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-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 fifth story in a seven-part series.
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Freital, Germany – On Halloween night, 2015, in this town outside the Saxon capital of Dresden, Abu Hamid went into the kitchen to grab some food when he noticed sparks of light outside the window. Sensing danger, he and his roommates rushed out of the kitchen just as a booming explosion shook the house, shattering the windows and sending pieces of glass into one man’s face.
“After that, we thought someone would come inside the home and attack us,” Abu Hamid said. “One of my friends, he took a knife.”
The explosion was caused by illegal fireworks, as they later discovered. It appeared someone had placed them on the windowsill that night to target those inside.
For months beforehand, local police had failed to see a connection between a series of right-wing protests against refugee housing shelters and the bombing of a car belonging to a left-wing politician in Freital. Just one month before Abu Hamid’s apartment was attacked, another, almost identical firework attack had been launched on the house of some Eritrean refugees in the town.
It wasn’t until news outlets as far away as Berlin began pressuring authorities to take action that Germany’s federal prosecutor took up the case. In a dramatic SWAT-style raid, federal and state police arrested five suspects believed to have formed an organised anti-refugee militia. The prosecutor charged them with “terrorism”, and their trial began this March.
The Freital attacks were just a few among thousands. According to an analysis of information from Germany’s Interior Ministry, there were more than 3,500 attacks on refugees or refugee homesteads in Germany last year – nearly 10 a day. About 560 people were injured in those attacks – 43 of them children.
This wave of xenophobic crime became a source of discomfort in a nation that has gone to great lengths to turn the corner on its racist past. It was certainly not what the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn states hoped to encounter after crossing continents and seas in an attempt to find safety here.
Escape from Syria
Twenty-something, with dark eyebrows and a polite smile, Abu Hamid grew up in Aleppo and was studying electrical engineering when Syria’s civil war began. He lived in the government-controlled part of the city when the Syrian military began forcibly recruiting young men like him to serve – a possible death sentence. Abu Hamid recounted the day he took his passport to a government office building to try and apply for an exit visa out of the country.
“The free Syrian army attacked the building because in this building there were snipers,” Abu Hamid said. “Bombs hit the building when I was there. And a big explosion. Rocks everywhere – not good. You just see people screaming.”
Abu Hamid escaped unharmed, but as time went on, government soldiers he’d encounter on the street began threatening him with conscription, so he decided to flee to Turkey. It was June 2014.
“Leaving from Syria, it’s not something easy,” Abu Hamid told Al Jazeera. “You have to pass a lot of militaries. Free (Syrian Army) militaries and ISIS (also known as ISIL) militaries and Al-Nusra (Front) – you have to pass all of that. You have to know the way is safe and you have to go at a good time.”
By the grace of God, he says, he made it through. In Turkey, he found a job in a clothing factory, and later, a bakery. But he wasn’t planning to stay: he saved up his wages to afford the journey to Germany.
Abu Hamid speaks in broken English. When asked why he wanted to come to Germany, he smiles to hide his embarrassment at being unable to answer the question. He reaches for a mobile phone, opens Google Translate, and types in just a few words: “Germany, because there are opportunities.”
In June 2015, Abu Hamid boarded a boat across the Aegean Sea from Izmir to Greece. Then, on buses and trains and by foot, he made his way to Macedonia, then Serbia, Hungary and Austria, until finally arriving by bus in Munich.
But his timing coincided with the arrival of tens of thousands of other refugees from around the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. To spread asylum seekers across the country while they awaited a decision, Germany uses a formula based on the state’s population and the amount of taxes each state receives. Last year, Saxony, the federal state that includes Dresden and Freital and is home to five percent of the German population, was ordered to house five percent of all asylum seekers.
Abu Hamid was assigned to Saxony. He was sent to a refugee shelter in Dresden and, later, to a house in Freital, 20 minutes away, to live with nine other asylum seekers – the house where the Halloween night attack took place.
The refugee lottery
Dresden is one of the main strongholds of Germany’s anti-refugee movement. Only seven percent of the city’s population are people of a migrant background. In Frankfurt, by contrast, that percentage is 43.
“The refugees know that if you got sent to Saxony, you lost the lottery,” said Marc Lalonde, a Canadian volunteer who worked with asylum seekers in the small Saxon town of Clausnitz. “It’s bad news.”
Saxony’s interior minister told Al Jazeera that the state’s reputation as unwelcoming towards immigrants might be precisely because it has had so few of them.
“During the GDR, we had hardly any encounters with people from other nations,” said Markus Ulbig, in reference to the former East Germany. Until recently, he says few people in Saxony knew any foreigners. Even today, just 3.4 percent of all Germans of migrant background live in the East. Despite complaints by many in Saxony that they’re being overrun by immigrants, Germany’s quota system sends just five percent of all new asylum seekers to Saxony.
Because asylum seekers in Germany don’t have a choice as to where they’re sent to live, that lottery can determine a lot. Some argue it can mean the difference between integrating into German society or living a separate existence among other refugees – something European governments hope to avoid out of fear that isolationism could create fertile ground for “extremism”.
But not everyone in Saxony opposes refugees. In Dresden, there is a weekly international cafe (a story about the cafe is the seventh instalment in this series) where refugees mingle with Germans to chat, practise their language skills, sip tea and juice and discuss their asylum applications.
Even in Saxony, most refugees Al Jazeera spoke to said they felt welcomed. Their primary concern was whether they would be allowed to stay in Germany in the long run. Indeed, Germany’s welcoming policies towards immigrants may be part of the reason why it received more asylum seekers than any other European country.
“As a German, I’m pretty proud that most asylum seekers come to Germany. It must be obviously a very attractive place, and a safe place,” said Gordian Meyer-Plath, the head of Saxony’s domestic intelligence agency. “They don’t flee to Russia. They come to us.”
And yet, beneath this welcome culture, there exists a counterculture that views refugees with suspicion, antagonises them in speech – and every now and then, through violence. And not only in Saxony.
“Unfortunately, I think crimes against asylum seekers happen all over Germany,” Meyer-Plath said.
Message against violence
Abu Hamid arrived in Dresden in July 2015 around the height of Europe’s refugee arrivals and in the middle of a fierce debate over who should be allowed to stay. “People, they say ‘We don’t want refugees!” Abu Hamid recalled overhearing in Dresden. “I felt in that moment (like I was) missing home.”
As to the attack that took place on Halloween, he says, it “was just one night. We were used to this situation. In Syria, every day we were sleeping and in the morning we would hear sounds. Phew! We were used to it.”
What’s more, he says the police officers who came to investigate the attack were friendly – that they asked the right questions, that they seemed serious about holding the perpetrators to account – attitudes that were unfamiliar to him during his encounters with police back in Syria.
He said it’s only right that his alleged attackers – a group of right-wing Germans who are currently standing trial – be convicted of terrorism, a serious charge for what Abu Hamid considers a grave crime.
“It’s three dynamites, at midnight. They are not joking. They want to kill.”
A conviction for terrorism, Abu Hamid believes, would also send a message to other refugees that such violence simply isn’t tolerated here in Germany.
“The explosion, it shocked me,” he said. “To think in Germany that this would happen here. We come from the war to Germany to find safety.”
This reporting was made possible by a McCloy Fellowship from the American Council on Germany.