Making Germans From Refugees

Activists in Germany are making up for the country’s Nazi past by teaching refugees German to live and work in the country under a new law.

WrittenBy:Anchal Vohra
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“Was ist ein Hund?” Silke [name changed] is quizzing her 4-year-old son on English words for dog and other animals. ‘English’ she says is an important second language to learn, not crucial but helpful in upward mobility. 

At work in a school in erstwhile East Germany, she counsels asylum-seeking children learning German: a mandatory requirement to live and work in Germany, according to the new Integration law. 

Caressing her son’s hair, she says, “German language is the key to the future of the refugee kids but many aren’t able to pick up mostly because they feel isolated and get little support from Germans surrounding them.”  

Germany opened its doors to refugees from Syria and was flooded with a million plus by 2015. The sudden exponential increase in the number of asylum-seekers has left a part of the German population anxious. How many and how to integrate is the biggest debate in the country scheduled to go to polls in September this year.   

As a social worker, Silke’s job is to facilitate integration by listening to the issues of the youngest newcomers to her country and by counselling German kids from the poorer segments of German society studying in the same school. 

“A 10-year-old German child came to me crying and said the Syrians are stealing money meant for his family. His father, who has a swastika tattoo above his knee, told him that. I was very troubled to hear this,” says Silke. 

Neo-Nazis continue to live in some pockets of the former German Democratic Republic. The school Silke works in is in one such neighbourhood. Most people here, she says, depend on state welfare and some of those are wrongly accusing refugees for their poverty.

“So these Germans who weren’t doing enough or couldn’t do enough to earn their living are now blaming the refugees and ingraining racism into the minds of their school-going kids who should be playing with and befriending the Arab children but are instead asking them to leave,” Silke says. 

Even some of the German teachers confide in Silke that they prefer to focus on German children in need of help and not the outsiders. 

This is anathema to die-hard liberal Germans like Ferda Ataman. She runs “Mediendienst Integration,” a portal dispelling baseless fears on immigrants. Ferda says, “As Germans, we were proud because we weren’t populists. But in 2013, the phenomenon of AfD meant people could say things, racist things that were unthinkable.”

Chased by war the Syrians flocked to European shores, Germany witnessed a resurgence of the right wing in the formation of political parties like the AfD or Alternative for Deutschland. AfD is a political party which calls for the shooting of immigrants entering the country illegally and in its programme, talks about how Islam does not belong to Germany. It is ideologically similar to the PEGIDA group which conducted anti-immigration protests and is against what it calls ‘Islamisation of the West’. 

Aydun Özoguz, the government’s commissioner on migration, has said the AfD and other right-wing movements were most popular in parts of eastern Germany – which have the fewest migrants. 

Ferda though says racism isn’t limited to the former East. She talks about the dual purpose the erstwhile GDR territory serves from the government’s perspective. “Since the youth have moved to the more dynamic regions leaving the East thinly populated, there is both housing and work for the refugees. They provide the former GDR with the much-needed workforce”. 

While the AfD calls for stricter rules on incorporation of the refugees into the labour market, the Social Democratic Party or the SPD is challenging the nationalist forces by embracing immigration and internationalism. “Together in Diversity: A Guiding Concept and Agenda for a Society of Immigration,” is a report drawn up under the aegis of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is linked to the SPD, and it calls for lowering of income levels required to obtain work permit and cut short the length of prior residency needed for citizenship. 

Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union or CDU has tried to walk the middle path by accepting the refugees but cracking a deal with Turkey to limit the numbers. 

But in election season especially after the defeat of ideological allies the National Front in France, the AfD is softening its image by projecting Alice Weidel, an openly gay leader as the liberal face of the party; the CDU is luring fence-sitters by asking for a debate on Leitkultur, Germany’s dominant culture. 

Ferda says the problem is nobody knows what Germany’s leading culture is? She says Merkel’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere’s comment, “We shake hands, show our faces, and tell people what our names are. We don’t do [the] burqa”, has become the stuff of mockery.  

“We in Berlin don’t smile a lot, we are a serious people and everyone knows it,” Ferda says, dismissing CDU’s attempt to soak up right-wingers. She adds that young liberals like her propose talking about ‘Leitbild’, what Germany should be and not what it was.

For Silke, it is imperative that her son grows up without the baggage of the past. She lives close to Buchenwald, the concentration camp where the Nazis imprisoned and killed Jews, homosexuals and other minorities. 

Silke and Germans her age were brought up with the historical burden of the crimes committed in World War II. For her, the arrival of the refugees is a chance for Germany to undo the wrongs and emerge as a human rather than a nationalist state.


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