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The following four letters regarding the situation of refugees in Germany were sent from a German observer to a curious American. They are re-printed here with the permission of the correspondents.

September 11, 2015

Dear American Friend:

Thank you for asking about the mounting waves of refugees in Germany, Flüchtlinge, as they are called here, not migrants. Germans are generally open and welcoming, but in the back of everybody's mind is the question the Bavarian Prime Minister asked: How can we accommodate so many people? Many of the refugees enter Germany via Hungary and Austria, so the state of Bavaria is the first to feel the brunt of their arrival in Western Europe.

You asked about Goettingen where my husband and I live. Our situation is somewhat different from other places. We have a large refugee camp in the village of Friedland built immediately after World War II to receive and process prisoners of war. My father-in-law passed through it in 1949. Later Friedland was transformed into a camp for refugees coming to West Germany from former German-speaking regions of the Central European world — Poland, East Prussia, Czechoslovakia. After that the so-called Russian Germans arrived families with German background like the Wolgadeutschen (Volga Germans), ethnic Germans who lived along the River Volga in European Russia. Some were young men whose great-grandparents were German, but had no connection with German culture or language. Later, Friedland was downsized but still received refugees, most notably Vietnamese Boat People.

Those who live in Goettingen are familiar with Friedland and know its history. There has always been a Friedland club, with women collecting and distributing clothing, school books, and other goods for people in the camp. Every year before Christmas, schools, especially elementary schools, organize collections of toys for families living there. The churches in Goettingen finance a Catholic and a Protestant chaplain. And now a Syrian Deacon, who has been living in Germany for quite a few years, has been appointed to look after the Syrian Christians arriving in Friedland. More than 100,000 Syrian Christians live in Germany and they have welcomed about the same number of their brothers and sisters into their families. So it is not unusual for the people of Goettingen to absorb refugees. We have a mosque in Göttingen, with beautiful minarets (but no muezzin calling people for prayer!). More Muslims wouldn't be a problem, either, as many Muslim families, some in their third generation, have already been a part of Goettingen society for a long time. Indeed, most Muslims here are Turks and tend to be bourgeois. Few Germans here fear that young men will turn into radical Islamists, although that has happened in other cities.

Other cities do not have a place nearby to house them and provide for their needs. Which means that in other cities the arrival of thousands of immigrants strains their resources and arouses suspicion and resentment among the people.Our daughter-in-law, who works in Berlin with the Deutsche Bahn in a managerial position, has been appointed to find shelter for the crowds of refugees all over Germany – in some cases, old railway stations no longer in use. The Deutsche Bahn has offered a piece of land for the construction of a camp – though it helps little to select a location out in the country where no one else lives, as has sometimes happened. But she and others are scrambling to find solutions. Even the most receptive German people and governments are often at a loss as to how to deal with the situation. The numbers of people arriving daily are just mind-boggling; good will alone is not enough. Reasonable and practical solutions have to be found, especially since it takes about three months to get the new arrivals registered so that they can move on to a place where they can live.

Now we are apprehensive about what lies ahead. I think the situation is one of wonder: Many Germans want to help, especially after what one hears about the situation in the countries many of the refugees are coming from. But with many thousands arriving every day, people are in a state of suspense, with no idea how these people can be helped. We have no precedent for it like Hungary does, for instance, which historically was a bulwark against Islam (think of Prinz Eugen, the successful general defeating the Turks in the Turkish War 1683-99).We hope things will resolve in coming weeks and months, but I for one, am not sure what that might be.

September 12, 2015

Recently I talked to our nephew who lives in Zwickau, at the foot of the Erzgebirge, far away in the South-East of Germany. In Saxony, the people are not as familiar with Muslims as we are in the former western Germany. He works at a VW plant there and was quite concerned about his co-workers. Many are prejudiced against the refugees, envious of money they are said to have received and fearful that they will take away their jobs. And some worry that there may be ISIS sympathizers among them, though I see no grounds for their fears.

According to my nephew’s report, all of his colleagues share these fears. The management of VW—the company's headquarters is in Wolfsburg, which is in the West—has let it be known that any employee who is heard talking in a negative way about refugees will get a written warning.

I am doubtful that approach will do much to foster love of neighbor.

In Zwickau, the refugees were housed in an empty former supermarket built in the 1990s, one of those unmistakeable symbols of the wealth of West Germany come to the East. But there weren’t enough customers, so the market had to close, leaving only a huge building behind. That is now being used for a camp, but there are not enough toilets or cooking facilities for the refugees.

September 24, 2015

Let me say a bit more about Friedland, our refugee camp, to illustrate the problems we are facing. Friedland has room for 700 people, but there are close to 4000 refugees living there now.There is not enough room for beds, so mattresses have been put down in the hallways and in the offices. The lack of privacy makes refugees restless, sometimes aggressive. The dining hall has room to feed 400 people at a time, which means that there is a queue all times of the day; people often are afraid that there won’t be enough food left. There is no danger of that, but their fear is understandable after what they have been through.

Still it is much better than in other places, because Friedland has the infrastructure in place, and those who manage the camp know how to deal with crowds of people who have nothing. They have set up tents in the area, which is fine now, but the situation will become critical when it gets colder. What is needed most, however, is human contact. From our church, a woman who is a music teacher regularly goes to the camp to gather groups of children and sing with them. A retired doctor drives over just to visit with people—most of the Syrian refugees speak English quite fluently.

There is some grumbling in the population, of course. Friedland is what is called an open camp, which means that there is no fence around it. The camp is part of the village, and the refugees are everywhere. They shopping in the one nearby market, trash accumulates by the wayside, and there are no more apples or pears left on the trees in people’s gardens. And children are everywhere—many more than Germans are used to be seeing and hearing. But what people resent most is that any kind of criticism puts them in the politically “rightest” corner. They complain—when you sit down with them for a cup of tea—that freedom of speech is curtailed, while “the politicians,” especially on the federal level, do nothing.

What comes up in conversation over these matters is Germany’s long history of refugees. The English word ‘Refugee’ reminds us in German of the many who tried to escape from the Nazis by fleeing to a foreign country. Everyone has an aunt or a grandmother or cousin who was displaced or driven out of a former home after World War II. And there's few who don’t remember how those German refugees had to be housed in a country where, in some places, a third of the houses or more had been destroyed in bombing raids. A special administration was set up, which allotted living space to people by square meters, and that applied to the refugees and to the people who had to take them in.

In the one-family house in which I grew up, there were, besides myself and my parents and grandmother, a family of three who had lost their home in Frankfurt through bombs, as well as a young married couple. The main problem was not the space, but heating material. You could heat only one room. The young man had found a job with the American occupation forces, and he brought home steaks from the commissary which he cooked for himself and his wife in the only kitchen in the house, while the rest of the people had barely anything to eat. The delicious smell of meat cooking was more than we could bear; the rest of us ate a sort of spinach made from nettles (I liked it). This arrangement ended in the early fifties. In East Germany it took much longer, because East Germany had refugees from East Prussia or Poland. Like many of us, Frau Merkel probably has similar experiences in mind as she copes with the influx of refugees. The pressing question that lies ahead is where will the refugees settle on a more permanent basis once they have been registered. Communities are looking for apartments to house them. And there is a need for schoolrooms and teachers for the children. We are not really in that second phase, yet, and I don’t really know what kinds of problems are going to arise. We hope the situation will remain as relaxed as it is now.

October 20th, 2015

Last Sunday I received some more information I'd like to share with you. During the years of the German Democratic Republic, most churches here used to have a partnership with a church in East Germany. Our Lutheran congregation of St. Albani still keeps up these ties with a Lutheran congregation in Chemnitz—“Karl-Marx-Stadt,” as it was called for 40 years! We visit each other occasionally and there were seven people from Chemnitz in Göttingen last weekend.

Chemnitz belongs to the State of Saxony where Dresden is located. Dresden is famous as the center of Pegida, a far right group. We asked the people from Chemnitz whether this movement was strong there, too. They said, no, one couldn't really say that, but they did tell us about a small village in their area with a large camp built as a retreat center for socialist youth groups. The refugee administration wants to put 400 refugees there, but there are protests in the village, which has only 100 inhabitants. This has nothing to do with Pegida, they said, or a rejection of foreigners. The problem is simply too many people.

One woman from there told us how she and her husband were looking after refugees housed in one of the camps there. She told about a Syrian family of five, with the youngest boy suffering from cancer. The father had carried the little boy in his arms from Damascus to Germany. By now a doctor has been found at the University clinic in Regensburg, who will do surgery on the boy and the family has even found a small apartment in Regensburg.

This couple also helped a mother with a 5-year old handicapped child and another child on the way. Her husband had gone into hiding because they are Albanians, and Albanians are not recognized as refugees. Albania is considered a “secure country.” The German couple in Chemnitz is trying to get an intermediate permit for them so that the mother can give birth in peace. But the paper work is mountainous.

Several “Unterkünfte” (accommodations) are being readied or rebuilt here in Göttingen. The first can now receive refugees and two others will be ready by the end of the year. They are all located in middle class or upper middle class sections of Göttingen, and that has led to some grumbling among the people who live in the neighborhood. But in Göttingen, probably because it’s a university town, any kind of “Fremdenfeindlichkeit” (antagonism toward foreigners) is an absolute social taboo. That is not so in other parts of Germany.

The kind of help needed here is quite different. The refugees in those quarters are mostly young men, Syrians and others, with different nationalities and different religions. It is not surprising that there are fights in the camp, but they seldom get reported in the press.

That about sums up things as I see them on the ground here in Göttingen. No one knows what will come of these large numbers of refugees and how German society and its institutions will find a place for them. I know it may seem utopian or even irrational, but the only practical and moral attitude at this point really is the dictum of Angela Merkel: “Wir schaffen das!” [“Yes, we can!”]

Marianne Mühlenberg lives in Göttingen, Germany, and works as a freelance translator. She is a member of the Lutheran church, in which she served as member of the synod in Hannover.

More on: Germany, refugees

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