Thousands of migrants fleeing war in their home countries have have made it into Germany and to Berlin.
Once they arrive here, they begin the waiting game.
Germany is expecting at least 800,000 migrants this year alone, and Germans are struggling with the changes they bring.
At Berlin’s main processing center for migrants, at a social service ministry, people are handed a number on a slip of paper. They crowd around a digital screen in the ministry courtyard to watch for their number to flash, indicating they can go inside to begin the asylum process.
German volunteers serve lunch inside a big canvas tent — lentil soup and bread. Julia Visakovsky, a psychologist, took a day off work to help serve.
“We basically have to make sure that everybody gets food,” Visakovsky says. “Everybody has to stay in line — so children come first, women come first — and give them the feeling that everything is OK here.”
A German Obligation To Help
About an hour outside Berlin is the town of Seelow, in former East Germany, population about 5,600. At the end of World War II, Seelow was the site of one of the last stands of Hitler’s army and one of the biggest battles on German soil.
Mayor Jorge Schroder has lived here all his life. He described attitudes that are typical of the former East.
“Some people here are very open, especially in the upper regions,” Schroder says. “They will be friendly, approachable, helpful. But some have the mentality that, If I don’t know you, I’m a little worried about you.”
Locals have had to get used to outsiders. At the start of 2015, the Seelow region had 650 migrants. By the end of this year, Schroder says, the town will have to accommodate 2,500.
In 1945, at the end of WWII, Germany had 12 million refugees, people returning from war or leaving Eastern Europe. Older Germans who remember that time are much more open to the newcomers, he says. But young people see the foreigners and think, “there’s no work.”
That’s not the only fear, Schroder says, with so many Muslims and Christians interacting, young people have never been exposed to people of such different cultural backgrounds, and in such big numbers.
Many Germans feel an obligation to welcome the new arrivals. A large number have taken refugee families into their homes. Collection centers overflow with donations of food and clothes.
Jenz Lawrence, who works with migrant youth in Seelow, says Germany has a unique responsibility to care for refugees of war because of its own role in World War II. Lawrence says the outpouring of support for the migrants is drowning out the refrains from far-right groups about the threat posed by outsiders.
“We can also now be proud of Germany,” he says. “I think we can be proud that we fight against, and said no, this not again. I think this is good.”
But at the other extreme, right-wing groups protest that migrants are a threat to German society. Some refugee facilities have been attacked by arsonists. German law has helped affirm that attitude: Until the year 2000, German law required that to be a German citizen, a person needed German ancestors.
Laws like that have created barriers between Germany and its largest minority group, the Turks.
The Guest-Worker Legacy
As Germany rebuilt after the war, in the 1950s and ’60s, the country had a labor shortage, so the government invited workers from other countries to fill industrial jobs with good salaries.
They were supposed to stay for a few years and then return home, but by the 1970s, most of the guest workers were coming from Turkey, and they stopped going home. Instead, they brought their families over and they built a life here.
Writer Imran Ayata was born in Germany, but his parents came from Turkey as guest workers. Ayata says that Turks have never been made to feel part of mainstream society.
“Till today, I don’t feel German,” he says. “I have a German passport and German papers, and of course I live here and will live here … It’s still not possible not to be confronted with racism or prejudice.”
But Ayata does not feel a personal tie to Turkey, either. He does, however, feel close to the tight-knit communities built by his parents and other guest workers in Germany, where people speak only Turkish and have virtually no social ties with the broader culture.
“If there is a will to change the society, which I see a lot in different fields, there is no way to freeze in the way that you are,” Ayata says. “You have to change. You know, the main question is, in which direction, in which way this will change. But it will change, definitely.”
Ayata also wonders how long the current welcome will last.
Meanwhile, some in the German government say Germany must limit the help it provides.
“Not everyone can stay in Germany, can stay in Europe,” says Jens Spahn, a member of the conservative CDU party and the deputy finance minister. “If there are refugees fleeing from war, for example, from Syria, Iraq, they definitely can stay in Germany, and we’re going to help them. But if there are people coming out of poverty reasons — which I do understand, but that’s not a reason for asylum-seeking, and we have to send them back.”
Spahn’s office, the Ministry of Finance, is in a massive stone complex in the center of Berlin, built in the 1930s by the Nazis. It was the headquarters for Germany’s air force. Posters in the cavernous lobby explain the building’s history.
Germany re-invented itself after World War II, and again after the re-unification of East and West. Now, as its population changes, the country is re-inventing itself again.
Last week, the German government proposed new guidelines limiting benefits for asylum-seekers and sending economic migrants home. Integrating those who choose to stay will be exhausting for both Germans and the migrants, Spahn says.
“People are coming out from different cultures, from different traditions,” he says. “They have to learn German to integrate into the society. We have values — same rights for men and women, which already starts to be a problem in some of the refugee camps. For example, the special relationship of Germany with Israel because of our history. Everyone who wants to live in Germany and to become a German, sooner or later has to deal with that as well.”
Learning German, With Help
In the small town of Neuhartenberg, next-door to Seelow, Mohammed Eh’tai is not yet exhausted. He’s working hard on his German, after traveling through a total of five countries to get here.
Eh’tai, 28, was crammed into a small boat, smuggled over a border on the floor of a car, kidnapped once and robbed twice. He walked for miles.
He now shares a two-bedroom apartment with five other Syrian men. In Syria, he was imprisoned for a year in a cell with 150 people, he says, accused of supporting the Free Syrian Army — which he denies.
Eh’tai’s father sold everything and paid $50,000 to get him released, he says. He then fled, leaving his parents, his wife and his 2-year-old daughter behind. He brought only his phone, his ID and a stack of certificates — his college degree in accounting, his master’s in management.
“I learn Deutche here,” he says, indicating a pile of German-language worksheets. An instructor comes twice a week to give free German classes, and migration officials gave him a laptop to study with.
He needs to learn German to get a job, but the search for work has also been complicated by the government moving him around to shelters in different cities. He recently found out that the government is now setting him up with a studio apartment in Strausberg, just east of Berlin.
As a refugee with asylum, the German government also supports him with about $370 dollars a month. He’s grateful, but it doesn’t sit well.
“I can’t accept … money from anybody, without work,” he says. “It’s hard to me. It’s hard to take money without job.”
Eh’tai wants to bring his family to Germany, but eventually he wants to return to Syria and help rebuild the country he was forced to flee.
“When our country is come back, we are come back to our country,” he says.