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Why Aren’t There Any Refugees in The Former DDR?


We left San Francisco and relocated to Germany last year; and although I had deeply loved my former home, and happily lived there for decades, the tech boom of the last few years wrought some very ugly changes. The average rent for a one bedroom apartment has soared to a ludicrously high average of $5,000 a month, which has not only displaced most of my artist friends, but also fundamentally altered the character of The City by the Bay in most unappealing ways. Not only can writers, teachers and other normal people no longer afford to live there, many established museums and other arts organizations are also being evicted. What had made San Francisco such a uniquely creative and special place is now rapidly fading.

We now live just west of Berlin, in the picturesque city of Brandenburg an der Havel, in the former East Germany. The lovely hamlet’s cobblestone streets are bustling with bicyclists and pedestrians, and are lined with stunning cathedrals, medieval statuary and a variety of beautiful historic buildings, while many forests and lakes are only a short bus or bike trip outside of town. Even though rents in Germany’s capital are quickly climbing, we only pay a mere €300 a month for our spacious flat with high ceiling at a block from the river, and nearly everything that we need is within walking distance in our neighborhood.

Since my spouse is a German citizen, most of the immigration process has been a bit easier for me than most people, but it is still a struggle. Even though we have the loving support of extended family, the benefit of adequate savings and higher education, learning to adjust to this very different culture and language remains difficult.

Before we settled here, we spent the first few months of our transition in the state of Hessen, a little south of Frankfurt in the tiny beige town of Stockstadt, where my spouse was raised. Arriving at the beginning of a long, frigid winter only served to accentuate the cold unfriendliness of the local populace. Every day while walking our dog few people would ever even say hello, and would frequently cross the street to avoid any contact. I always felt that I was being eyed with distrust and suspicion, which is maybe more common in a small village, where someone whose family has not lived there for generations may be more obviously viewed as an outsider.

All manner of immigrants are also more common in this area than in Brandenburg, even in this remote and inconsequential suburb. Some of our relations’ immediate neighbors are from Turkey, Poland and North America, and plans were being made to settle a few dozen Syrian refugees nearby; but the various ethnic groups remained largely stratified and did not integrate or socialize much with one another. The region where we were staying lies in former West Germany, and is thriving economically. Unemployment is low and rents are high, and though most people appeared to be far more affluent, they also often openly radiated judgmental hostility and bitter joylessness. And in my experience, even though foreigners are more prevalent, most of the populace was not very interested in embracing other cultures or someone different.

Foreigners are far less common here in Brandenburg than in the south, but I have always felt much more welcome in this part of Germany. People I encounter on the street seem very interested in where I am from, and why we would leave San Francisco for this smaller and less cosmopolitan city. Or maybe it is because immigrants are fewer here, that I am frequently viewed as such a novel curiosity. Being a pale blue-eyed atheist I may be perceived to have more superficially in common with most of the local residents than a darker-skinned Muslim refugee might, but even when my still mediocre language skills clearly mark me as an Ausländer, nearly everyone is warm, open and friendly to me.

Surprisingly, only 3.4% of people from immigration backgrounds are currently living in what used to be East Germany, which may be due to a number of factors, including severely restricted immigration and refugee policies from when the Wall was still in place, fewer employment opportunities, as well as the mass population exodus that the followed the fall of the DDR, and the past forced expulsion of resident guest workers from other countries. Until the implementation of the German Nationality Act of 2000, the country’s restrictive and somewhat xenophobic citizenship laws even forbade most children born to non-Germans anywhere in the nation from becoming citizens – hardly a welcoming policy for foreigners.

As Germany’s population has been in decline, attitudes towards immigrants appear to now be shifting. The influx of hundreds of thousands of war refugees and others is seen by most as a much-needed benefit that will positively impact the country’s economy and future. Everyone whom I have spoken with about immigration has said that these changes are largely positive, and that it is also the country’s moral obligation to do everything possible to help war refugees. We have extended family, some of whom themselves were Eastern European refugees from WWII, who live in Nauen, where a temporary asylum shelter was intentionally burned to the ground earlier this year. They expressed their horror and shame at such hateful racist actions taking place in their home town, and believe as I do that the concept of national borders is somewhat senseless, and that, regardless of where we were born, everyone should be given the opportunity to live freely together in peace.

By Rhonda Winter

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