Angela Merkel’s Great Escape
The chancellor's response to the refugee crisis was going to be her downfall. Then Germany's welfare state kicked in.
My acid test for Germany’s welfare-to-work system was the Malak family, whom I met my first time in Dresden and interviewed again earlier this month. Jamail al-Malak and his wife Mirvet fled Aleppo with their daughter and two sons in 2012 when their home was flattened by a missile — fired by which side, they never knew. After bouncing from one friend or relative to another, they left for Turkey. Years of labor at his metal shop, as well as the ordeal of fleeing, had so damaged Jamail’s back that he could no longer work. He was tormented by the fact that the boys, Mustapha and Muhammad, then 17 and 16, had had to support the family with manual labor — “7 in the morning until 11 at night,” he said. In August 2015, the Malaks joined the great westward trek of refugees, arriving in Dresden on Sept. 1.
By the time we met, they had been placed in a tidy apartment in the city’s Soviet-era housing blocks. Jamail, at 46, seemed utterly played out. His eyes were outlined with gray rings, his jowls hung slackly. He recounted even the most terrible parts of his ordeal in a low, flat tone. Jamail had no thought of his own future. “I have this place,” he said to me. “That’s enough. It’s just my family I care about.” Muhammad, who spoke in monosyllables, seemed as listless as his father. He and Mustapha had dropped out of school to help their father in seventh and sixth grades. Muhammad dreamed of working in a sweets shop, but that would be impossible until he learned German. Only bright-eyed Fatin, in fifth grade with no memories of Syria and already speaking German, seemed to offer hope for the Malaks’ future.
This time around, the Malaks were very hard to track down. They had moved, and Jamail didn’t return phone calls and text messages from Fakher. I worried that something terrible had happened. We finally found his new address, but when we buzzed, he said that he couldn’t have us in — he and Mirvet had been sick. Finally, though, he popped his head out the window and told us to come up. They really had been sick — he with high blood pressure and Mirvet with crippling migraines that had kept her in a hospital for two weeks — but Jamail was also embarrassed. He had not climbed the integration ladder. He had spent only four days in language class, and Mirvet had to drop out after a few months. Jamail said that his doctor had told him to take regular walks, but his back hurt too much. He wanted nothing to do with Syrian politics — he didn’t care who won the war, so long as he could go back home — so he avoided the Aleppans in town and refused even to go to the mosque. In short, he never did anything or went anywhere. He was plainly depressed. He asked me to tell him the news about Syria, and then waved me off. “This pains my heart too much. Let’s talk about something else.”
Mirvet told me that her family had been sufficiently well known in the opposition that when the shabiha — President Bashar al-Assad’s thuggish militia — had taken the eastern, rebel-held side of Aleppo, they had dynamited the family’s abandoned homes. She did not share her husband’s dreams of return. Neither, however, did she have any sense of her own future. Since Jamail tended to answer every question I put to Mirvet, I waited until he walked out of the room to ask if she planned to look for work. She giggled. “In Syria,” she said, “it’s not normal for us women to work. I know in Germany it’s normal, but I can’t imagine doing that myself.” Jamail was old enough that he was exempt from the work requirement; he would be supported by the state for the rest of his life. Mirvet would be required to work. She had signed a contract with the Jobs Center, but the German document, which Jamail brought out for Fakher to interpret for him, only required that she show up every six months to report on her progress.
The family’s future — and thus the drama of integration — lay with the children. Fakher and I returned that evening to see them. Fatin, dark-haired, dark-eyed, smiling, restless, said that the German girls in sixth grade were mean to her. One girl had stolen her cellphone. But the family had a guardian angel, a German volunteer who often visited with her own children and helped Fatin with homework. She had gone to the school and settled the affair. In fact, the Malaks had three guardian angels. An Arab-speaking social worker at the Saxony Refugee Council had worked with them until moving to a new job and had in turn introduced them to both this German lady and another, who had helped Mustapha find an apartment in a very nice neighborhood when the Jobs Center had insisted that, at 21, he needed a place of his own. (The Jobs Center paid, of course.)
Refugees in Dresden all seem to have such teams of volunteer ladies at their disposal. Church attendance has dropped sharply in eastern Germany, but the diminishing band of the faithful seem deeply invested in social activism. I would see them, middle-aged ladies in graying ponytails, sitting with refugees at the impromptu cafes in town, poring over official documents. They often brought homemade cake and bread. The volunteer army vastly outnumbered the right-wing cranks who turned out to protest the newcomers. It was one of the reasons the refugees had a shot at success.
Muhammad, alas, seemed as lumpish as he had the year before. He and Mustapha had both failed their German exam at the basic, B1 level. Both continued to receive their subsidies from the Jobs Center, which had assigned them to plant flowers by the roadside in exchange for tram fare — about as low as you could go without falling off integration’s transmission belt altogether. Muhammad complained that even his friends who had passed B1 couldn’t get a job; there was nothing to be had. The truth was that basic German was still too basic: decent jobs required more language proficiency. The Jobs Center wanted the boys to go back to school. But the idea of human capital was alien to the Malaks. Jamail, who was ashamed of his family’s dependence on the Jobs Center, was urging the boys to get any job they could. Mustapha, who was at least more talkative than Muhammad, had actually snagged a two-week internship at a metalworking shop. Afterward, the boss had said he would call if something opened up; he hadn’t yet.
Muhammad and Mustapha seemed destined for a life of washing dishes — at best. They would drift to the margins of German life. Yet something happened that gave me a tiny glimmer of hope. The day after I saw the Malaks, I went to Heidenau, a suburb southeast of Dresden, to visit a vocational education program, the very heart of the German employment system. The program was operated by a private firm that offered classroom education to employees of the small machine shops that dot Saxony. The owner, Norbert Rokasky, had decided that he wanted to extend his program to include refugees. When he discovered that very few refugees had the language skills to take classes in German, he hired another firm to offer language classes. When the students had reached B2, he would help them find jobs and then offer vocational training. Even now he let the students go to one of workshops on the campus and bang metal, just to get the feel of the thing. The average refugee, he told me, was less qualified but more motivated and hardworking than his German students. I mentioned Mustapha. Would he be qualified to enroll? Of course, Rokasky said, the firm that offered the internship should have sent Mustapha to him. He gave me his card and said that he would expect a call. Refugees might slide between the cracks, but Germany was trying hard to catch them.
It’s an extraordinary system that enfolds refugees in Germany — one part voluntarism, two parts private sector, and everything else, the benevolent welfare state. Such a system raises a question about liberalism. The United States has a liberal economy in the classical sense of minimal state intervention. The American system creates an abundance of low-level and informal job opportunities. It does not, however, have a means of systematically equipping the ill equipped for the job market. Germany has had an armor-plated labor market with social protections since the time of Bismarck, and very little informal economy. Yet the massive system of benefits, and the structured conveyor belt to employment, seems to allow it to contain the social problems associated with the mass arrival of refugees — problems that would swamp a free-market economy. And by containing the social problem, Germany has been able to contain the political problem. Put otherwise, Germany’s illiberal economy has served as a foundation for liberal politics. One could argue that the situation in the United States is the exact opposite.