Established immigrants doubt Germany can meet refugee challenge

One person, who arrived 13 years ago, says the country still has ‘identity’ issues

When the annual Oktoberfest beer bonanza kicked off in Munich on Saturday, Hamado Dipama wasn't in the mood for celebrating. As boisterous Bavarians in lederhosen and busty dirndl dresses headed to the beer tents, Mr Dipama, a wiry 41-year-old originally from Burkina Faso in western Africa, helped co-ordinate the latest tired arrivals to Munich from Syria, Eritrea and other war zones. Mr Dipama is local spokesman for the ProAsyl refugee council in Bavaria and a Munich native for 13 years.

But he says he’s slept just four hours in the last days, since news of last week’s military putsch in Burkina Faso revived memories of his own flight 13 years ago, following the murder of his best friend, a fellow student leader.

Last week's putsch has not just shattered his dream of one day returning home, he says; the violence could prompt his countryfolk join the one million refugees already set to arrive in Germany this year.

The last weeks have been a huge challenge, Mr Dipama says, but he’s been impressed by how many volunteers came to the ProAsyl office to help. That said, he is unsettled about what lies ahead. “In the last week I’ve noticed the mood has tipped over into the negative,” said Mr Dipama. “And even people who got in touch before to help are now saying to us ‘well, we can’t help everyone’.”

That refrain is familiar, too, to Abdel Ashour, a 28-year-old orthopaedic doctor who left Egypt two years ago after seeing no future in his country. "I think Merkel is a good person but, with her offer to help refugees, she's just talking, far away in her world," said Dr Ashour.


He says local politicians from her CDU party in the eastern Thuringia, his new home, have a defensive and deeply conservative attitude: “Refugees welcome, just not in front of my house or in my town.”

With a low non-German population, Dr Ashour admits that Germany’s east was not the obvious choice for a foreigner. He came here on purpose, he says, to demonstrate to locals that “foreigners” can be more than refugees, kebab shop owners or a welfare recipients.

“I’ve had good experiences and negative experiences, I feel we have to fight cliches and stereotypes here on the ground,” he said. Like other non-natives, Dr Ashour he has joined a new campaign for non-natives, “I’m Germany Too”, an initiative that has taken on a greater urgency in the last weeks.

One in five living here has a family background outside of Germany, and one million German citizens are of foreign birth. This is the reality in Germany in 2015 – and the legacy of the abolition in 2000 of the 1913 Ius Sanguis principle, conferring citizenship based on having German parents, in favour of Ius Soli, conferring citizenship based on place of birth.

But for many Germans, this new reality is out of sync with their own emotional reality over who can or cannot be German. Similarly, the recent “refugees welcome” campaign sits uneasily with people who heard for decades that theirs was not a classic country of migration. Almost overnight, German politicians have embraced the new immigration wave as the answer to their pension prayers, seeing refugees as a young workforce which will defuse Germany’s demographic time bomb.

Speaking for many business leaders, meanwhile, Daimler chairman Dieter Zetsche said last week: "Like the guest workers decades ago, these people can help us to retain and increase our prosperity."

With a massive immigration challenge ahead, Chancellor Merkel has warned that Germany cannot repeat the mistakes of the 1960s "guest worker" era, in particular negligible efforts to integrate people on the assumption they would eventually return to Turkey or Italy.

Historical mistake

But ProAsyl fears Germany is already repeating another historical mistake: reducing people to their economic value.

“These people are seeking protection, so to reduce their terrible situation to one of profit or of economic gain, makes me sad,” said Mr Dipama of ProAsyl in Munich.

After 13 years in Germany, and a long battles for permanent residency, the Burkina Faso native is deeply grateful for the second chance this country has given him. But he remains nervous about the identity fault-line he sees running through the heart of German society, between an ethnically homogenous memory and a heterogeneous reality. The unresolved issue of German identity, he says, remains a deep well of casual racism – for him and new arrivals from Syria.

“Unlike in America, where you can be from somewhere else but still be American, Germans have never created the same ‘us’ feeling of belonging here,” said Mr Dipama.

“Slowly I am losing my optimism that we can master this challenge, because I don’t know if Germany is ready to look at its new reality.”