Syrian Journalist The Pitfalls of Sexual Education for Refugees

Refugee families living in Germany struggle with a problem no one has ever prepared them for: talking about sexuality with their children, says Yahya Alaous, a Syrian journalist who writes for Handelsblatt.
One day, Syrian boys and girls in Berlin start asking their parents uncomfortable questions.

Let’s talk about the birds and the bees. For us parents, it’s just no longer possible to keep shtum about sexuality with our children here in Germany the way we used to back in Syria.

I found out the hard way when my 11-year old daughter got home from school the other day and caught me unawares with awkward questions. She had just had her first “sex ed” class. And there we were, my wife and I, blissfully thinking it was too early for The Talk. How wrong we were. Now we’re scrambling to find ways to deal with it. One thing is clear: For our kid’s own sake, we don’t want her to stay ignorant.

It’s easy for me to imagine this situation taking place in every refugee family from Syria and Iraq, and I can imagine the different reactions in each family. Some probably reject sexual education altogether, dismissing it as inacceptable interference with their lives. These ones will probably never adapt.

Other families reluctantly change their ways just a little bit but try to keep the whole process under control. And then there’s the third group of families that think this society has the right to protect its values ​​and its style of education. My bet would be that this category is the smallest one among asylum seekers, sadly.

I think we have to get used to this and start talking with our children. Jwan, Iraqi refugee in Berlin

Ahmad is a Syrian refugee with a 10-year old daughter. Don’t get him started on sex ed. He said it’s too lurid with far too many explanations. Especially the photos are so lewd and unusual for our kids. “Personally I’d prefer that my wife took care of this,” he said, adding that he spoke to many refugees here and many of them agree.

Jwan, an Iraqi refugee who lives in Berlin with his family, complained that while religion classes are entirely optional, the school administration gives him no say whatsoever on whether his 11-year-old can attend sex education or not. So poor Jwan found himself answering questions he never thought he would have to deal with so soon, if ever. “I think we have to get used to this and start talking with our children,” he said.

That’s a tall order. There is no sexual education in Muslim countries, no course material, no awareness campaign in the media. Anything related to sex is still mostly taboo, and any attempt to change the status quo is bound to cause a backlash from Islamic clerics and will be frowned upon by society.

Teenagers get whatever knowledge about sexuality they can get on the streets, through older friends, porn magazines, and more recently, on the internet. That gives them the impression sexuality is abnormal and problematic and shouldn’t be discussed publicly with family or at school. And what sort of attitude do you think they get when it comes to sex? Their haphazard sexual education leads to big misconceptions that affect their entire lives. Sometimes, it turns them into harassers.

Many cases of sexual attacks and rapes happened in Germany recently. These incidents were all over the media and triggered widespread reprobation and condemnation. It is clear to me that these crimes are a very sensitive topic for Germans.

In Germany, sexual education is something refugees have to take seriously. They can’t pretend it’s not there.

But when the suspect is a refugee, the level of scrutiny is even bigger. The crime is immediately linked to the migrant’s so-called criminal culture, his religious background and his attitude towards women. And many fear more of such crimes are bound to happen.

Many shocking crimes happened, the worst of them in Cologne over a year ago. Since then a lot has been done to avoid a repeat. But incidents keep happening. A few months ago, a German publication reported on a girl who got molested by four refugee kids at the swimming pool. For me, the saddest part was that it was committed by young kids, who supposedly integrate more easily and adopt the new country’s values quicker.

Certainly, harassment exists everywhere. Some of it happens at home too. And the Germans are not always the victims. I know of one incident in which a German teenager tried to hug and kiss his Syrian friend after she agreed to go have tea with him at a restaurant outside school.

The Syrian family, instead of making a fuss, privately blamed the girl and asked her to stay away from the German teenager, as is customary in our culture. On the other hand, the father of the German girl who got molested at the swimming pool went to the police and alarmed the media about his daughter’s ordeal.

Instead of learning about sexuality on the streets, teenagers get educated on it at school with proper content.

But the message is slowly getting across. In Germany, sexual education is something refugees have to take seriously. They can’t pretend it’s not there. And instead of learning about sexuality on the streets or through friends, teenagers get educated on it at school with proper educational content.

Over time, refugees get used to all those things in the new society that are so bewilderingly strange at first. Couples kissing passionately on the streets gradually stop being unusual for us; after a while we rarely stare at them any more -- even gay couples.

I remember a billboard campaign a while back with cartoons advertising for people to use condoms. At first, many refugees were hostile. But eventually, we got used to the posters. We no longer found them offensive, but funny. And then, something happened: We started thinking about the message of the campaign more than anything else.


Yahya Alaous is a refugee journalist. To contact the author: [email protected]