Stern magazine called it “the summer of terror.”
But for refugees in Germany, it has been one summer + 3 decades of terror for Afghans, a dozen years for Iraqis, and nearly 5 years of terror for Syrians.
Following the IASFM conference (July 13-15) there were two terror attacks in France, two in Germany, a mass shooting, and a coup attempt in Turkey. The two attacks in Germany were both committed by young male refugees, one from Afghanistan, and the other from Syria. Europe was on edge.
I wondered how the recent terror attacks, two of which were perpetrated by people allowed in the country as refugees, would undermine the outpouring of support for refugee settlement in Germany.
Ansbach, a Bavarian town of 40,454, which sheltered 644 refugees, was where a young Syrian man exploded a bomb at a music festival on Sunday, July 24, killing himself and leaving dozens seriously injured. Wasting no time, Neo-Nazis called for a rally the next day, and began posting threats on their Facebook page against refugee workers. One refugee worker was told by a clerk at the grocery store, that “because of you do-gooders, now we have to fear these shit asylum seekers.”[i] She wondered whether to continue her job if it meant putting her husband and children at risk. Workers told refugees to stay home for the next few days.[ii]
Politicians raised concerns about possible “undocumented” refugees in the country. A researcher at the University of Bremen estimated that as many as 100,000 unregistered asylum seekers could be in the country.[iii] The government issued statements assuring the German people that “the incentives [for asylum seekers] to register are great” since by doing so they also receive shelter, food vouchers, and a small living allowance.
Chancellor Merkel’s government had taken a political risk in accepting over a million refugees into the country since 2015. The government had been working hard to show that Germany “could handle this,” that it could actually work to Germany’s advantage given it’s aging population and the high educational level and motivation of Syrian refugees (and other nationalities as well). The government started a major program to train refugees for volunteer positions in places like nursing homes (see photo below) [iv]
[Director of nursing home: “The care requires helping hands”; Syrian Refugee: “I’m glad to help.”]
Even more impressive than government programs were the reports from all over Germany of communities demonstrating their welcoming spirit, often at some sacrifice, giving up community centers and gymnasiums in order to house refugees, the latter usually reserved for school children. Berlin’s former Tempelhof airport, which had been converted into a sports complex, now housed 1000 refugees, with plans to add container houses for 2,000 more. Tempelhof had been transformed into TempelHome.[v]
But, in the “summer of terror,” would these attacks undo Germany’s Wilkommenskulture, (culture of welcome), its Hilfsbereitschaft (mobilization of support) toward refugees?
To help answer this I turned to two people who work with Refugees in Nuremberg. Sassan Khider works for Caritas as an Advisor to refugees who live in several surrounding villages. He is a former refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan, fluent in German, Arabic, several Kurdish dialects, (and his English ain’t bad). Sassan meets with refugees to help them get the support they need to adjust to life in Germany. I interviewed Sassan on July 27 at the Film Haus, one of his favorite hang outs (mine too, whenever I’m in Nuremberg, which isn’t often enough). I asked him how he thought recent events would affect Germany’s attitudes toward the refugee newcomers.
In response to threats made against refugee workers, Sassan said simply, “for me it’s important just to continue our work,” and described why he remains optimistic:
“there are so many initiatives, all organized by the Germans themselves in the towns and village where the refugees are, so they help them, accompany them to the offices where they get the official papers and many daily needs, doctors, their ID to be extended, school, extra help which they get; these German workers [volunteers] make it easer for us…
This is what makes me more optimistic, this makes me see how they can manage this; they say Wir schaffen.”
Our friend Yvonne, a social worker, gave us a tour of one of the reception centers that houses asylum seekers. She was sober in her assessment of the challenge facing Germany, but like Sassan, was not cowered by fear. She was concerned that the living conditions for refugees were just okay, but not “up to German standards.” And she suggested that more should be done to protect refugees in the countries that host them, like Turkey, or Lebanon.
I was encouraged by what I heard from these dedicated people. In the wake of the attack in Ansbach, the beleaguered refugee workers were saddened and shocked. Reporters quoted townspeople saying “this is enough.” Ansbach is one of the examples of Hilfsbereitschaft, where 800 people had formed a community group called Ansbach Hilft (Ansbach helps) to assist the refugee families. They had organized a weekly café meeting, Café Vielfalt, where refugees and townspeople could simply sit and drink coffee together, (the Stammtisch is a great German tradition). A reporter asked another refugee worker if they now felt rejected by the community? “Right now all are focused on the attack” he responded, “But I am still confident that we can get through this. Because the sense of community in Ansbach is strong.”[vi]
Much is reported about the growing anti-immigrant movements in Europe, including Germany. In Leipzig for example, it is known that Monday nights the organization PEGIDA holds its anti immigrant rally. What you often don’t hear, unless you talk to the locals, is that the counter rally is usually twice as large.
Refugees in Germany have refused to let acts of terror define them. In Ansbach they took to the street with signs saying “Peace for All,” and “We are people like you.”
For these reasons I continue to be hopeful, but let me be clear: there is a struggle between the framers of crisis language, prominent voices across the globe are gaining traction from the fear that undesirable people are crossing our borders and threatening “our way of life.”
My hope does not depend on what politicians have or have not done, but on what the German people – volunteers, churches, schools, and all sorts of community organizations, in partnership with refugees have achieved.
The photograph of refugees, townspeople, and refugee workers together at the 4 km meet in the small town of Hersbruck sums it up for me (Sassan is in middle with orange shirt):
The Arabic word on their t-shirts is, most appropriately, Amal –
[i]SudDeutsch Zeitung 27-7-16. German text: “wegen dieser scheiss-asylanten müssen wir jetzt angst haben, wegen Euch Gutmenschen haben wir jetzt hier.”
[ii]SudDeutsch Zeitung 27-7-16, http://www.sueddeutsche.de/bayern/mittelfranken-das-gemeinschaftsgefuehl-in-ansbach-ist-stark-1.3095645
[iii]Berliner Morgenpost, 21-7-16. Philipp Neumann, “Die Herkunft vieler Flüchtlinge is ungeklärt.”
[v]Berliner Morgenpost, 18 – 7-16. Joachim Fahrun and Andreas Abel, “Notunterkunft für 3000 Menschen.”
[vi]German text: Mit dem Anschlag stehen wir jetzt im Fokus. Ich bin aber trotzdem zuversichtlich, dass wir das überstehen. Denn das Gemeinschaftsgefühl in Ansbach ist stark. http://www.sueddeutsche.de/bayern/mittelfranken-das-gemeinschaftsgefuehl-in-ansbach-ist-stark-1.3095645.