In Germany, Migrants Find Footing But Also Some Resistance

Sep 20, 2015
Originally published on September 20, 2015 12:49 pm

Thousands of migrants fleeing war in their home countries have have made it into Germany and to Berlin.

Once they arrive here, they begin the waiting game.

Germany is expecting at least 800,000 migrants this year alone, and Germans are struggling with the changes they bring.

At Berlin's main processing center for migrants, at a social service ministry, people are handed a number on a slip of paper. They crowd around a digital screen in the ministry courtyard to watch for their number to flash, indicating they can go inside to begin the asylum process.

German volunteers serve lunch inside a big canvas tent — lentil soup and bread. Julia Visakovsky, a psychologist, took a day off work to help serve.

"We basically have to make sure that everybody gets food," Visakovsky says. "Everybody has to stay in line — so children come first, women come first — and give them the feeling that everything is OK here."

A German Obligation To Help

About an hour outside Berlin is the town of Seelow, in former East Germany, population about 5,600. At the end of World War II, Seelow was the site of one of the last stands of Hitler's army and one of the biggest battles on German soil.

Mayor Jorge Schroder has lived here all his life. He described attitudes that are typical of the former East.

"Some people here are very open, especially in the upper regions," Schroder says. "They will be friendly, approachable, helpful. But some have the mentality that, If I don't know you, I'm a little worried about you."

Locals have had to get used to outsiders. At the start of 2015, the Seelow region had 650 migrants. By the end of this year, Schroder says, the town will have to accommodate 2,500.

In 1945, at the end of WWII, Germany had 12 million refugees, people returning from war or leaving Eastern Europe. Older Germans who remember that time are much more open to the newcomers, he says. But young people see the foreigners and think, "there's no work."

That's not the only fear, Schroder says, with so many Muslims and Christians interacting, young people have never been exposed to people of such different cultural backgrounds, and in such big numbers.

Many Germans feel an obligation to welcome the new arrivals. A large number have taken refugee families into their homes. Collection centers overflow with donations of food and clothes.

Jenz Lawrence, who works with migrant youth in Seelow, says Germany has a unique responsibility to care for refugees of war because of its own role in World War II. Lawrence says the outpouring of support for the migrants is drowning out the refrains from far-right groups about the threat posed by outsiders.

"We can also now be proud of Germany," he says. "I think we can be proud that we fight against, and said no, this not again. I think this is good."

But at the other extreme, right-wing groups protest that migrants are a threat to German society. Some refugee facilities have been attacked by arsonists. German law has helped affirm that attitude: Until the year 2000, German law required that to be a German citizen, a person needed German ancestors.

Laws like that have created barriers between Germany and its largest minority group, the Turks.

The Guest-Worker Legacy

As Germany rebuilt after the war, in the 1950s and '60s, the country had a labor shortage, so the government invited workers from other countries to fill industrial jobs with good salaries.

They were supposed to stay for a few years and then return home, but by the 1970s, most of the guest workers were coming from Turkey, and they stopped going home. Instead, they brought their families over and they built a life here.

Writer Imran Ayata was born in Germany, but his parents came from Turkey as guest workers. Ayata says that Turks have never been made to feel part of mainstream society.

"Till today, I don't feel German," he says. "I have a German passport and German papers, and of course I live here and will live here ... It's still not possible not to be confronted with racism or prejudice."

But Ayata does not feel a personal tie to Turkey, either. He does, however, feel close to the tight-knit communities built by his parents and other guest workers in Germany, where people speak only Turkish and have virtually no social ties with the broader culture.

"If there is a will to change the society, which I see a lot in different fields, there is no way to freeze in the way that you are," Ayata says. "You have to change. You know, the main question is, in which direction, in which way this will change. But it will change, definitely."

Ayata also wonders how long the current welcome will last.

Meanwhile, some in the German government say Germany must limit the help it provides.

"Not everyone can stay in Germany, can stay in Europe," says Jens Spahn, a member of the conservative CDU party and the deputy finance minister. "If there are refugees fleeing from war, for example, from Syria, Iraq, they definitely can stay in Germany, and we're going to help them. But if there are people coming out of poverty reasons — which I do understand, but that's not a reason for asylum-seeking, and we have to send them back."

Spahn's office, the Ministry of Finance, is in a massive stone complex in the center of Berlin, built in the 1930s by the Nazis. It was the headquarters for Germany's air force. Posters in the cavernous lobby explain the building's history.

Germany re-invented itself after World War II, and again after the re-unification of East and West. Now, as its population changes, the country is re-inventing itself again.

Last week, the German government proposed new guidelines limiting benefits for asylum-seekers and sending economic migrants home. Integrating those who choose to stay will be exhausting for both Germans and the migrants, Spahn says.

"People are coming out from different cultures, from different traditions," he says. "They have to learn German to integrate into the society. We have values — same rights for men and women, which already starts to be a problem in some of the refugee camps. For example, the special relationship of Germany with Israel because of our history. Everyone who wants to live in Germany and to become a German, sooner or later has to deal with that as well."

Learning German, With Help

In the small town of Neuhartenberg, next-door to Seelow, Mohammed Eh'tai is not yet exhausted. He's working hard on his German, after traveling through a total of five countries to get here.

Eh'tai, 28, was crammed into a small boat, smuggled over a border on the floor of a car, kidnapped once and robbed twice. He walked for miles.

He now shares a two-bedroom apartment with five other Syrian men. In Syria, he was imprisoned for a year in a cell with 150 people, he says, accused of supporting the Free Syrian Army — which he denies.

Eh'tai's father sold everything and paid $50,000 to get him released, he says. He then fled, leaving his parents, his wife and his 2-year-old daughter behind. He brought only his phone, his ID and a stack of certificates — his college degree in accounting, his master's in management.

"I learn Deutche here," he says, indicating a pile of German-language worksheets. An instructor comes twice a week to give free German classes, and migration officials gave him a laptop to study with.

He needs to learn German to get a job, but the search for work has also been complicated by the government moving him around to shelters in different cities. He recently found out that the government is now setting him up with a studio apartment in Strausberg, just east of Berlin.

As a refugee with asylum, the German government also supports him with about $370 dollars a month. He's grateful, but it doesn't sit well.

"I can't accept ... money from anybody, without work," he says. "It's hard to me. It's hard to take money without job."

Eh'tai wants to bring his family to Germany, but eventually he wants to return to Syria and help rebuild the country he was forced to flee.

"When our country is come back, we are come back to our country," he says.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

She's been meeting some of the people who fled war in their home countries and the Germans who are struggling with just how much to welcome them. She joins me now from Berlin. Good morning, Rachel.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Hi, Linda, good morning.

WERTHEIMER: So Rachel, we know there are thousands of migrants who've made it to Germany through Munich. Are many of those people then moving on to Berlin?

MARTIN: If they can. For many of them, yes, that's the goal. Berlin is an ethnically diverse city, one of the most diverse in the country. The economy here is strong. But once they're here, it's a waiting game. We visited the main processing center for the migrants in Berlin; it's a social service ministry. And on the day we went, there were at least a thousand people there.

Each family has been given a number, a little paper ticket, the kind you might get at a carnival, and on the back is written a number, sometimes just scribbled down in pencil. And these numbers are key. When they pop up on the digital screen, when your number is called - everyone crowds around to look in this courtyard - and when their number is called, they're taken inside to begin the asylum process.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we've seen reports that large numbers of Germans are turning out to work as volunteers to help the migrants. Have you seen that in Berlin?

MARTIN: We did. There were at least a couple of dozen German volunteers there at the processing center on the day we went. They were serving lunch. We talked with a woman named Julia Visakovsky. She's a psychologist who had taken the day off work to come volunteer.

JULIA VISAKOVSKY: We basically have to make sure that everybody gets food. - children comes first, women comes first - and give them the feeling that everything's OK here.

WERTHEIMER: Germany is expecting at least 800,000 people to come in this year alone. How do the Germans feel about that?

MARTIN: Well, it's complicated, as you might expect. And to get a sense of this issue of how Germans are struggling with these demographic changes, we visited a town in the former Eastern part of the country. It's about an hour outside of Berlin. It's called Seelow and the population is around 5,600.

Twenty-five years ago, at the end of World War II, this town was the site of a ferocious last stand by Hitler's army, one of the biggest battles on German soil. We met up with the mayor of the town, his name is Jorg Schroder, and he's lived here all his life. He described an attitude that is typical of the former East.

JORG SCHRODER: (Speaking German).

MARTIN: Some people here are very open, especially in the upper regions, he tells me. They'll be friendly, approachable, helpful, but some have the mentality that if I don't know you, I'm a little worried about you. Locals here have had to get used to outsiders. The mayor told me that at the beginning of this year, there were 650 migrants in the region. By the end of 2015, he said, there will be 2,500, and officials here will have to accommodate them. I asked the mayor how his town is responding, and he answered by referencing the history that is so very present here.

SCHRODER: (Speaking German).

MARTIN: "Older people who remember the Second World War, they're a lot more open," he says. In 1945, all throughout Germany, there were 12 million refugees - people returning from war or from Eastern Europe. "These people who remember that are more open, but the young people", he tells me, "they have a problem." They see the foreigners coming and they think there's no work. "That's not the only fear," the mayor told me, "we've got Muslims and Christians interacting, and the young people have never been exposed to people of such different cultural backgrounds and in such big numbers." Others we met in this town feel an obligation to welcome the new arrivals.

Jens Lawrence works with migrant youth in Seelow. We met him at an outdoor cafe in the center of town. He uses the word responsibility. Germany, he said, has a unique responsibility to care for refugees of war precisely because of its role in World War II. And he said the outpouring of support for the migrants is drowning out the refrains from far-right groups about the threat posed by outsiders.

JENS LAWRENCE: We can also now be proud of Germany. But I think we can be proud that we fight against and said, no, this - not again. I think this is good.

MARTIN: There's a battle for the public image of Germany linked to this migration crisis. On the one hand, Germans volunteering to take refugee families into their homes, collection centers overflowing with donations. But there's the other extreme too - arson attacks on refugee facilities, right-wing groups protesting that migrants are a threat to German society. Here's sound from an anti-immigration rally in Dresden earlier this year. This is one of the speakers from the event.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking German).

MARTIN: "They haven't just come here to be our friends," this man says. "they've come here to change everything." This is a fringe group, but it's worth pointing out that until the year 2000, German law required that in order to be a German citizen, you had to have German ancestors. Laws like that have created barriers between Germany and its largest minority group, the Turks.

Imran Ayata was born in Germany, but his parents came here from Turkey in the 1960s as part of the so-called guest worker program. Turks were supposed to help fill the labor market, and then they were supposed to leave; many didn't. But Ayata told us that Turks have never been made to feel part of mainstream society.

IMRAN AYATA: I think you can't grow up with a name like Imran Ayata looking like me. You always have this situation where people look at you and say, where you from? And you say, I'm from Berlin. No, no, where are you from? I say, I'm from Berlin. No, I mean, where are you from? I constantly repeat, I'm from Berlin.

MARTIN: Ayata wonders how long the current welcome culture will last. We'll bring you more of our conversation elsewhere in the show.

Meanwhile, there are members of the German government who say there are real limits to the help Germany can provide. Jens Spahn is a member of the conservative CDU party, and he's the deputy finance minister for Germany.

JENS SPAHN: Not everyone can stay in Germany, can stay in Europe. If there are refugees fleeing from war, for example, from Syria, from Iraq, they definitely can stay in Germany and we're going to help them. But if there are people coming out of poverty reasons, which I do understand, but that's not a reason for asylum-seeking, and we have to send them back. And that's the hard decisions that have to come.

MARTIN: Those hard decisions may come soon. This past week, the German government proposed new guidelines limiting benefits for asylum-seekers. At the same time, economic migrants will be sent home. I asked the deputy finance minister, Jens Spahn, if Germany is prepared to help integrate these refugees if they choose to stay here permanently.

SPAHN: That will be very exhausting for both sides, for the refugees and for Germans, 'cause the people coming are from different cultures, from different traditions. They have to learn German to integrate into the society. We have values, same rights for men and women, which already starts to be a problem in some of the refugee camps. For example, the special relationship of Germany with Israel because of our history, everyone who wants to live in Germany and to become a German sooner or later has to deal with that as well.

MARTIN: Hearing Jens Spahn talk about Germany's history felt all the more profound considering where we were talking. His office, the Ministry of Finance, is housed in a massive stone complex in the center of Berlin. It was built in the 1930s under the Nazis. It was the headquarters for Germany's Air Force. There are posters in the cavernous lobby explaining the building's history. It is important for people here to remember Germany reinvented itself after World War II. It did so again after reunification. And as its population changes today, the country is reinventing itself once again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.