In September and October of 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, I joined Doctors of the World — Greece as an administrative volunteer, helping out at a reception camp in Lesbos. At this time the island, with a population of 86,000, was receiving up to 9,000 asylum seekers a day, who were crossing the narrow Mytilini Strait from the Turkish coast.
Three years later I was on an extended six-month stay in the southwest German town of Kaiserslautern, north of Karlsruhe, which has 100,000 people. Here I saw first hand how volunteers and professionals are working to integrate refugees. I also listened to heartbreaking stories from people who had lost family members and had nothing but were trying to rebuild their lives.
The decision that changed Germany
I was in the Germany where, on August 31st, 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel had said: “We can do this,” declaring on prime time TV that it was “her damned duty” to keep the borders open to an influx of people which some reports estimated to be more than a million asylum seekers.
The situation has calmed down since then. But one of the consequences of Merkel’s decision is the rightward turn taken by traditionally liberal Europe. With right-wing attitudes becoming more entrenched with every passing day, I was curious to find out how a small city like Kaiserslautern in the southwest state of Rhineland-Palatinate had handled its share of the burden, and how it felt towards the German government.
As of January 1st 2015, Kaiserslautern, in the state of Rhineland Palatinate, had taken in 1,640 refugees — approximately 1.6 percent of its total population, the Kaiserslautern Department of Integration and Intercultural Affairs informed me with typical German efficiency.
The ethnic breakdown of those who arrived was as follows: 664 Syrians, 193 Afghans, and 11 Iraqis.
The influx reached its highest level in the period between October 2015 and January 2016. Since then, the tide has become a trickle: about 15 newcomers every month.
Programmes for refugees
Every person accepted as a refugee in Germany receives the same financial support and medical care that Germans do until they are able to find gainful employment.
Local job centres have organized special programmes to prepare refugees for work in Germany. Once the refugees arrive and are given accommodation in Kaiserslautern, they have the opportunity to take free language courses, organized and financed by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.
Kaiserslautern has seven institutions offering such courses, consisting of 600 to 900 hours of language instruction and 100 hours of coursework on German culture. In many cases, professional courses are taught by German volunteers.
As a result of the initial outpouring of support from both professionals and volunteers in Kaiserslautern, and a rapid and efficient municipal response, the process of integrating refugees began smoothly, even at the very peak of the crisis.
Without having to resort to shelters such as tents or school gyms, Kaiserslautern put up all the refugees in small apartments in public housing.
Finding a place to volunteer
I emailed Olivia Duran, volunteering coordinator at the Kaiserslautern integration department, to ask if I could help. She directed me to the picturesque Villa Jaenisch, five minutes from where I live.
This beautiful 100-year-old villa includes an underground passage system, which was used in the past as a beer cellar and air raid shelter. At the end of World War II, it was home to American headquarters.
Nowadays, Villa Jaenisch is part of the community housing network and is a centre for volunteers assisting refugees in every matter under the sun, every Thursday and Saturday.
The Villa. Photo: Anita Leikic
The first floor and basement was being used as housing for a Syrian and an Afghan family. I met the usual volunteers who were there almost every week, but as time went by, I met others, men and women of all ages.
They sat around drinking coffee and chatting in German with the refugees. Other tables were occupied by volunteers helping refugees with language instruction and various bureaucratic paperwork.
There was an abundance of delectable German desserts brought in by the volunteers.
Every week I was introduced to new volunteers. Like Virgílio, a Portuguese man who moved to Germany in search of work decades ago. We chatted in Portuguese, and Virgílio told me that he visited the centre regularly to teach the Latin alphabet to an elderly Syrian gentleman.
Virgílio’s enthusiasm and dedication was evident as he sat next to his student, the two of them hunched over the notebook.
I realized that I could be of little help since I don’t speak German. Nevertheless, with German volunteers acting as interpreters, I had a chance to speak to several young men.
A warm welcome
Every single person I talked to told me that they had received a warm welcome in Germany. “Bombs were falling all around us back home,” said Mahmoud, 28, who left Damascus with his wife when their house was destroyed.
“Here I am a human being. I know we’re safe when we walk down the street. No one will walk up to us with a gun pointed at our heads.”
I also met with Susanne Sage, a psychologist at the Kaiserslautern Red Cross, who’s in charge of the psycho-social centre for refugees suffering from trauma or the effects of torture. Since September 2017, she has offered therapy to around 160 people.
“They are incredible, the stories I hear,” Susanne said. “I cannot imagine that people can do this to other people. The cruelty of it is extraordinary.”
Susanne talked about a patient from Sudan, around 30-years-old and highly educated. In a previous life, he had a wife and a six-year-old daughter. He was forced to watch as terrorist forces gouged out his wife’s eyes and then they killed his little girl right there right in front of him.
He tried to save his wife, going to Germany on his own because in most cases, when women attempt the journey there is a good chance they will be raped.
When he reached Germany, he found out that his wife had been killed and completely lost his ability to function. He lived in a forest for many weeks in Germany because he had no documents, and thought he would be sent back to Italy if caught.
Refugees speak to volunteers at the Villa. Photo: Anita Lekic
When he was found by the authorities he was in a desperate mental and physical condition. Susanne was asked to help. He was immediately transferred to a psychiatric ward in a hospital and then he was moved to Rockenhausen, a nearby town.
Susanne and her team worked hard to create a social network for him. We found a site in the town where elderly women help volunteers, and they took care of him, Susanne told me.
Every week he comes to the psycho-social center, for trauma therapy, she said. Susanne said he is in a very stable condition now, and that all this was achieved in a span of eight weeks.
Addressing cultural differences
With the exception of those coming from Syria and Iran, the role of a woman is that of a housewife, confined to the home. Many women who arrived here as refugees are still living in what can symbolically be termed cages, and there are no laws in place to modify or alter this situation.
We find that many men do not allow their wives to learn German or leave the house, Susanne added.
We were joined by Lion Nir from Israel. Lion has a degree in psychology and philosophy, and worked in a centre for intimate partner violence in Israel.
Susanne and Lion plan to create a curriculum for the schools especially designed for boys and young men to help them to adjust and cope with problems in school and reduce the inclination to violent behavior.
The situation is very different as far as the girls are concerned. Most of the girls want to learn and are highly motivated students, Susanne said.
Hearing more stories
Michelle Wherley, a German volunteer majoring in logistics for business at the University of Applied Sciences in Kaiserslautern, helped translate for Nashat, who used to work as a tailor in Damascus.
His story is similar to ones I’ve heard so many times before in Lesbos — an account of the length and tolls of the journey. He and his wife, with two children, a son aged five and a daughter aged seven, drove from Syria to Turkey by car.
The distance from Damascus to the crossing point in Turkey was approximately 1,500 km. They crossed to Mytilini and went on through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria, reaching Germany in November of 2015.
Making their way across the mountains and forests with the children was the hard part, Nashat said. This family of four paid traffickers €7,000 for a journey lasting 16 days.
I found Nashat’s language skills impressive. All of the people I spoke to had completed the B2 language proficiency level in German in two years.
I am a language teacher by profession, and when I retired in Portugal ten years ago I had to learn Portuguese from scratch: in my experience, obtaining an advanced, or B2, certificate in two years is no easy feat.
Shamia Deeb, 32, from Syria had also completed B2 in two years. He came to Germany as a university graduate with a degree in automation and control engineering. He said he was determined to obtain a C1 certificate, which attests to advanced knowledge and effective operational proficiency in the German language.
Susan Sage, a psychologist in charge of the psycho-social centre for refugees suffering from trauma or the effects of torture.
Effective integration in the long-term?
I asked the staff of the city’s integration department to evaluate how refugees have settled in the city. The effectiveness of integration remains to be seen, I was told. The main question was whether refugees will manage to learn the language and join the local economy, assimilating in the broader social structure, but this is a difficult and long-lasting process replete with hurdles.
When people arrive in a new country, there are so many things to learn, from very simple matters such as buying the right bus ticket, to the difficult process of applying for residence.
But there is a wide network of assistance that has been put into place across Germany, and it includes governmental institutions, NGOs, migration advisory services, charities, and volunteers. Their purpose is to facilitate and assist refugees with settling into everyday life in Germany.
When I talk to Germans now, compared to two years ago, I find that a dramatic shift in sentiments has occurred. Nowadays, those who respond to my questions about refugees can be divided into two camps: people who continue to support the decision, and those who fervently oppose it.
Quite a few Germans I talked to were vociferous in their criticism of Merkel’s policies. The refugees are here, they asserted, because they view Germany as the land of milk and honey. They have no intention of being economically productive; they are here simply to milk the social welfare system.
I find the arguments and examples given both unconvincing and misleading. Often, they tell me stories about how young refugees hang around the town mall, 'showing off' their new cell phones.
Johann, a middle-aged man who sat next to me in the Cafe Extrablatt in downtown Kaiserslautern, offered a more detailed critique. Those seeking asylum in Germany are allowed to stay if they are granted political asylum or refugee status and this is a basic Constitutional right, he says.
He mentioned that Germany took in large numbers of refugees from the Yugoslav Wars. The problem now, he pointed out, is that a large percentage of those making their way to Germany are from Togo, Somalia, and Ethiopia (up to 90% he asserts: I found no evidence of this figure in my research), and they do not have the grounds to qualify for political refuge, he said.
A view of Kaiserslautern. Photo: DPA
So who actually is entitled to political asylum needs to be established, and this is a time-consuming process, Johann said, adding that many of the new immigrants have no passports and lie about their country of origin.
Peter, the friendly receptionist at my hotel, is in his early sixties. He took a more reasonable view. “Nowadays,” he said, “if you see a news item about refugees in the newspapers, the headlines are always printed in big, bold letters and the story is inevitably negative.”
He doesn’t see the refugees in terms of stereotypes. “They are doing the best that they can,” he said, “but the cultures are so different. This constitutes one of the main obstacles to integration.”
Peter’s view is that the German government is at fault.
“We have pensioners digging through the garbage for food and living on very small pensions,” he told me.
“How much?” I asked. “Often as low as €700 for a lifetime of work,” he replied. I have to admit that this is a remarkably small amount considering that Germany is an expensive country to live in.
“Our government helps the refugees but it ignores its own ageing, retired population,” Peter concluded
The critics find it hard to empathize. I encountered a middle-aged woman who opposed Merkel’s refugee policy but was able to look at the situation in its totality. She told me Germany had taken too many people in, and the inflow has to be stopped.
The public is now equally divided on the issue, she added.
But she was able to see the other side of the picture, and gave me the example of a German town where her sister lives and works.
“Sometimes I think: what would I do if I lived with my family in a war-torn country, and we found ourselves forced to flee to this new country, Germany, with an entirely new culture?
“Where would I start? How would I begin? Surely we would find many things to be strange or completely unfamiliar,” she remarked, ending our conversation.