Understanding Syrian Culture
for People Working with Syria Refugees: Marketing Tricks To Sell Training Courses?!

According to UNHCR, and after more than a decade of conflict, Syria remains the world’s largest refugee crisis, with over 14 million Syrians forced to flee their homes since 2011. Among them, more than 7.2 million are internally displaced within Syria, where 70% of the population requires humanitarian aid, and 90% live below the poverty line. Additionally, approximately 5.5 million Syrian refugees reside in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt, while Germany hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees among non-neighboring countries, with over 850,000 individuals.

In this article, I aim to share personal experiences from Germany and highlight an unconscious mistake made by some actors in refugee assistance. During training sessions and workshops to assist volunteer helpers and social workers in effectively communicating and working with Syrian refugees, some instructors refer to outdated books about Syrian culture and daily life practices from the 1980s or 1990s. They then discuss these contents with the participants to help them understand the Syrian perspective. However, this approach raises questions about the validity and relevance of such outdated sources, considering the dynamic nature of Syrian society and the significant changes brought about by the conflict.

I wanted to understand how Syrian refugees perceive this approach, knowing that German volunteers and social workers were relying on outdated sources to understand them. Some individuals I interviewed expressed their thoughts:

1. “Why don’t they talk to us instead of relying solely on books?”
2. “There are many knowledgeable Syrians who can provide authentic insights into our country, unlike the outsider perspectives presented in these books.”
3. “Germans analyze us from their own viewpoint and develop solutions based on their perspective. We feel like objects being manipulated to fit their ideas.”

Between 2016 and 2019, there was a wide range of seminars on dealing with refugees and enhancing intercultural competence for volunteer helpers. While the goal was to address culture-related challenges and find suitable solutions, some events, such as “Understanding Syrians: Communication with Young People from the Orient,” or “Understanding Syria for Volunteers in Refugee Aid,” focused solely on Syria before the war. This approach is problematic as it oversimplifies the complex cultural dynamics and societal changes that have occurred during and after the conflict.

Furthermore, there is a lack of empirical intercultural knowledge and solid insights from cross-cultural research specifically about Syria. Most studies on the Arab world focus on countries like Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia, with limited data available for Syria. Consequently, relying solely on outdated cultural models may lead to misunderstandings and perpetuate stereotypes.

A study titled “Facework in Syria and the United States: A Cross-Cultural Comparison,” which refers to Gert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, offers some insights into Syrian culture. According to this research, Syria scores as follows:

– Power Distance: 80 (Acceptance of unequal distribution of power and hierarchy)
– Individualism vs. Collectivism: 35 (Focus on the group over the individual)
– Masculinity vs. Femininity: 52 (Distinct gender roles, but also values of nurturing and cooperation)
– Uncertainty Avoidance: 60 (Preference for rules and regulations)
– Long-Term Orientation: 30 (Respect for traditions and social obligations)

In conclusion, it’s essential to update the approach to training and workshops to reflect the current realities of Syrian refugees and address their individual needs. This requires a balanced understanding of pre-war and post-war Syria, considering the diverse experiences and perspectives of refugees. By doing so, we can better support their integration and promote mutual understanding between different cultural groups.

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