After authoritarianism: How political thinking travels with Syrians to Germany and Denmark

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Birgitte Holst


Postdoctoral Fellow


Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, Germany


DKK 1,050,000




Internationalisation Fellowships


Focusing on Syrian refugees in Germany and Denmark, the project investigates how memories of life under authoritarian rule in Syria are activated in encounters between Syrian refugees and authorities in receiver states. It further examines how such memories become frames of interpretation that Syrians use to navigate in host state political structures. The project thus explores two interrelated issues. First, the ways in which authoritarianism lives on as frames of reference among refugees. Second, the processes through which refugees come to think of their positions in receiver states in particular ways. These positions are to a large extent determined by receiver state policies and bureaucratic practices. However, the project investigates how refugees use memories of their political past to navigate in relation to such policies and practices.


In Europe, much political and academic debate examines the significance of (perceived) cultural and religious difference for the integration of refugees. Yet, we know very little about the ways in which refugees' political experiences in their countries of origin impact their ways of relating to host states. Studies of the positions refugees occupy as subjects of receiver states (i.e. as placed under the authority of receiver states) overwhelmingly leave out the political backgrounds of refugees. Attending to the significance of such backgrounds, the project sheds new light on relationships between receiver states and refugees.


To explore how Syrians use memories to navigate in receiver states, the project employs ethnographic fieldwork with and among Syrian refugees in Germany and Denmark. Through participant-observation in and of encounters between Syrians and host state authorities, it investigates when and how interlocutors activate memories of Syria - and to what ends. Through semi-structured interviews with interlocutors, the project further examines how Syrians perceive their positions as subjects of receiver states.

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