This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the Rostock riots – the most disturbing resurgence of anti-immigrant violence in Germany since the rise of Nazism.
In the quarter of a century since, many foreigners arriving in Germany have experienced the warmest of welcomes – but a few have experienced chilling acts of hatred. This series explores how a small minority of ultra-xenophobic Germans tarnished their nation‘s reputation as a haven for the world‘s displaced masses. These stories are primarily told through the experiences of immigrants and asylum seekers who survived xenophobic harassment or attacks.
Their stories are the exception to the norm: incidents of violent xenophobia are rare in Germany compared with other countries. Indeed, Germany has welcomed more asylum seekers in recent years than any other European nation – the United Kingdom, France, Poland, Austria, Hungary, and magnitudes more than the far more populous United States. W hen faced with the largest exodus of people since World War II, none of these nations welcomed refugees as unconditionally as Germany did. It‘s precisely because of this reputation that Al Jazeera is taking a hard look at what happens when that welcome culture goes awry.
This is the second story in a seven-part series.
Karlsruhe, Germany – No nation in the world has a history of immigration as volatile as Germany’s. By force or by necessity, some 12 million people fled the country during World War II. But in the 70 years since, more than five million people have come to Germany seeking asylum.
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The graph of historical asylum applications to Germany has two notable bookends.
The first is 1992, the year an influx of immigrants from Romania and other countries were met with the Rostock riots, which sparked a new norm of frequent attacks by right-wing German xenophobes against foreigners. That year, Germany received an unprecedented 438,190 applications for asylum.
That number was surpassed only – and only barely – by the second bookend, in 2015: the year German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously announced that Germany would open its doors to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Eritrea and other countries, fleeing war and economic strife. In 2015 alone, 476,649 people applied for asylum.
The 25 years between 1992 and 2015 contain the story of how Germany’s modern-day climate for refugees came to be.
One way of understanding it is through the story of Ibraimo Alberto, a Mozambican immigrant who lived through those years in Germany where he encountered many opportunities, but also experienced racism, big and small, in the east and west.
In 1981, 18-year-old Alberto shipped out from a newly independent, socialist Mozambique to Berlin as part of a German government programme to find cheap labour for government-owned businesses.
He was the son of former slaves in what was then a Portuguese colony, and race was the foundation of his life.
While growing up, “my goal was I wanted to live the way the whites lived, because I was in love with the life of the white people, the way they lived and the way they ate,” Alberto said.
As a child he’d play football using tightly rolled balls of clothes as a ball, and as a teenager he won a rare chance at an education, and even rarer, a chance to go abroad.
But his parents were worried.
“You will go as a slave to Germany – they may sell you there as a slave in Europe,” he recalled his father warning him. “I said, ‘Dad, that’s over’.”
Alberto didn’t speak a word of German when he arrived. “We found it very amusing, their pronunciation. We laughed. Afterwards we realised this is the language we would have to speak too!”
When he arrived in East Berlin, he was assigned to work at a slaughterhouse. Though he lived in a crowded apartment that he shared with other Mozambicans – four people sleeping in each of the five rooms – what he saw of Germany amazed him.
“Finally I reached the land of the whites. I also didn’t know that white people work! And that was interesting to observe,” he said.
“Back then we didn’t pay attention to the discrimination or the distance. We just took everything as normal. We came from a colonised country – we always thought the whites were above us.
“So we couldn’t really say that we were discriminated against – we were just the small dogs. They of course kept their distance from us.”
But as the years went by and Alberto came into increasing contact with everyday Germans, including coworkers at the slaughterhouse where he was a butcher, he said that antagonism against him – a black man and an immigrant – grew.
Having long dreamed of a career as a professional athlete, in the early 1980s Alberto joined a football club. He saw the movie Rocky, and a coworker once persuaded him to practise boxing on a cow carcass that was hanging in a meat locker, the way Sylvester Stallone had done in the film. He picked up boxing in this way, and later joined a club where he started training.
One grey November afternoon in 1986, 22-year-old Mozambican Manuel Diego, Alberto’s friend who had come to visit him in East Berlin, boarded a train to return to the city of Dessau. He never made it home.
On the train, young German men wearing heavy boots attacked Diego. Alberto said he only found out what had happened to his friend from the published account of a German passenger who witnessed the attack.
“They beat him up, and he was unconscious,” Alberto recounted, raising his eyebrows as if to give the impression that the event still shocks him more than 30 years later. “They took a rope and bound a rope around his foot – and in the old trains you could open the windows. They opened the windows and slowly let him out of the window and let his body be torn apart by the wheels of the train, between the wheels and the rails.”
“That was the Nazis,” Alberto said. “It took them seven days to collect all the pieces.”
He says the police managed to track down the killers.
“They were prosecuted. They took them to jail. It was 1986,” Alberto recalled. “But then the wall fell and they were let go again.”
The period after German reunification in 1990 was a time of upheaval, and Alberto says that for immigrants, life got worse.
“Everyone was fighting to find a job and to be paid,” Alberto recalled. Fortunately, his boxing career began to take off, and soon he was competing in fights around Germany.
Alberto said that some Germans who found themselves unemployed saw him as an anomaly, even a source of envy.
“In the GDR there was racism,” said Alberto, referring to the former East Germany. “Like when you put something in the oven and you don’t notice what happens in there, it comes out and it’s burned? Racism was hidden. Nobody wanted it to be true.”
On several occasions following reunification, Alberto said he got into fights with German neo-Nazis. The specific incidents blend together in his mind, but he points to faint scars on his left forearm that he says resulted from one of those clashes. He says once at Berlin’s main train station he got into a fight with a man who called him a monkey and told him to go back to the jungle whence he came.
Alberto said that in the 1990s, the stereotype that East Germany had undercurrents of racism that the West did not have seemed true. In 1991 he moved to the town of Schwedt in Brandenburg in the former GDR where he continued his career as a boxer.
In 2006, Alberto took up a municipal administrative position as an ombudsman for asylum seekers – a position he held until 2011. In March of that year, during his then 17-year-old son’s football match, Alberto made international headlines when he accused members of the opposing team of making racist remarks toward him and his son and using German terms that translate roughly as “son of a whore”.
Alberto was so angry that he and his family decided to move from Schwedt in 2011, eventually settling in Karlsruhe in western Germany.
“I fled from the eastern part of Germany and came to the west because of racism,” Alberto said. It was June 2011.
Alberto said his last professional fight was on December 16, 2005.
But last year, at the age of 53, he came out of retirement for one final match: A fundraiser to support the recent wave of refugees arriving in Germany 35 years after Alberto’s own arrival.
“It was a sign,” Alberto said. “We were calling for solidarity with this match.”
The event raised about 1,000 euros (around $1,115), much of which went to Boxgirls, a boxing club for women in Kreuzberg, Berlin, whose clientele are mostly people of migrant background and that offers free courses to refugees.
Alberto recounted the event one afternoon at a cafe in Karlsruhe.
He was wearing a dressy black top hat and a casual blue T-shirt with the words “Schöner Leben Ohne Nazis” – living nicer without Nazis.
He found the shirt’s message to be timely: Last March, the right-wing, anti-immigrant movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, or, PEGIDA, held a rally in which they marched through Karlsruhe waving German flags and carrying anti-Islam signs.
“I was very shocked,” Alberto said.
“The police are investigating attacks against people with migration background. But they’re not always careful,” Alberto said, hinting at the single-digit conviction rate for such anti-immigrant crimes.
This reporting was made possible by a McCloy Fellowship from the American Council on Germany.