, soccer, and beach volleyball pitches, shared food and drink in a small café and grill space, as well as shared celebrations of Easter, Passover, or Eid, and many other social activities.
The Integrationswerkstatt was nominated for the 2019 German Integration Prize.