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It has been a year since Germany agreed to accept a million refugees. The public remains divided and right wing attacks are on the rise, especially in the eastern parts of the country. But close to the Czech border, a local community has found its own solution for xenophobia.
A night in the countryside
Not everyone found a place. Some hundred people were standing, pressed uncomfortably to the walls or lining up outside, trying to listen to the debate. The loudspeakers failed constantly. This Thursday night back in March 2015, all 900 people living in Boxberg seemed to gather in the town hall to protest the arrival of 200 refugees. The atmosphere was heated. Broad chested men above 50 yelled their concerns regarding public security and an already existing problem with the lack of medical care in the area. The silent majority did not object. Werner Genau, magistrate of the local district, took the stage. “Human dignity is inviolable” he said, quoting the first line of the German constitution. “The people are coming, there is no way around it,” he continued. “We have to take care of them.”
The crowd still sneered at him, but this time, more hesitantly.
On July 29th 2016, a bus transported the last 44 remaining refugees 50 minutes south to Löbau. Most of the people moved to their own appartment in the disctrict of Görlitz county earlier. Here, in the state of Saxony, neo-Nazi groups attack violently, the right wing party wins seats in the elections and overall xenophobia is common. As chronicled by the NGO “Mut gegen Rechte Gewalt” (“Courage against right wing violence”), since January 2015, there have been 507 attacks in Saxony. That is more than in the rest of Germany – combined. Even though Saxony has just five percent of the entire population, of which only 2.2 percent are foreigners.
Some call Saxony the “brown state” due to its popularity with neo-Nazi groups since the unification in 1990. The new destination of Boxberg’s refugees in Löbau was already attacked twice, in March 2015 and February 2016.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was a rough cut for virtually everyone in East Germany. The western economy rolled over the area and crushed those who were unable to adjust. Factories closed, jobs left - and so did the people. The economy is still not on the same level, employees earn only 80 percent of the wages in the west. Today, the problem of Saxony is not a lack of money though, but just emptiness: A fourth of its population has left after the unification. The streets and buildings that still carry people look very modern and clean, but those that are without a soul just fall apart.
Since the arrival of refugees, some houses filled with life again. One of those places is Zittau, a town of 25 thousand people, nestled between the Czech and Polish border.
It is a short walk across the bridge to Poland or a 14-minute bus ride to the center. Besides that, there is a whole lot of nothing. Even the rooms in the refugee home are mostly empty now. Less than 45 people live in this defunct customs station, renovated to house 250 asylum seekers. The huge stream of refugees coming to Germany is now over and even the local state government had to correct their estimates from 51 thousand new people arriving in 2016 to less than 20 thousand this year.
With his back against the fence sits a young man in a leather jacket. Muhammad Naeem smokes a cigarette while watching the empty streets. There’s a small sign strung to the fence, only visible from the inside. “Don’t throw stones” is written on it in Russian, Arabic, English and German. “It’s because of the kids,” Naeem, 28, says.
His journey from his home in Pakistan took him ten months. He crossed from Russia over to Norway and eventually found his way to Zittau two months ago. His new neighbors come from Afghanistan, Syria and Chechnya. They don’t dare to cross the nearby border, knowing well the rejection they would face in the neighboring countries.
All Naeem wants to do is work as a flower decorator. But so far, he is just waiting for things to happen. Like for the German lessons that start in September, or a working opportunity. Until then, he smokes a pack of cigarettes each day that he buys with his small allowance. “I’m happy” he says.
When asked why there is a refugee home near a sewage plant in his district, Werner Genau, magistrate of Görlitz county, says: “You have to understand: I could only work with what I had.” Genau, 55, is an engineer who is responsible for construction and infrastructure in his district. Currently 95 percent of his work concerns the refugees. He is certain the home near the sewage facility will be closed by next year.
Genau was born in the 1960s as the youngest of six children in a catholic family. Growing up, he wore his older brother’s hand-me-downs and food was always scarce. Genau has learned to share.
Locals were scared of both the right wing and the left wing supporters clashing over the refugees in their neighborhood.
Genau’s concerns are reasonable. Just last week on September 15th, a neo-Nazi group of 80 men and women attacked a group of twenty refugees in Bautzen, 50km west of Görlitz. They’ve thrown rocks & bottles and they blocked the ambulance trying to bring an 18 year old injured Moroccan to the hospital. Only after a hundred policemen appeared and took up guard in front of the refugee home, the attackers dispersed.
Other attacks in Saxony since the beginning of 2015 include: arson at asylum homes, assault against foreigners and attacks on people supporting refugees. Genau reckons that their approach in Görlitz might be the reason for the unusual low number of attacks – seven in two years as compared to 157 incidents in the biggest city nearby, Dresden.
Some call it the ‘Görlitz model’ that was implemented even before the influx of refugees last year: a decentralized solution with no large homes for hundreds of refugees, but small apartments in the community.
“Around 75 percent of our asylum seekers are families” Genau says. When they arrive, they are temporarily put in a larger home, but the aim is to resettle them after one or two months into the community, when they seem to have adjusted. After the arrival of refugees, Görlitz re-opened schools and kindergartens, to accommodate the new people.
Currently, 1950 asylum seekers from 32 countries live in the Görlitz area, the majority of them outside centralized homes. Genau estimates that only two to three percent are not willing to integrate into society.
He recounts local politicians and leaders that spoke to their community in the last year. They only complained about the state of things and how it will exacerbate problems of the area, instead of presenting solutions. “The people here feel left alone,” says Genau.
Police officer Thomas Neumann was called to Bautzen after the attacks. He is usually patrolling the (now non-existing) border between Germany and the Czech Republic. It’s been his duty for 24 years. Neumann, 46, echoes Genau’s sentiment about the local population: “The people here feel like they are on their own,” he says.
As a young man, he fixed pianos for a living, but the unification brought change for him as well. With a proud smile he recounts how he used to catch car thieves before the border was opened. To him, it’s like describing a winning streak of his favorite soccer team. Even though all the criminals he caught were foreigners, he himself never developed xenophobia. And surprisingly neither did the people at the border, he claims. Neumann estimates, this is because of a constant intercultural exchange.
While some argue, that the East German states are xenophobic because of their former communist nature, a recent study claims that there is no such connection: Comparing individual criteria like wealth, education and employment, the analysis by Peter Selb, professor at the University of Konstanz, shows that East Germans are just as likely to be xenophobic as their exact western counterparts. The difference is just that there is more poverty in the east: Between 20 and 30 percent of the people here receive financial aid from the government - compared to a nation average of 15 percent. Of all districts in Saxony, Görlitz has the highest rate of unemployment. Every tenth person is without a job.
Among the ruins of the military academy Mandaukaserne, built in 1962 and left to itself in 1990, are two renovated buildings that now house 50 and 200 refugees.
From their windows, they can see the imposing barracks, five stories tall, the windows broken, and birch trees growing out of the gutter on the rooftop. It seems a battle swept across the area like a storm, but it was just nature and a wish to forget the past.
Coming from a war zone, this is the reality the refugees see every day. It is also the reality that locals face for 25 years now.
The Reason it Worked
Addressing this daily reality might be the secret of the ‘Görlitz model’: Genau and his staff extensively spend time with the local people, explaining their goal and introducing them to the new families moving in next door.
Genau is a member of the same political party as Chancellor Angela Merkel, but he strongly rejects a political office. He believes that this makes it easier for him to work on a practical level, with all sides of the political spectrum- on a human level.
To him, these conversations are the reason why the population was less resisting and violent when the refugees arrived.
After the evening in Boxberg last year, Genau faced even more town hall meetings. He admits that the hate and loud concerns were ubiquitous anywhere he went. But after each meeting, he was also approached by volunteers and families who offered to help.
Today, Görlitz still has the lowest occurence of nationalistic violence in the entire state.