The Changed Face of Germany?

While most participants the Missoula to Berlin Journalism school program had done some international travel previously, and some had even spent time in Germany, I was afforded the unique perspective of observing Europe immediately before and after the refugee influx of 2015/16. Because I had lived and worked in Bavaria during the summer of 2014 and studied in Austria in the following fall and spring, I perceived the refugee “crisis” as a type of before and after snapshot that is probably uncommon.

While back in the United States last winter, I followed the refugee situation fairly closely, and expected to return to a radically changed Europe. Instead, I found Germans more prone to volunteerism, more politically polarized, but far from expressing the monumental shift in consciousness I had expected.

To the outsider, there were also minor observable differences. An Austrian chain supermarket in the town where I studied had been converted into a Syrian grocery, machine-gun toting police officers now patrol the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, and more women in headscarfs can be seen on the subway system.

Although my original intention in writing this blog post was to highlight some of the superficial and aesthetic differences between Germany of 2014 and today, I realize this over-simplification is inaccurate and dismisses the significance of the situation.

For all their media hype, the immediate and tangible challenges of accommodating refugees pale in comparison to the long-term, intangible difficulties of cultural evolution. While not all asylum seekers plan to stay in Germany permanently, some certainly will. It will be Germany’s ability (or inability) to make these new residents prominent members of their cultural and political identity, that will shape the new face of Europe.

The type of monumental paradigm shift that I had expected upon arrival in Germany this summer, while not yet fully expressed, must come to fruition if the violence of radical islam and nativism are to be avoided in the future. Germany has been superficially, yet undoubtedly changed, but it will be the ability of Germans to change themselves that will  decide the future of the nation. The greatest challenge concerning the refugee crisis is not what has already passed, but what is to come.

The Silver Lining

In addition to the interviews that each member of the Missoula to Berlin reporting team set up in Germany, the group was treated to numerous lectures from various experts on the refugee crisis in Europe. On the third day of our visit, Werner Schiffauer, a professor of cultural studies at Europa Universität, gave an engaging lecture about refugee integration and the social implications of religious diversity that changed my perspective on the european refugee crisis.

Beaming in the brightly lit conference room, Schiffauer’s interest in the topic was infectious. Besides his owl-like eyebrows and Bavarian accent that filtered even into his fluent English, what struck me most was his emphasis on the good that has come from the refugees in Germany.

Schiffauer explained that the media has focused heavily on the negative implications of the refugee situation, such as the financial burden of accommodating refugees, the threat of terrorism and the backlash from right-wing extremists. While this is necessary to the discussion of refugee issues, what Schiffauer highlighted was the unparalleled “Refugees Welcome” movement. Volunteer workers have spearheaded an astonishing number and scope of projects in the last year to address this issue. Refugee shelters were often overwhelmed by the number of donations and many were even forced to stop accepting donated food and clothing items.

It is this grassroots effort that Schiffauer finds so heartening. For many Germans this unprecedented rise in altruism became a partial expression of atonement for their role in the holocaust and the second world war. Unfortunately this movement has been downplayed in the media.  “The media focuses on the rise of the right-wing,” he explained, “but ignores the monumental left-wing momentum since 2015.”

According to Schiffauer, this willingness to give and desire to innovate is the sliver lining of the crisis. While volunteerism and left-wing momentum have decreased in the past six months as fewer refugees have entered Europe, unprecedented numbers of German’s are still engaged. This selflessness in the face of fear and uncertainty is what gives me hope for the future of refugee integration in Germany.

It’s not only Germany which can benefit from the human willingness to give. Even many conservative Germans find the United States’ meager acceptance rate of 10,000 refugees laughable. As someone who has observed the refugee situation in Europe firsthand, I suggest that the United States government reevaluate its minuscule acceptance quotas. My hope is that we, as a nation, can address our fears and uncertainties associated with immigration in a reasoned manner in order to become more selfless and giving to those in need.

The Group

This May, eighteen University of Montana students, including myself, packed up our notepads, recording equipment, and varying degrees of altruistic aspirations and took off for the European continent. We had little in common except for our decision to participate in a faculty-led, journalism-school expedition with the stated goal of “chasing the refugee story all the way to Berlin.” Most group members were journalism students; several, like me, came from a mishmash of related majors from which we could manufacture some vague connection to a reporting trip in Germany.

The differences between the students in the group were about as pronounced as those between our two intrepid leaders: the NPR reporter turned university dean with a voice like a prohibition-era speakeasy doorman, and the formerly punk-rocking Berliner with the blustery demeanor and attire of a threatening (yet motherly) cumulonimbus. After arriving in the once divided, symbolic epicenter of the Cold War tensions, we were joined by a Montana cowpoke turned Fulbright photographer and four translators, all of whom were recent arrivals from various war-torn regions of Afghanistan and Syria.

We were a passionate, if eclectic, group of journalists, who looked somewhat lost while traipsing through Europe’s second largest metropolis. Most of had some apprehension when confronted with the thought of sharing each waking moment for the duration of the project with group members in the cramped, if luxurious, living quarters of the Cat’s Pajamas Hostel. That was before we visited the Emergency Refugee Shelter in Neuköln.

There, hundreds of recently arrived refugees share extremely crowded quarters with complete strangers in a converted factory building. In a place where each person’s tiny living space is separated from the countless others by acoustically unforgiving blankets, privacy is essentially nonexistent and tensions run high. Although the Neuköln shelter was intended as temporary relief housing, the beaurocratic hurdles of obtaining residency status and the German government’s stagnancy in processing asylum applications means that many refugees have been living in these challenging conditions for over a year.

Unlike our “eclectic” group of “intrepid” journalists, refugees living in the Neuköln shelter come from completely differing cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Most are confronting the unspeakable traumas associated with fleeing their war-ravaged homelands, witnessing the deaths of loved ones and traveling for thousands of miles through politically unpredictable, and sometimes hostile foreign countries.

Suddenly our own apprehensions seemed trivial, our stresses insignificant, the publication of these people’s stories more important than ever. With the residents of the Neuköln shelter in mind, the group began research on our news stories and embarked on a relatively conflict-free three weeks communal living in Germany’s capital.