'There have to be limits': mixed feelings from Germans over refugees
As dusk fell on Eisenhüttenstadt, Abdul Rahman was heading back to the asylum seekers’ hostel he now calls home.
Rahman, 20, arrived in the small eastern German town on Monday, together with 900 other refugees. They came by special train from Munich. Rahman said he and two friends had fled Damascus to avoid being drafted into the Syrian army. “I didn’t want to kill civilians,” he explained.
In the field immediately outside his hostel on Karl Marx Street two rival demonstrations were taking place. About 60 neo-Nazis were staging an anti-refugee protest. About 90 locals had turned up to support them. The demonstrators – some with shaven heads – unfurled two German flags and a banner which said: “We’ll fight for you until you wake up!”
A small line of police watched the protest. Manuela Kokott, a politician with the far-right National Democratic party, spoke into a loudhailer. The refugees arriving in were bringing chaos, dirt and criminality, she told the audience. Each cost the German taxpayer €9,500 (£6,950) a year, she added, money better spent on German pensioners and kindergartens.
Nearby, 200 people waving “We love refugees” placards were holding a noisy counter-demonstration. A small group surged forward towards the neo-Nazis. They shouted “Nazis out” and began a football-style chant of “You’re so ri-di-culous, you’re so ri-di-culous”. The neo-Nazis sang back: “Whoever doesn’t love Germany should leave.”
Both sides entirely ignored the refugees, who were sitting under pine trees and watched the spectacle with bemusement. They included Syrians, two Afghans and an Iranian from Tehran. Above them the sky turned a dusky pink. What did Rahman make of the accusation he was a burden on Germany? “Give us work and we’ll pay Germany back,” he said.
Rahman said he had been studying law at Damascus University. His country was a disaster, he said, trapped between two killers, Bashar al-Assad and Islamic State.
Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has been acclaimed for her to Europe’s worst refugee crisis for 70 years. She and her Social Democratic coalition partners are optimistic the country can cope. Berlin expects to receive at least 800,000 asylum applications in 2015. About 120,000 refugees arrived in Munich in August. More than 25,000 came last weekend.
With Bavaria unable to accommodate all of them, refugees are now being sent on to cities and towns like Eisenhüttenstadt, in each corner of the country. It is a massive operation. From many Germans, there has been overwhelming goodwill towards this unprecedented situation. They have .
But the mood has not been universally welcoming, especially in the former communist east. Some commentators doubt Germany’s capacity to accommodate so many new people – and wonder what long-term impact they might have on the country’s infrastructure and finances, not to mention its European cultural identity.
On Wednesday, the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung if the “heterogenous crowds” from diverse backgrounds could really be transformed into “constitutionally loyal” citizens and taxpayers. Meanwhile, in Der Spiegel, a leading Catholic cardinal, Reinhard Marx, blamed “internet culture” for spreading anti-foreigner hostility among “modernisation’s losers”.
The attitude towards refugees in Eisenhüttenstadt is distinctly mixed. Built in the early 1950s, the city was known as Stalinstadt, or Stalin City, from 1953-1961. It was meant as a showcase of idealistic socialist urban planning. Its main street – once Lenin Avenue, now Linden Avenue – still has a distinctly GDR feel, with monumental tower blocs overlooking a wide cobbled boulevard. Its modern name means ironworks city.
Since the demise of the Berlin Wall, however, the town has fallen on hard times. The population has halved from 53,000 to 27,000. Many have left for the more prosperous west. Eisenhüttenstadt’s steel factory is still in business, its giant towers visible from the GDR theme-park-like centre. But its workforce has shrivelled from 10,000 to 3,500.
Those who grew up in the post-war era call themselves “Stalin City-ers”. Many are sceptical about their new neighbours who, after a long trek from Syria, find themselves living in a rustic province next to the Polish border. “We don’t need more foreigners. There have to be limits,” Bernd, 56 – who declined to give his second name – said, standing on the edge of the anti-refugee gathering.
Bernd said he was not a Nazi or a “radical” and had voted at the last election for Die Linke, Germany’s hard-left party. He worked with Russians and Poles but now worried that the retirement age would be raised from 63 to 67.
“Merkel is neglecting her own people. She is obsessed by refugees,” he said. He added that he did not have sympathy with young Syrians fleeing conscription: “I did my military service in the GDR, guarding the green [non-Berlin] border with West Germany. We stopped criminals from escaping to the other side.” He added: “I never deserted.”
Several Syrians walked past. Bernd’s friend Klaus – a former professional footballer who played in East Germany’s national league in the 1970s – said: “Look at them. They are running like giraffes.” But didn’t the GDR once welcome visitors from other fraternal communist countries? “Yes, we had Vietnamese. But they worked hard and went home afterwards,” Klaus said.
Hanke Kempe, an 18-year-old volunteer helping out in the refugee hostel, admitted there were those in the town who had misgivings. “Some people are afraid. They read all sorts of nonsense on Facebook, that the refugees get preferential treatment.” But she said young educated people were keen to help. They belonged to a swelling army of unpaid volunteers known as Ehrenamtliche.
Kempe and her three female student friends were taking bags of clothes and toys into the hostel. With more refugees arriving daily, the complex was struggling to cope. Some were sleeping in tents, others in a sports hall. Kempe said some blocks had no electricity and that the toilets had broken last week. “At home I have chickens. They live better than this,” she said.
The refugees, however, said that conditions were good and they had few complaints. Mishal Aldein, 26, said he had left for Germany after government troops besieged his village near Damascus. He escaped at night by bribing a policeman. He left for Lebanon, flew to Istanbul, took a boat to Greece, and then paid $2,500 (£1,620) to smugglers in Athens who drove him all the way to Munich.
Most people in Eisenhüttenstadt had been friendly, he said. He admitted, however, that one man had shown him the finger, and another had pressed himself against a wall as he passed “as if we were germs”. The German government was giving him basic support – €47.10 every 10 days – he said.
Since Monday, Some think the new arrivals might rejuvenate Eisenhüttenstadt, bringing life back to the area after years of seemingly inexorable decline. “For regions threatened with depopulation, refugees are good,” David Steinbeiss said, speaking next to a banner that read: “Refugees welcome, against racism and the right.”
About 500 men are living in a second camp run by the German Red Cross. Most are in tents, in sleeping bags. Staff said there were plans to construct a more permanent building before winter arrives. The refugees were keen to help: two carpenters had made a portico for the Red Cross office; others were refurbishing bikes in a workshop. All attended free German courses.
The camp is on the edge of a municipal forest. Syrians walk among the pine trees, sometimes asking each other for directions in Arabic. In a grassy clearing an Albanian dad was playing football with his son. At the city’s railway station, a well-to-do Syrian couple said they were leaving for another shelter in Brandenburg, one of 16 German federal states now dealing with a major housing emergency.
Nobody knows how Merkel’s all-embracing offer to Syrian and Afghan refugees will work out. Attacks on asylum seekers’ homes are on the rise. According to the German interior ministry, there were 173 criminal incidents in the first six months of this year. Last month, Merkel visited an asylum seekers’ hostel in Heidenau, near Dresden, after , battling with police over two successive nights.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, unidentified attackers threw a burning torch at an asylum seekers’ hostel in Berlin’s Marzahn district. No one was hurt. There have been recent incidents in Salzhemmendorf in Lower Saxony.
Back at the demonstration, the neo-Nazis and anti-fascists were preparing to walk and cycle home – but not before swapping a few last insults. The anti-refugee rally featured far-right rock and an adapted version of the hit single . Its new German lyrics began: “Unsere Heimat, unsere Stadt” – our homeland, our city.
“Wir sind das Volk!” – we are the people – the neo-Nazis shouted.
“Nazis out!” their opponents replied.
- This article was amended on 14 September 2015. An earlier version described Lower Saxony as “another deprived region of former East Germany, where the National Democratic party has its strongest political support, in 2014 winning nearly 5% of the vote”. That is a description of Saxony, a different state in north-west Germany.