Syrians in Europe: We've been here before

Syrians in Europe: We've been here before
Comment: A Syrian refugee once ushered in a golden age for Europe, and with a supportive policy framework, today's refugees can invigorate European economies, writes Anisa Abeytia.
5 min read
12 Jan, 2017
The cathedral in Cordoba was built as a mosque in Umayyad times [CC/Berthold Werner]

Damascus in the mid-700s was awash in conflict. Rival clans challenged the legitimacy of the Umayyads and massacred the entire ruling family, ending their claim to the Caliphate.

The seat of power moved from Damascus to Baghdad, ending the rule of the fourth Caliphate. However, a sole member of the Umayyad family survived.

In September of 755, Abdurrahman al-Umayyad escaped from his home in Damascus and headed west to his mother's Berber relatives. He was the last in his line, a Noah's ark of a dying civilisation. His Aeneas-like departure took him to Egypt and then Morocco following his earlier predecessor, Tariq ibn Ziyad, who in 711 was the first Syrian to cross the Mediterranean into Spain.

Later in the 21st century, thousands of Abdurrahman's Syrian countrymen and women would follow him, on little, inflatable boats into European exile.

Abdulrahman was the quintessential Umayyad, a fusion of Syrian and other cultures - and he set out to recreate in Cordoba, Spain, what his family had lost in Damascus. He did so in the grand Umayyad tradition by integrating and assimilating local culture to produce something new and unique.

He built Rusafa as a memorial and homage to the family home in which he grew up on the steppes of northeastern Damascus. He wanted to reconstruct what he lost and in the process he laid the foundation of modern Europe.

Abdulrahman ushered in a golden age in Medieval Europe that was midwife to the Renaissance and laid the groundwork for European Imperialism 800 years later

The civilisation Abdulrahman began was the nexus between multiple civilisations and the inception of a new Western identity influencing every aspect of life, from the way stories are told to how universities and hospital wards are run.

The former mosque in Cordoba is one of the finest examples
of Umayyad architecture in Spain [CC/JNordmar]

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and the Troubadours belong to the same genera as the ballads sung in al-Andalus. 

Even our popular music with their familiar repeating choruses are borrowed from Arabic muwashshaha, ring songs. In Medieval Europe, mastery of Arabic - not Latin - was the true mark of a scholar.

Abdulrahman ushered in a golden age in Medieval Europe that was midwife to the Renaissance and laid the groundwork for European Imperialism 800 years later. A cash-flushed Isabel I and Ferdinand II, fresh from the conquest of Granada on January 3, 1492, found themselves in the unique position as the only European monarchy fiscally capable of funding a search for an Atlantic route to India. 

The Spanish monarchs agreed to bankroll Columbus' voyage and later that year he set sail from Granada, paving the way for European empire building.

The Arab/Muslim legacy in Europe is one that remains to be acknowledged outside of Spain, yet the traces of their contributions echo throughout the Western world.

The new wave of Syrian refugees does not need to result in a clash of civilisations, but should be seen as a homecoming to a system their ancestors helped build, and just like Abdulrahman, this new group of Syrian refugees have something valuable to offer Europe - and European governments are aware of this.

When I met with the German Consul General of California in the autumn of 2015, he acknowledged the important role Syrian refugees could play in the German economy. A May 2016 Norwegian policy paper published by the Ministry of Justice also recognised the dynamic role refugees can play in Norway's economy. This role is essential to the survival of Europe's social democracies.

Refugees' ability to contribute will not happen overnight. It will need to be a process that requires mutual respect and understanding

Today's European social democracies require a tax base of able-bodied workers to maintain a high standard of living. As Europe's populations atrophy and the tax base shrinks, refugees can invigorate the economies of their new home countries.


Refugees' ability to contribute will not happen overnight.

It will need to be a process that requires mutual respect and understanding on both sides to allow this new group of Europeans to claim full citizenship.

And for some this may translate into the acquisition of new skills, and for others it may simply be a safe place to heal from years of physical and emotional trauma.

Already, entrepreneurs in Berlin have formed startup companies to meet the city's deficit of coders by training refugees to fill the need, and in Bavaria, Syrian cheese makers have set up shop. These are not isolated incidents but an indication of potential, a potential that should be cultivated by European policy makers.

European policy makers should support the dynamic situation created by the arrival of so many skilled refugees within their borders. A recommendation I proposed to the Norwegian and German governments was to establish dual databases in conjunction with municipal business associations to assess, i) the skills/education levels of refugees, and ii) the needs of labour markets, in order to provide appropriate vocational matches.

The United States in the 1950s-1970s provided substantial support to Cuban and Vietnamese refugees, particularly towards the establishment of small businesses and entrepreneurial ventures. These two groups statistically are more successful than subsequent groups of refugees due to the opportunities they were given.

European policy makers would do well to begin to develop legislature that will allow for the creation of programmes that will best tap their new human capital, and perhaps spark another European golden age.

Anisa Abeytia is a writer whose work has been featured in The Hill, Brunei Times, The Dubai Sun, and the Middle East Observer. Abeytia holds an MS and an MA from Stanford University in Post-Colonial and Feminist Theory.

Follow her on Twitter: @AbeytiaAnisa

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.