In Germany, new blood meets old fears as asylum seekers arrive in small town

By Jintana Panyaarvudh, The Nation/Asia News Network

Optimism was high in Schwerin when the city received between 2,000 and 3,000 newcomers last year after Germany opened its doors to refugees. Known for the romantic Schwerin Palace, which crowns an island in the lake, the small northern city is home to an aging and dwindling populace of around 100,000 people. As such, many residents see the refugees — whose average age is 25 — as a welcome injection of new blood for the city and its labor market. “The refugees can also enrich our culture. I’m sure Germany can profit from that. We will learn about each other,” said Andreas Ruhl, deputy mayor and head of the city’s finance, youth and social affairs department. Schwerin’s attempts to help the newcomers, many of whom have fled war in their homelands, integrate into German society is an impressive illustration of the local “Willkommenskultur,” or welcome culture. The city has joined hands with charities to forge a warm response to the new arrivals by holding public-relations talks, joint activities between refugees and locals, setting up a refugee-integration unit, and inviting officials to play a positive role. The campaign also features “welcome cafes,” where the refugees can meet and talk with local people and receive information on how and where to register as asylum seekers. Currently there are six welcome cafes in Schwerin, run by the German Red Cross and other charity organizations. We got the chance to visit one cafe on the outskirts of the city on its opening day. The surrounding area is home to about 8,000 residents from migrant backgrounds, and 80 refugees live nearby, a volunteer says. The cafe offers cake, coffee, tea, cold drinks and a recreation room. A world map hanging on the wall gives refugee visitors the chance to orient themselves by locating the position of their home countries and tracing the journeys they made to get here. Around 10 well-dressed young refugees aged between 17 and 21 sat at one table chatting with local volunteers. Enthusiastic and curious about strangers, the teenaged asylum seekers were keen to talk with us. Most were from Afghanistan and Syria and had been in Schwerin for three months. Only a few could speak a little German and none could speak English.

The cafe is the perfect place to integrate with their new society as it affords refugees the chance to practice the German language and get familiar with the culture. “It starts with coffee and then leads to a conversation — ‘what do you think about this or that,’” said Claus Oellerking, one of the cafe’s founders. Oellerking, who is a life coach and vocational training expert, said the refugees offered new hope for the German labor market. These young people asked for something to do, he said. The 57-year-old German told the story of a 59-year-old Syrian refugee he encountered at a supermarket.

The Syrian spotted that the person manning the checkout had done something wrong with the cash register. “He is a well-educated guy. He told me he used to be a manager in Syria. I think he will be able to be a trainer here, but the challenge is the (German) language,” he said. The cafe comes under the umbrella of the Caritas charity and is run by volunteers with the help of thousands of donations from German people. Vanessa Baum, 15, a student in Schwerin, is volunteering here as a school activity.

Despite lacking a common language, she enjoys organizing drinks, snacks and dessert for the refugees and sitting at the table gleaning what she can from their conversations.