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 UK, 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 fourth story in a seven-part series.
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Clausnitz, Germany – On a cold night last year, some 70 Germans, mostly men, surrounded a bus of refugees in this small town and began chanting at them to “go home”.
It was February 2016, and nearly one million asylum seekers had arrived the previous year to Germany from the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. As they waited to see if they’d be allowed to stay, they were sent off to live in different cities and towns across the country.
Their hostile reception by protesters who shouted at them and blocked them from entering their apartments made international headlines. A video of the encounter circulated widely, reinforcing stereotypes of small-town Germans as racist and blemishing Germany’s so-called “welcome culture”.
The refugees pleaded to the driver to turn around and return them to the temporary shelters they’d been living in around Dresden, the Saxon capital. Neither the refugees nor the demonstrators wanted this.But then, neither had a choice: Germany’s quota system mandated they be resettled there.
As the standoff dragged into its third hour, a police officer entered the bus and escorted out a terrified-looking teenage boy; eventually, the police led the other refugees past the crowd and into their new homes.
After such an ugly beginning, the Germans and the new asylum seekers of Clausnitz would have no choice but to learn to coexist. To avoid one another would be impossible: Clausnitz is little more than one main street with a few side alleyways. It has just 900 people, and a single grocery store.
Several months on, Al Jazeera visited Clausnitz to see what had become of a place whose name came to symbolise the shortcomings of Germany’s attempt to integrate refugees.
Little interest in the outside world
The town’s mayor is a tall, but unassuming man named Michael Funke. “I’m surprised an American journalist would come all this way,” remarked Funke, sitting in the restaurant of a small hotel overlooking rolling hills of farmland and forests.
“When you drive through this town and you take a closer look, you will realise there is nothing here,” Funke said. “We don’t have a cinema, nor anything that would be attracting people to come here.”
“But it was a different situation because they were living in their separate hostels and didn’t really get in touch with the local people,” said Funke, adding that the few Russians who had immigrated there had integrated seamlessly.
Funke described Clausnitz’s residents as hard-working people with no particular interest in meddling in the politics of the world.
“We didn’t have the desire to go out somewhere else, to the USA, for example. We had what we needed here,” Funke said.
But last year, the world came to them.
In 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the country could, and would, handle the masses of refugees arriving in Germany. In Clausnitz, “people criticised the welcome politics of the Chancellor,” Funke said. “Especially the assertion ‘we can do it’ didn’t find a lot of support. Because it wasn’t mentioned how we could do it.”
As mayor, Funke was required to report to the federal government the number of empty apartments in Clausnitz that could be made available to refugees. It was a lot. Young people, in particular, had been leaving for larger towns and cities.
“A lot of the apartments were empty for two, three years already,” Funke said. Inspectors came to ensure the lodgings were livable. But months passed and no refugees arrived.
The refugees’ arrival
That is, until one morning, when Funke received an email notifying him that a bus full of refugees would be coming that very day.
“There was no information about when the people would arrive, how many people would arrive, and who,” Funke said. What’s more, their arrival came barely a month after Germany made international headlines when groups of Arab-looking men were accused of harassing and targeting women for sexual assault on New Year’s Eve in Cologne.
“The happenings in Cologne confused and irritated the people here in our region. And this is why there was a reason to fear,” Funke said.
Somehow – Funke still isn’t sure how – people in Clausnitz and the surrounding area got word of the bus’s pending arrival. When it pulled in around 8pm, a group of people had already assembled along the street.
“People gathered to see who was coming – if it is families,” Funke said. “Because we were wishing it were families” – not lone men, like the ones accused of assaulting women in Cologne.
As it happened, nearly all these refugees were families. But more than two hours would pass before the crowd – which Funke estimates numbered 70 at most before dwindling to about 20 – would quiet down enough to let the asylum seekers disembark. He said many of the faces in the crowd were unfamiliar to him – that they had come from elsewhere to cause trouble.
“It put our community in a bad light,” Funke said.
Volunteers’ warm welcome
One a Saturday morning in June, some of the asylum seekers gathered at the local kindergarten, where mountains of donated clothes, shoes, toys and other items had been stored.
After Clausnitz made headlines for its hostile reception, people from across Germany sent donations to support the refugees. Volunteers had also started offering German language tutoring sessions, and teaching children how to ride donated bicycles.
At the kindergarten, a volunteer from nearby Dresden, a Canadian named Marc Lalonde, rummaged through a pile of clothes and came across a pair of revealing women’s denim shorts.
“This for Arabs, maybe not so good,” he said, throwing them into a reject pile.
A young Syrian girl from Damascus discovered a closet full of shoes and asked, in perfect German, “Is this for the girls?”
Once the refugees had gathered what they needed, Lalonde offered to drive the children to a nearby petrol station shop to buy them ice cream.
“Can I sit in the front?” asked the Syrian girl. Lalonde politely explained that, “in Germany, kids have to sit in the back.”
Their hands sticky with ice cream drippings, the children were driven home to their apartments, located across the road from a farm. The smell of manure hung in the air.
A 24-year-old Iranian woman named Zeina invited the volunteers in to her home for what she called Turkish-style tea, which she served in her living room along with cubes of sugar. After emptying their cups, the volunteers made to leave, but she insisted they stay for lunch. Soon, they were sipping soup made of coriander and leeks and eating pickled cauliflower and carrots with vinegar and a side of German bread.
Journey to Clausnitz
After lunch, Zeina described the odyssey that landed her in Clausnitz. “We actually had a good life in Iran,” she said. “We converted to Christianity, and that’s when things started to get difficult.”
Christians are often persecuted by the Iranian government, and Zeina’s relatives cut ties with them.
“It was very difficult for Ali, my son,” Zeina said. “He couldn’t understand why the family wouldn’t talk to him.”
Her husband’s occasional work as a day labourer earned too little to support the family. They’d heard that Germany had a good reputation for welcoming immigrants of any religion. Isolated and without a livable income, they decided to leave. They travelled by bus to Turkey, then on an overloaded boat to Greece. As they walked their way across Europe, Ali, who is seven, injured his foot, and his father had to carry him on his shoulders.
At last, they arrived in Dresden in southeastern Germany, where they spent four months living in a gymnasium crowded with other asylum seekers. “We had no privacy,” she said, likening the situation to a refugee camp. “Everyone was sleeping together.”
She was thrilled when her family was ushered onto a bus to move to an apartment of their own. That is, until they arrived, just after dusk, in Clausnitz to find a crowd blocking their path.
“They were shouting and yelling and insulting us. We thought they were saying we had to go back. The children were crying, Ali was crying,” Zeina said.
“We asked ourselves, if they don’t want us here, should we even be here? We thought we’d have to go back to Dresden.”
Even after police managed to escort them into their apartments, “We couldn’t really sleep. We were wondering what will happen to us,” Zeina said. “Will we be allowed to stay here?”
In fact, they had no choice but to stay. But to her surprise, Zeina says her family soon began receiving the warmest of welcomes from volunteers.
“We were given a garden, so we have tomatoes, so we do a little work in the garden, and sometimes there are volunteers that come and give German lessons,” said Zeina, speaking Persian through an interpreter. Her son already speaks basic German. “We’re very happy here.”
Meanwhile, the Lebanese father of the first boy who police pulled from the bus that night feels less at ease.
Sitting on a bench in the courtyard outside his apartment, Majdi Khatun describes how his wife and two of his children remain stranded in Tripoli, a large city in northern Lebanon, which borders Syria. He said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group murdered his sister’s entire family, who were Shia Muslims.
“I was afraid. Because of the war in Syria, they were coming and taking kids and training them to come fight … and I didn’t want my sons to end up fighting,” he said. To keep them from being kidnapped, conscripted or killed by ISIL, he fled with his two oldest sons to Turkey, across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece, then onward through Europe to Germany.
“I saw Germany as the only place that would accept us,” he said. They arrived in Munich. “We were amazed by the city!” he says. But within a week they were transferred to Dresden, a city known for its anti-refugee politics.
“Saxony has a reputation,” Gordian Meyer-Plath, the head of Saxony’s domestic intelligence agency, told Al Jazeera. But he said that if refugees fear to live in Saxony, it might be for the wrong reasons.
“If I was a refugee and ended up in Clausnitz, that would certainly not be the place I’d want to live,” he said. “But not because I’d be afraid of becoming a victim of a hate crime. Just because I don’t think that I would find a job there.”
Khatun does not like to talk about the night he arrived on the bus to Clausnitz.
Since that incident, however, “we’ve been treated very well. People visit us, they invite us over, they ask us what we need and then they bring it for us,” he said.
But Khatun wasn’t referring to the residents of Clausnitz.
Most of the people making Zeina and Khatun feel welcomed are not Clausnitz locals, but the volunteers, most of whom come from Dresden or other towns and cities.
Refugees and residents may have been forced to reside together in Clausnitz, but they nonetheless live a somewhat parallel existence, with volunteers initiating most of the interaction between the two groups. Lalonde says most Clausnitz residents tend to keep to themselves.
“Integration is too broad of a word to describe what it’s like now,” Funke admitted. “The encounters are kind of normal. Heartfelt. More an attitude of OK, they are there now.”
“The asylum seekers’ fates remain uncertain. As Meyer-Plath alluded, asylum seekers like Khatun are barred from working. This has prevented Khatun from saving up money in the hopes of paying for his wife and two other children to make the journey to join him here in Germany.
“I heard the borders have been closed, so they cannot come even if I find the money,” he said, tearing up at the thought. With his family split in two, he spends his days cooped up in his apartment, doing nothing at all.
“I’m waiting. I don’t know what to do,” he said. “My wife says if she’d known it would turn out this way – that it would be so hard to be together – she never would have told me it’s OK for me to go.”
This reporting was made possible by a McCloy Fellowship from the American Council on Germany.