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November in Germany

by Tomáš Lindner 23 November 2015

They just keep on coming. It’s the second half of November and still thousands of refugees arrive in Germany every day, although the news by now is stale and people have almost stopping talking about it. Roughly one million people have come to the country this year, according to many estimates.

 

“We can manage this,” Angela Merkel says with the same confident tone she used three months ago, when there were half a million fewer asylum seekers. On the day of the attacks in Paris she even added, “We have it under control.” Ever more German and foreign politicians are starting to have their doubts, however. Whether the Germans truly can manage the present situation – can successfully integrate hundreds of thousands of incomers from very different cultures and carry through their concept of a European solution to the crisis – are questions that will play out across Europe for years to come. If the German effort were to collapse, it would undermine the stability of the country which for the past five years has been the political steersman and economic engine of the EU.

 

Over the past week, we gathered three very different experiences of Germany today, in a conservative Bavarian village, a cosmopolitan city in the southwest, and a town in the post-communist east. These short trips resulted in snapshots of German society as it begins to tackle a problem which the country’s heads of state and government regard as the hardest since the end of World War II.

 

First stop: Fischen im Allgäu


The air is pure on the edge of the village as a farmer drives his tractor across a meadow overtopped by the peaks of the Bavarian Alps. Some houses display traditional frescoes on their facades; others are decorated with antlers. Almost every other house offers guest accommodation of some kind.

 

A greater contrast with Kabul or Damascus – the departure points for four dozen new residents in this place of 3,000 inhabitants – can hardly be imagined. The first Syrians and Afghans came last November. “The quota for this district stipulated that the number of refugees in each village should equal 1 percent of its population –  more than 30 people in our case,” Bernward Lingemann of the local administration explains.

 

“But with so many refugees arriving in Germany, it wasn’t enough. Recently the quota was raised to 2 percent. A month ago we took in another 16 underage Afghans.”

 

The adult newcomers are living a typical Alpine dwelling with a brown-varnished wooden balcony and a pretty view of the Catholic church’s slender steeple. “Hilbrand” is painted on the plastered wall – the name of the inn which closed two years ago after its owner’s death and was then rented to the authorities by its new owner as housing for asylum seekers.

 

The week before last, townspeople met in the community center to draw up a balance sheet for the past year of coexistence between mountaineers and refugees. Thirty of the original 40 received asylum, enabling them to move out of  communal housing and start new lives. Ten men left for larger cities where relatives or friends from the old country were already living. The rest are trying to lay down roots here, in the hills. “It’s not easy to find housing here, though,” Lingemann says. “Some homeowners don’t want refugees.”

 

Even so, there is remarkable evidence of two worlds coming together within these picturesque walls. Case in point: Evening in chef Lothar Jacobi’s apartment. “This is a schnapps glass,” he says. “Shnapst?” replies Hamza, an abstainer for religious reasons. “Schnapps. It’s kind of like cognac, but colorless.” The terror attacks in Paris were three days ago, and a newsreader on the television in the living room declares that “the war in Syria has come to us,” while in the kitchen the debate is about glasses. Jacobi shows three smiling young men from Syria the proper glassware for white wine, red wine, and sparkling wine. They are soon bound for part-time jobs in an Alpine hotel in the nearby resort of Oberstdorf. Jacobi arranged the jobs and is now putting them through basic training. “I’ll have the spaghetti,” Hamza says in German, as he takes forks and spoons from a drawer and lays them before an imaginary guest. “That’s right, but don’t make such quick movements. Nice and slow. Gracefully.”

 

It seems that the local refugee crisis is well under control in Fischen. “We also got lucky that such great guys came here,” Lingemann, the official, says. “We discovered that the most important thing was intensive conversations with the neighbors. Even before the first refugees came, we invited them to a discussion and we took their fears seriously.” People were concerned for their daughters, thinking they would be afraid to go out at night. Some near neighbors of the refugee hostel worried tourists would stop coming. Their fears failed to materialize; the police didn’t have a single problem to sort out. “Our communication with people was so proactive, opponents of the refugees didn’t dare speak up,” the official says.

 

Friends of Lingemann worked to pre-empt the naysayers. They collected suggestions and complaints from the old-time residents and talked them over at monthly meetings with the asylum seekers. One woman complained of newcomers riding bikes on the sidewalk. Another said their habit of hanging bed linen or underwear in the windows spoiled the view. Regular airing of such grievances helped the newcomers grasp the rules of life in the conservative Bavarian countryside.

 

After a year, some villagers have not lost their fears. “Take my wife. She wouldn’t visit a refugee, and I know a few others who take me for a fool,” says Hans Besler, 76, who along with Lothar Jacobi and some 50 other villagers, retirees for the most part, has volunteered to help the newcomers.

 

“It comes of my Christian faith,” says Besler, a onetime woodcutter, carpenter and school handyman. Sitting on a bench in the refugee hostel, he points out the window to a broad hill likewise called Besler. “Once it belonged to someone in our family. The Beslers came to these parts in the 15th century.” This long-established villager had never come in contact with a refugee before, yet last October he started taking them on hikes in the Alps: “To show them how we live here.”

 

After a year, has he lost his activist spirit? “Not at all. The only thing that bothers me is their unpunctuality. We arrange a meeting for eight and they never appear before 8:30. But I’ve realized I may be overdoing it on the punctuality. It’s also a shame we can’t understand each other better. I speak in a strong dialect, so even the better German speakers can’t understand me.”

 

With some skepticism, Besler tells how only a third of the refugees have learned decent German and says some have hardly tried, scorning the offer of free lessons from locals. “It’s been a bit frustrating for us. Still, they are like us – each one is different.”

 

Second stop: Stuttgart

 

The metropolis of Baden-Württemberg is a city of economic champions. Here are the head offices of Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Bosch. No less is it a city where since the 1950s migrants from Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and Turkey have successfully integrated.

 

At that time, the city owned the huge majority of apartments in Stuttgart, a situation the city’s visionary mayor in the ’70s exploited in order to forestall the birth of the foreigners’ ghettos that blight many European cities today. In no city-owned apartment building, and they were in the majority before privatizations in the 1990s, was the proportion of immigrants allowed to exceed 30 percent. In this way Stuttgart distributed newcomers from other cultures around every neighborhood.

 

City Hall tried to repurpose this successful recipe to cope with the current refugee crisis. The plan was to house asylum seekers in small hostels spread throughout the city and thus ease their integration into the German way of life.

 

“But then we hit a wall,” Martha Aykut says. She is a deputy to the city’s chief integration official. “In May the quota was set at 250 refugees per month. By summer it was 650 per month, and now it’s roughly 1,200. It’s extremely difficult to find accommodation for them, especially since the city was suffering from a housing shortage even before the current crisis. The city lies in a basin where there is no room for more construction.”

 

The growing numbers of incomers spoiled the city’s plans. One difficulty was the rule preventing more than 250 people living in any one migrant accommodation. Nor was the city permitted to temporarily house them in gyms or in tents. Instead, city authorities erected provisional two-story houses, with a planned lifespan of five years, on several large parking lots and green areas. Meant to provide a modicum of comfort for the migrants, the rules no longer apply: Refugees are housed in four gyms and are moving to an old hospital, where their number will exceed 500. The sheer scale of the influx means that the city for now is simply dealing with an acute situation. There is no scope for implementing any long-term integration policies.

 

“The city and all of Germany are keeping the situation under control, but only thanks to the public,” explains political scientist Levent Günes, who combines lecturing on migration at the university in Stuttgart with a job with the city. The neighborhood associations that sprang up in the vicinity of the city’s 92 refugee hostels count 3,000 active volunteers – one for every two incomers.

 

Stuttgart practices the “godfather” system, which pairs up residents with asylum seekers in need of advice and help. Günes is godfather to a family of Yezidis who fled from Islamic State. “We don’t understand each other that well, and this is quite limiting for our mutual enrichment,” says Günes, the son of Turkish Gastarbeiters who considers himself to be German.

 

Four in 10 residents in this city of 600,000, like Günes, have an immigrant background; 10 percent are Muslim. Against this backdrop, the 6,000 to 7,000 refugees now living here don’t stand out that much. “You can’t see any change,” Günes says. “The change is noticeable only to the officials who have to arrange housing and school places for the refugees. But this is a rich state, no one is unemployed, so people aren’t bothered by foreigners.”

 

Third stop: Halle

 

You definitely do sense change after arriving in Halle, in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt. Certainly when you hear the local TV news reporting about women’s growing interest in self-defense courses and the 700 percent jump in sales of pepper spray. “That’s right, in one month I sold more than in all of the last year. Women are afraid of Arabs and blacks,” says a woman street vendor in the pedestrian zone on Leipzigerstrasse. “Don’t exaggerate. That’s just because it’s getting dark earlier. Pepper spray always sells well in November,” a fellow vendor chimes in.

 

In Halle, along with most of the former East Germany, the streets do seem different. Before the refugee crisis few people with non-European roots lived here – around 5,000 in this city of 200,000. The wave of asylum seekers has seen those numbers roughly double.

 

“You can see the changes at a glance. They have it easier in the west, where schools are used to having some Turkish children and the authorities have decades of experience with integration,” says Elisabeth Ritter of a counseling center for migrants. “Here, we’re just starting out. At our center we assist migrants who arrived here carrying various kinds of trauma. But the waiting list is a year long! Similar organizations in the west have more staff and money.”

 

The nationwide refugee distribution quotas also apply here. This year, Saxony-Anhalt is set to receive 23,000 asylum seekers, who will arrive in a state with just 2.2 million inhabitants and an unemployment rate of 9.5 percent, the highest in Germany. In October, the long-serving mayor of the state capital Magdeburg resigned from the Social Democratic Party. The party leadership argued the quota was unsustainable and demanded a limit on the number of migrants Germany would accept.

 

A large part of the newcomers to Halle live in the city’s biggest, once most deluxe, hotel situated in a communist-era concrete panel building at the end of the pedestrian zone. About 700 mostly Syrian refugees are staying there. The government of Saxony-Anhalt took out a three-year lease on the building from a hotel company. The mayor sees this as a good solution: Rather than put migrants on the edge of town, they are in the center, near offices, shops and ordinary people.

 

“It seems good to me as well,” Elisabeth Ritter says, “but a lot of hatred was expressed on the internet and among the public. People said it was too luxurious.” The hotel staff were laid off, and the labor office is only now starting to look for new places for them.

 

Two police cars keep the hotel under constant watch. “So that no one sprays here or puts up anti-refugee slogans,” one officer says. Attacks on refugee hostels are most common in the former East Germany, above all Saxony-Anhalt and neighboring Saxony. More than 600 such incidents have been recorded this year across Germany, and they are increasing.

 

“Some university students organized an art class for the migrants, but one female client of our center just said they are afraid to go there after dark. Another told me she was given an apartment in a complex where several of her neighbors have German flags on their doors. She has a bad feeling about it,” Ritter says. “But on the other hand, whenever the anti-refugee Pegida hold a demonstration, three times as many people join a counter-demonstration. The debate is heating up.”


Looking for a way ahead

 

Can Germany handle it, as Chancellor Merkel promises? “We could take two or three times as many refugees in this area, I’m sure of it. But the wider situation, as I see it on television, that scares me a little. There’s no end in sight,” the Alpine mountaineer Hans Besler muses.

 

“It’s obvious that the influx of refugees can’t continue forever. There needs to be a European solution, and solutions in the countries undergoing conflicts. If not, I can’t imagine how things will develop,” says Martha Aykut, the Stuttgart official. “It’s hard, we aren’t keeping up, but the country as a whole still has reserves,” Elisabeth Ritter says.

 

The ruling coalition, rather quietly, is considering a major change in migration policy. If Turkey succeeds in guarding its border with Greece, the Germans could bring in small numbers of refugees by air. That would give the authorities a clear idea who is coming to the country, take away the traffickers’ business, and spare the refugees the cost of the difficult land journey across the Balkans. 

Tomáš Lindner is a reporter for the Czech magazine Respekt, where this article originally appeared. Translated by Ky Krauthamer.
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