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Xenophobia thrives in shadow of Berlin towers

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A demo in Marzahn-Hellersdorf. File photo: DPA
08:06 CET+01:00
There's little to break the monotony of communist-era apartment blocks stretching across Marzahn-Hellersdorf, an east Berlin satellite district that has gained national notoriety for a spate of anti-foreigner protests.

Week after week, hundreds of residents here have angrily rallied against plans for a new centre to house refugees seeking asylum on a stretch of parkland now ringed by cyclone fence and watched by security guards.

As Germany confronts a rise in far-right populism, with "anti-Islamization" marches drawing thousands in the eastern city of Dresden, this bland corner of the sprawling capital, a district home to almost 300,000 people, has become another flashpoint of resentment and xenophobia.

"I have nothing against foreigners, I've been around them all my life," said Fritz Siebke, 91, enjoying a Christmas season banquet of meat rolls, potato dumplings and gravy with fellow German pensioners at a district community centre.

"But since we've accepted refugees into Marzahn-Hellersdorf, things have changed in the neighbourhood. My gardening tools were stolen from right outside my house. In the past, that wouldn't have happened."

Christa Timm -- a fellow retiree who has lived here "for half a century," since the days when a Marxist-Leninist regime was in charge -- grumbled that "it would have been good if the authorities had informed us properly."

At first glance little has changed in Marzahn since the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago -- the few splashes of colour amid the prefab walls of 1970s-era architecture are mostly discount supermarkets and the yellow trams leading to the city.

With one in five residents unemployed and the area suffering neglect, the drab district is a world away from Berlin's more cosmopolitan and diverse centre -- and, analysts say, fertile ground for the far-right protests.

"Just look at the decay of our roads, our schools," argued Manfred Rouhs, head of the far-right "Pro Deutschland" (For Germany) party, which has helped organize protests venting anger at the entire political class, as well as the mainstream media.

"It's normal that people demand their problems be addressed before they host economic refugees," he told AFP in his office, seated before a black-red-gold German flag and a poster calling for "more education and less immigration".

Marzahn district mayor Stefan Komoss, a centre-left Social Democrat, said he understood the concerns of many residents, but argued that "if we had to wait for budget surpluses before we dealt with the asylum issue, we wouldn't be doing anything at all."

He insisted his local administration had used "all the available channels of information" to gain acceptance for the new asylum centre.

"Those who still complain of not being informed are merely saying, in a roundabout way, that they are against the arrival of refugees in their neighbourhood."

His district, like hundreds of others across Germany, has in recent years converted old schools and other public buildings into shelters to accommodate a rising number of asylum seekers, whose number is expected to top 200,000 nationwide this year.

They have come from war-torn and poverty-stricken Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan as well as African and Balkan countries, making the country Europe's top destination for people seeking a safe haven.

Marzahn-Hellersdorf has seen protests since August 2013, when far-right agitators used social media and the streets to whip up sentiment against a new refugee centre planned in an abandoned school building.

The fear of foreigners here is explained by both "a serious lack of education" and by history, argued sociologist Nivedita Prasad of Hellersdorf Technical University.

"East Germans only started to meet foreigners in the 1990s," the early years of reunified Germany," she said.

"But, above all, the people of Marzahn allowed themselves to be manipulated by the far-right," Prasad added.

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"It took some time to realise that behind the alleged popular initiatives and events organised by so-called 'concerned citizens', there were actually local organizers from the NPD, the main neo-Nazi party in the country."

While the district is known for the flare-up of racist sentiment, not everyone in Marzahn opposes refugees. The protests have usually been met with, and often dwarfed by, anti-fascist counter-demonstrations.

At the Hellersdorf school building, nearby residents have delivered clothes and toys for children.

And once the first centre opened, "local residents realised that the refugees were not trouble-makers, and their fears were allayed," said Komoss, the district mayor.

Back in the Marzahn community centre, deputy director Joachim Adam said he believes Germany, one of the world's biggest arms exporters, has a duty "to welcome those fleeing from conflict."

For next year he plans a project to build bridges between the locals and their new neighbours when, he enthused, "Syrian women will come and give cooking lessons at our place."

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