Dispatch

Welcome to Wimberg: Population 1,800 (+300 Refugees)

Two years after the height of the migration crisis, Germany is learning that newcomers fare best in tiny villages, not big cities.

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WIMBERG, Germany — The village of Wimberg, population 1,800, is on the northeast edge of the Black Forest. In 2015, with great trepidation, it absorbed 300 refugees — one refugee for every six people.

At a meeting in July 2014, several months before the newcomers arrived, hundreds of residents of Calw, the district where Wimberg is located, gathered to hear how their towns would soon welcome thousands of asylum-seekers from the Middle East and North Africa. There was significant opposition, said Ralf Eggert, the mayor of Calw. Residents feared that their lives would change drastically, crime in their quiet villages would increase, and their streets would be less safe.

“About 20 to 30 people at our initial meeting were very opposed,” Eggert recalled. “They said, ‘OK, they are suffering, and we should help, but not here.’ Many people were afraid because these people are from a place that was foreign to them, with different religion, different culture, different language.”

Now, two years after the first refugees arrived, those fears are gone, Eggert said. Residents “saw that they are just normal people.”

Germany is amid a social experiment on a vast scale. Ever since a wave of humanity hit Europe like a tsunami in 2015, bringing nearly 1 million asylum-seekers to Germany that year alone, almost every town in the country, from big cities to rural villages, has absorbed refugees. Many at the time predicted that social tensions would soon follow.

It was perhaps in the rural villages like Wimberg where anxiety ran highest, where officials were most concerned about how an influx of newcomers would fit into small, close-knit communities unused to foreigners. Residents voiced concerns for their safety; others were more worried about the safety of those settled in these towns and the potential for anti-refugee violence.

But two years into the experiment, in Wimberg, at least, residents appear determined to ensure that new arrivals are integrated into their new home.

Small-town Germany is likely to emerge from the refugee influx a very different place from what it was two years ago. But residents and refugees in Wimburg agree: So far, their new arrangement is working.

* * *

Thaar, a former university student, didn’t want to leave Syria. Even after his neighborhood in Damascus suffered a chemical attack perpetrated by the government, he and his family simply moved to another town. Then, after speaking out against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, he was arrested and taken to Branch 235, one of the country’s most notorious underground prisons. He was tortured every day and forced to sleep next to the dead bodies of other prisoners. Only then did he accept the fact that he wouldn’t survive if he stayed.

In October 2014, Thaar followed the path of millions of other Syrians, crossing the border to Turkey. “I thought I’d stay there just a little while and then go back to Syria,” said Thaar, 26, who requested that only his first name be used, to protect his family members still living in Syria.

He eventually realized that peace in Syria would not come soon, and that he couldn’t obtain refugee status in Turkey. In June 2015, after a month of dangerous boat rides and hundreds of miles by foot, Thaar came to Germany. Arriving with nothing but the clothes on his back, he was sent by German immigration authorities to live in Wimberg.

The culture clash wasn’t just about moving from the Middle East to Europe. “I went from a city of 2 million people, and then I come here. I was in shock,” said Thaar, speaking to me at his home, which is attached to the village church, and where we can hear bells ring as we speak.

Piet Schaber, 52, lives in the house where the author Hermann Hesse was born and raised, in the town of Calw, population 23,400. Wimberg is a village situated within Calw, but Thaar, a bookworm who had read Hesse back in Syria, didn’t know the author had resided there until he visited his friend Mohamad, a refugee who was living in a room at Schaber’s house. Recently, Thaar took me on a walking tour of Calw, where he made sure to point out Hesse’s childhood home and even sought to get us an impromptu tour.

“I’ll check if my friend Piet is home,” he said, as if visiting an old buddy. Schaber opened the door and showed us around, pointing out the floorboards of the bedroom where Hesse was born. “They’ve been here since this house was built in 1690,” he said with pride. Mohamad no longer lives there, because he got a job in another village. “But we meet every now and then for dinner,” Schaber said.

When refugees began pouring into Germany, the government instituted a policy to ensure proportional distribution of refugees throughout the country. The federal government assigns a certain amount of refugees to live in each of Germany’s 16 states. The distribution system is based on a combination of tax revenue and population. The states then determine how many refugees will be sent to each district, and from there the districts decide which towns and villages will house the refugees. Because the distribution isn’t handled by a central agency, it’s difficult to obtain numbers on how many refugees have been settled in small towns, but almost every town has received some. For the time being, they’re there to stay. Last year, as part of a sweeping new integration law, Germany introduced a system that both penalizes refugees for moving away from their assigned location and gives governments more power to decide where they can live in an effort to prevent migrant ghettos in big cities like Berlin and Munich.

The district of Calw, in which the town of Calw and the village of Wimberg are located, has a population of 160,000 people in 25 towns. It has taken in nearly 5,000 refugees since 2014, housing them in 12 accommodations that were either newly built shelters or previously abandoned buildings. Half are Syrian and the rest are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, and elsewhere, said Norbert Weiser, the district’s head of refugee integration.

Throughout our conversation, Weiser, a Wimberg resident, refused to call Germany’s current situation “a refugee crisis.” His parents moved from Poland to Germany after World War II. “Now that was a crisis,” he said of the 5 million immigrants who flooded Germany when the economy was in shambles and the nation had just been bombed by Allied forces.

“This is not a crisis,” he said. “The number of volunteers helping refugees have far outnumbered the people speaking out against them.”

* * *

Not everyone was so positive at first. In 2015, many tranquil, picture-book towns and villages braced for massive disruption. Meetings were taking place in cities and towns across Germany. In Gechingen, population 3,800, Bettina Schoettmer, a volunteer who led efforts to help the refugees there, said she received calls from neighbors who were worried about their wives or daughters walking around town at night. Some asked if they could still place items for sale outside of their shops out of concern they might be stolen. Sumte, which has a population of 102, made headlines when it was assigned 750 asylum-seekers.

Eggert said one thing that calmed Wimberg residents from the start was having volunteers bring refugees to neighbors’ homes “to have tea and break the ice.” Volunteers also told the refugees to be friendly. “If you take the first step to smile at people and say hello or good morning in German, it makes such a difference,” he said.

Gunter Stricker, a 71-year-old retiree, leads the group of volunteers who help refugees in Calw. “If I show that we take care of the people and show that I don’t have to fear them, then other people see that we don’t have to fear them,” he said. “It encourages everyone to have a feeling of security.”

He believes that being kind to refugees will make Germans safer. “I think it’s necessary for the people here to live in peace together,” he said. “It’s important for our security that these people here do well.”

Schaber, who lives in Hesse’s house, where he loans his spare rooms out to newcomers like Mohamed, agrees. “If people close themselves and become nationalistic, we then have these parallel societies, and that is not the way to go. This is what happened with the suburbs of Paris,” he said.

Like Schaber, authorities have been preoccupied with ensuring that the refugee crisis doesn’t produce “parallel societies.” As a result, many view Germany’s small towns as a more promising environment for resettlement than big cities, said Katharina Stamm, who heads European migration policy at Diakonie Deutschland, the social welfare organization of Germany’s Protestant churches that assists refugees throughout the country.

“The cities are more anonymous so it’s not so easy to get into society. So the refugees stick together, and then learning the language is more difficult,” Stamm said. “I’ve had the experience where refugees coming from rural areas in Bavaria speak better German than in the cities.” 

In small towns, volunteers have more personal contact with refugees because the ratio of refugees to volunteers is higher, Stamm said. In cities, that ratio is lower because there are so many more refugees, and the interactions between volunteers and refugees are much more limited. “This family feeling you have in the villages, you’re not going to find that in an urban area,” she said. “That is the positive impact of coming to a small town. City people don’t have as much time. Urban people are always in a rush.” 

But small towns come with their own problems, Stamm said. The racism was worse at first, and the resettlement initiatives met with more opposition and suspicion. “People are more afraid of something new,” she said. The new arrivals often prefer to be placed in cities.

Wimberg and Calw are typical West German small towns, tidy and prosperous. The local economies, centered around an automotive parts supplier and the wood and furniture industry, are a thriving mix of modern and traditional. The state of Baden-Württemberg, in which Calw is located, has an unemployment rate of 4.1 percent, lower than the national unemployment rate of 6.7 percent. Here, overcoming opposition seems to be about prolonged exposure. Those who initially feared how the newcomers would reshape their towns have become less anxious over time. 

But in East Germany, where standards of living are lower and unemployment is higher, the situation has been very different. All small towns struggle with retaining young people, but East German small towns in particular have seen the widespread flight of young people to the cities. Mostly older people remain. “Older people are a little bit more racist than younger people,” Stamm said. “Some of our volunteers in the east can’t even tell their friends that they work with refugees, or they’ve had fights with their families because they help refugees.”

* * *

Thaar used to live in a shelter with nearly 100 other refugees. The village priest invited him to live in the house attached to the church when it became vacant. The two had come to know each other after Thaar gave talks at the church — in German, his fifth language — about Islam, refugees, and the war in Syria. One time, he spoke at the church after the Paris attacks in November 2015 by invitation from the priest. Samir, another Syrian refugee I met in the neighboring village of Gechingen, has also given presentations, typically at schools, so that children can learn about the refugee situation.

The most crucial aspect of the integration in Calw, however, involves day-to-day life. All refugee children attend school with German children as part of federal requirements. “We don’t want to separate them,” Eggert said. Adult refugees, like Thaar, attend German courses five days a week, four hours a day. After classes, Thaar, along with Samir and other refugees, works as an unpaid intern at the local university. Stricker, the volunteer, helped them get these trainee positions at the university to improve their German and learn how Germans work. Once they are fluent, he said, they can seek paying jobs. Schaber also employs two Afghan refugees at the clothing shop he owns in Calw as part of his efforts to ensure that new arrivals feel integrated into Germany society.

The cost of this welcome has been steep. Eggert said the district of Calw has spent about $25 million on refugee integration in 2015, a sum that will be reimbursed by the federal government. Most of that money was spent on new personnel and infrastructure. Yet Eggert believes it was well worth the price. The refugees will eventually contribute to the economy through taxes, consumption, and their own work, he said. Like many towns in Germany, the population of Calw is aging — the average age of residents in the district is 43.5 — and regional officials have high hopes that an influx of refugees can help keep the town vital. Many young people in rural towns like Calw move to cities after school, Eggert said. Once the refugees become fluent in German, they can fill the jobs that will soon be vacated by older workers and work as apprentices until then. But these new young people will have to stick around. If they do, they’ll have to think of Wimberg as home.

There remain those in Wimberg and nearby towns who aren’t so happy about the embrace of refugees. “The same 10 percent of people who were loudly opposed to it from the beginning,” said Weiser, referring to the initial meeting in 2014, are still opposed to it. Most don’t do anything about it, but a few do. Schoettmer, the head of volunteers in Gechingen, said she used to get calls and emails from a man who threatened to attack refugees or torch the local shelter where many of them live. The man was arrested and sent to prison after Schoettmer showed his emails to police. Schoettmer’s concerns were validated by statistics recently released by Germany’s Interior Ministry, which showed that there were more than 3,500 attacks on refugees and refugee shelters in 2016.

Thaar and Samir say they understand the fears that pervaded the town before they arrived. “It’s sensible that people might be afraid, because they don’t know about refugees. It’s like strangers coming into your house,” said Samir, 32, who requested that I use only his first name in order to protect relatives still in Syria. And so he gives presentations in town in the hope of winning over his new neighbors. “We cannot continue life here without connecting with the people,” he said. “It’s important for people to know more about us.”

Samir and Thaar told me they’ve never had a problem with any of the locals, not even so much as a suspicious glance. I was skeptical of this at first. Yet walking the streets of Wimberg, Gechingen, and Calw with Samir and Thaar, not only did people not look at them suspiciously but German passers-by exchanged smiles and greetings with them just as they did with other locals. 

Thaar admits, however, that he felt stupefied by boredom during his first weeks in Calw. As we walked around town at about 5 p.m., most shops were starting to close and the streets were quiet. Most of the time he read or watched movies at home. Eventually, though, he said he came to love the silence and serenity of his life here — something he wouldn’t have if he lived in a city.

Samir also felt the initial shock, but came to love the close friendships with locals that are nurtured by living in a small community. He said most of his friends here are German.

“People make us feel great here,” Samir told me. “They push us to learn and succeed and give us a bridge to walk on.” In fact, the day I watched in awe as Thaar knocked on Schaber’s door unannounced and was welcomed with a hug, I saw Samir do the same with Schoettmer. The mother of three said she considers Samir a part of her family. She also told me that she was afraid in the beginning, especially as a woman.

But “it didn’t take long until I said to my husband, ‘The safest place for me in Gechingen is this house,’” she said, pointing down the street toward the shelter where some refugees still live.

Before leaving Calw, I asked Thaar, who was shocked when he was first sent to quiet Wimberg, what he thinks of his new home and if he ever wishes that he lived in a more exciting place, like Berlin. He took a deep breath of fresh air and waited a few seconds so we could hear the sound of silence. “It’s just calm here,” he said as he exhaled. “After the war, that’s really nice.”

Photo credit: Yardena Schwartz

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