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. When 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 final story in a seven-part series.
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Dresden, Germany – Each week, a group of refugees and Germans gather at a nondescript cafe hidden from view, pushed back from Dresden’s streets. The refugees come from around the globe and the cafe provides a safe space for them to mingle with the locals to chat, practise their language skills, and sip tea and juice. It’s one of many spaces that have popped up across Germany to welcome refugees, help them with their asylum applications, teach them German, or just for engagement.
Here, immigrants tell stories about their homelands and laugh with German volunteers about cultural differences. Graffiti covers the walls, a sign on one wall reads, “Refugees welcome. Bring your families.”
They do. Children play table football, while teenagers – mostly boys – lounge on couches.
But this particular space, known as the “international cafe”, rests in an uncanny location.
Dresden, the capital of Saxony, is a stronghold for Germany’s anti-immigrant politics. Each week, thousands of supporters of the right-wing, anti-Muslim, anti-refugee movement PEGIDA gather to demonstrate against Germany’s liberal policies towards asylum seekers.
They chant that refugees should “go home” and denounce what they see as the Islamisation of Germany. Refugees often take care to avoid central Dresden on Monday nights out of fear they’ll become targets of the protesters’ angry speech, or worse.
Back in late 2014, when the demonstrations first started, Olga Feger, a Berlin actress, moved to Dresden and began advocating for asylum seekers. She would spend her Monday evenings counterdemonstrating, yelling in opposition to the PEGIDA supporters’ chants. But as time went on, she began to feel like it wasn’t accomplishing much.
An international cafe
“We got very emotional about these troubles and we decided to think about what we could do,” Feger, who is 39, recalled.
“We decided to open a cafe. It was the first place where refugees and all citizens could meet and just sit together in the cafe. Because before that you never saw refugees in the normal cafes and bars.”
Thirteen-year-old Mariam* is one of these refugees. She and her family fled from Afghanistan to Iran because of the ongoing violence in the country and eventually made their way to Germany hoping to get asylum.
On a cool day last spring, Mariam bounced from one foot to another, sprouting with enthusiasm over the different languages she’s learning.
“German a little. And a few words in English,” she said, before reciting all five phrases she knows in French. Her mother sat patiently at a nearby table, looking on warmly, but silently, as her daughter played and talked.
Mariam wore black pants, a black long-sleeved blouse, and a black baseball-style cap. She has not made many friends at her school, but, she said, gesturing around the crowded cafe, “Here, I have friends.”
More than 50 people attended this particular meet-up, mostly refugees, but some native Germans as well. Among them were an elderly man who works at the city’s integration office, and a lawyer who defends refugees charged with crimes such as theft or selling drugs. “The same things Germans are charged for,” the lawyer said.
Feger says spaces like this – where refugees and native Germans can mingle – represent the first step towards solving Germany’s integration problem.
“In the beginning, there were a lot of people who didn’t know what to think,” said Feger of Dresdeners’ attitudes towards the new immigrants. She said until now, many eastern Germans haven’t had many opportunities to get to know people from abroad.
German news website Der Spiegel examined the nation’s progress at integrating with refugees in an article headlined, “Has Germany Really Changed?”, in 2015, pointing out that even before the recent refugee influx, 16.5 million of the 81.4 million people living in Germany came from immigrant families. More than 96 percent of these families lived in the West, however. And indeed there is a difference in attitudes towards refugees between immigrant-heavy western German cities like Cologne and eastern cities like Dresden.
Germany has since become home to four million Muslims – only half of them citizens – and these are the people PEGIDA supporters seem to fear most.
When you walk in the street as an Arab person, it's like you're naked. Everybody looks at you.
“I believe them when they say they are afraid. I believe it is sincere,” Oliver Decker, a psychologist and sociologist who studies right-wing “extremism”, told Der Spiegel, of what he called “concerned citizens” in the East.
“But I’m sorry: A racist who is a racist because of deeply felt fear is still a racist.”
“Dresden is racist,” Feger said. “It’s still normal here. PEGIDA started in Dresden. But neo-Nazi thoughts are all over Germany. People are not reflecting.”
Feger hoped the international cafe would force people to reflect, to reckon with their own assumptions about people from different places and different cultures.
In at least one corner of Dresden, it seems to have worked. Her weekly events have become well-known safe places for Germans to engage in cultural exchanges with the people that PEGIDA supporters despise.
“It’s a place to get in touch with each other, and where people can get information and support around their asylum seeker cases and social life in Dresden,” Feger said. And she believes these conversations are changing the opinions of the Germans who are willing to engage in them.
“By getting in contact to refugees and getting to know them, they were able to make up their mind,” Feger said. “In our neighbourhood, people are really trying to give them the feeling that they are welcome here.”
At first, the cafe was a once weekly event, but it soon expanded into daily get-togethers that include drumming circles, cooking and baking workshops, as well as a women-only meet-up, a game room, organised discussions about integration, and workshops on asylum procedures.
Feger also runs free workshops at Dresden’s Staatsschauspiel theatre to help refugee youth express themselves and behave like kids again after months or years of living under siege in places like Syria or on the dangerous route to Europe. The young participants write their own scripts, and Feger organises public performances in cities around southeastern Germany.
In one skit, two refugee boys are speaking a foreign-sounding language in a cafe when a German woman at a nearby table confronts them: “You think I don’t realise what you’re doing? You’re talking and laughing about me!” she shouts. The cafe owner comes and asks the woman to leave, but the boys feel angry, and out of place.
“This lady thought they were laughing at her,” said Feger, referring to the actual incident on which the boys’ script was based. It’s a typical story. “These things happen,” she said.
“We went with this show to cities in Freiburg, cities around Dresden where there’s a lot of racist problems. Afterwards, we talk with the audiences,” Feger said. “Often, they want to know if these situations are real. But mostly it’s typical German intellectual responses. ‘Oh, I can understand how when this woman doesn’t understand the language, you get insecure.'”
One time, after watching a skit reenacting the harrowing plight of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, an audience member asked the performers, “Do you want to go back to Africa?”
“You just saw for an hour their horrible way here,” Feger thought. “How can you ask this? It’s very naive here. The people seem to be unreflective sometimes.”
Dresden ‘isn’t Germany’
Feger worries that outside of the international cafe and other safe spaces, asylum seekers who are sent to Dresden don’t get to experience what she calls the “real” Germany, with its well-deserved welcome culture.
“They think this is Germany, but it isn’t Germany. Dresden is a special place,” Feger said. “When you walk in the street as an Arab person, it’s like you’re naked. Everybody looks at you. There is a fear.”
Even inside the safe spaces, she feels cultural differences create some distance.
Despite that Mariam is constantly brimming with energy, she doesn’t attend Feger’s theatre workshops.
“She’d be the only girl,” Feger explained. “In theatre, everybody is touching, hugging … it could be a problem.”
Meanwhile, in Dresden, the weekly PEGIDA rallies continue as loud as ever. “They said the same things they are still saying. ‘Lugenpresse’ (lying press), and ‘Who doesn’t love Germany should leave Germany’,” said Feger, referring to the common right-wing criticisms of the media and denouncements of people sympathetic to Germany’s changing demographics as unpatriotic.
Feger is somewhat pessimistic about the future and whether Germans and refugees will succeed at integrating – becoming not just neighbours, but friends.
“We are all very tired. All these people who have put a lot of energy into helping the refugees – there is a lot of burnout,” Feger said. “And on the other side, this PEGIDA movement is getting more structured, more organised.”
“I hope it gets better,” said Feger. “But I think first it’s going to get worse.”
*Real name withheld to protect identity
This reporting was made possible by a McCloy Fellowship from the American Council on Germany.