When Refugees Lead

When Refugees Lead: Conversation with German Politician Omid Nouripour

As part of our series ‘When Refugees Lead,’ we speak with Omid Nouripour, a German politician from the Green Party whose family fled Iran in the 1980s.

Written by Yermi Brenner Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Omid Nouripour received his German passport in 2002 and became a member of parliament a few years later. Courtesy of Omid Nouripour

The slogan that appeared in Omid Nouripour’s 2017 election campaign posters – “For international peace and harmony” – reflects his international political agenda in Germany’s Federal Parliament.

Since first becoming an M.P. in 2006, Nouripour, who represents the Green Party, has been part of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid Committee. He is vocal on issues from the war in Syria and the Iran nuclear deal to dealing with jihadists and racism in Germany. When refugees became a central topic in German politics, it was Nouripour who became the Green Party’s leading voice on migration and integration issues.

Nouripour’s focus on peace between nations and peoples is rooted in his personal history. Born in 1975 in Iran, he was just 13 years old when he and his family emigrated from Tehran to Frankfurt. His parents decided to flee Iran because they feared Nouripour would be forcefully recruited into the Iranian military and his sister wouldn’t have access to university education if they stayed.

Upon arrival in Germany, Nouripour knew very little German and even less about German culture. But he was a good student and quickly learned the language and made friends at school. He was fascinated by German politics, but it seemed implausible to him that a migrant could become an elected official. Then he saw a German politician with Turkish roots on television. Immediately, he knew that all he wanted to do was to enter politics.

Nouripour received a German passport in 2002, and soon after joined the Green Party. One of his first political roles was spokesperson of the German Association for Migratory Affairs and Refugees. Later, he became an M.P. by taking the place of a fellow Green Party member who resigned. Since then, Nouripour has been elected in three consecutive federal elections.

In his parliamentary speeches and media appearances, Nouripour often emphasizes that if Germans learned the personal histories of refugees hosted in the country, they would see they have much in common with them. “An individual persecuted by the Eritrean regime may well have suffered a traumatic experience similar to a victim of the Stasi 40 years ago or an Iranian opposition activist who fled to Germany 30 years ago,” he wrote in a 2016 essay, in which he emphasized that “integration is a two-way street.”

Refugees Deeply: For you and your family, how was the experience of integrating into German society and what were the biggest challenges?

Omid Nouripour: Our integration took place in several waves. It was a gradual process for every single member of my family. Each further step we consciously took was a move toward deeper integration, a step toward becoming equal parts of a multicultural society. Our integration journey was characterized by frustrations, trouble and setbacks, but even more by the will to master these challenges. Overcoming these struggles and obstacles required resilience, shaped my self-conception and strengthened my commitment to be an integral part of a multicultural German society.

Refugees Deeply: How has your personal experience impacted your views on migration and integration policies?

Nouripour: From my own integration experience, I have learned that it’s essential to accompany migrants during all stages of their integration process because every step – labor market integration, integration into the educational system, language acquisition, [search for] affordable housing – holds its own challenges and struggles. We have to recognize that integration is not always a straightforward process but sometimes a bumpy road.

It’s within our power and our social responsibility to shape the route to integration by acknowledging and appreciating diversity as a value that contributes to growth and prosperity, by [implementing] prevention measures like deradicalization programs, by recognizing the economic dynamic of migration and by a coherent and consistent application of criminal law. We have to show [migrants the] opportunities as well as the limitations [and encourage their] social participation. It’s equally fundamental to clearly communicate [to newcomers about local] values and laws, and at the same time punish perpetrators regardless of their origin, status, religion, color or sexual orientation.

Refugees Deeply: What motivated you to be a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid Committee?

Nouripour: Being a member of these specific committees allowed me to put my own migration and integration experience to work, both theoretically and practically. It gave me the opportunity to [use] my intercultural skills and my multilingualism to shape foreign policy [in a way] that puts humans and cross-cultural understanding in the center of any strategy and action.

Refugees Deeply: Germany, along with other European countries, is increasingly trying to prevent the arrival of non-European migrants and refugees – for example, the deal with Turkey and efforts in North Africa. Considering your own personal story, how do you feel about this approach?

Nouripour: It’s short-sighted to create barriers by entering “dirty deals” with countries that use these deals as political leverage for their own geopolitical agenda. The arbitrary labeling of “safe countries of origin” must not be misused to keep out migrants from the E.U. Rather, we should seek to respond and address the root causes of migration, such as climatic change causing a rural exodus, deliveries of arms to despots that lead to extremely bloody civil wars, nonexistent infrastructures, lack of transitional justice mechanisms and hence no perspective to pursue justice for the victims of grave violations of human rights, and restricted access of humanitarian organizations and independent monitors to conflict areas.

Politically motivated measures, which aim only to reassure the European population that E.U. governments are in control of the situation, are a manifestation of loss of control, because they shift the core problems to fragile or even failed states that cannot provide adequate responses to these manifold challenges. We have to become more selective and more critical in selecting partners [for international agreements on migration] and in terms of arms exports. We must place the emphasis on helping the states of origin set up the structures necessary for the rule of law [and we must] encourage them to promote transitional justice mechanisms in their territories, improve the conditions for resettlement of displaced persons and returnees and create viable political solutions. These are long-term challenges that cannot be solved with short-sighted actions.

Refugees Deeply: Why is it important to have politicians or leaders who have a migration or refugee background? How does it impact on German politics and society?

Nouripour: My own migration experience taught me the ability to integrate into existing structures and, at the same time, shape these structures by redefining thinking patterns. As a politician, you have [the ability] to directly impact political, ecological and social imbalances. [As a result of] my own personal migration and integration experience, I could identify integration hurdles more easily and suggest strategies for sustainable integration measures at all levels of society and at all stages of integration. Politicians and leaders with a migration or refugee background are important as they reflect the “new normality” of our society – [an equality of] opportunities that does not exist merely on paper. They have a pioneering role, a model function, and encourage others to follow their example.

Politicians and leaders with a migration or refugee background are important as they reflect the “new normality” of our society – [an equality of] opportunities that does not exist merely on paper.

The impact that politicians and leaders with a migration or refugee background can have on German politics and society is closely linked to the degree of intercultural opening at all levels. The more open that administrations, political parties, associations, global players, small and medium-sized enterprises are, the faster politicians and leaders with migration or refugee backgrounds can contribute their special skills and shape German politics and society. We must not forget that refugees have proven skills – such as the ability to work in a team, resilience and resistance to stress – that were developed during their life-threatening flight and their months- or even years-long odyssey through refugee camps. It is time to finally appreciate and accept the richness of these skills for German and European society.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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