How a small German town mastered the refugee crisis
Lower Saxon city embraces asylum seekers as it counters low birth rate and brain drain
Syrian couple and dentists Ayham and Farah Kodmany in their new home of Goslar, Germany: “When you’ve lost your homeland, it’s all the same whether you’re in Goslar or Göttingen, once it’s peaceful,” says Ayham.
It’s a lazy summer day on the market square in Goslar. An hour to the north is Hanover, the busy Lower Saxony state capital. But time seems to tick slower here in this medieval town of 46,000 on the edge of the Harz national park.
As two musicians play La Vie en Rose on the square, no one notices Ayham and his wife Farah taking seats at a cafe table. Nor do they hear the Syrian couple explain, in quiet, fluent English, how their lives in recent years have been anything but rose-tinted.
They met in 2006 at dentistry school in the southern city of Daraa, near the border with Jordan. It was there in 2011 that a revolutionary spark was lit, when anti-government protesters sparked a huge crackdown and a spiral of violence. Ayham fled to Europe and Farah with her family to the US.
After arriving in 2014, Ayham began battling his way through the bureaucratic thicket and started to learn German. In 11 months he had achieved intermediate proficiency.
“It’s amazing how quickly it goes when you pay for the lessons yourself,” he says jokingly. A year ago, his dentistry qualifications finally recognised, he began working in a practice in Goslar.
“It’s great, my boss and colleagues have made a huge effort,” he says. “I was lucky to get here early.”
The following year, 2015, Germany granted almost 900,000 asylum applications, and Goslar’s mayor Oliver Junk made headlines as far away as Saudi Arabia. While bigger cities struggled to process and house their assigned refugee contingent, Junk welcomed the new arrivals as a way to stop his town from shrinking further.
“If Goslar is to keep developing we are dependent on immigration,” says Junk. “Our birth rate isn’t that high and anyone who moves away to study might not come back.”
None of the 1,300 people who came to Goslar had to endure container villages or all-night asylum office queues. But, two years on, he would like to see new immigration laws to ensure the people most willing and able to integrate are those who will stay.
Local software developer Tristan Niewisch agrees wholeheartedly. He employs 25 people in Goslar including a 45-year-old electrical engineer from Aleppo and a 24-year-old software developer from Damascus. With IT staff hard to find, Niewisch agreed to train the two, including providing language classes. Though all is going well, Niewisch cannot understand why the two have only two-year residency permits, even though they are on a three-year training scheme.
“These are not cheap workers, we pay them like anyone else and are investing in them but it is arduous,” he says. “If we train them and have to send them back, that would be a disastrous signal all round.”
As Germany’s refugee crisis enters the second stage – integration – it has moved back into the headlines ahead of September 24th’s federal election. Two years ago it was chancellor Angela Merkel, under pressure from Hungary, who decided not to close Germany’s borders despite the surge in new arrivals from Syria, Afghanistan and northern Africa.
On the campaign trail today, she never forgets to thank the people in small towns like Goslar whose can-do pragmatism put into practice her “we can manage this” maxim. Two Septembers on, however, not everyone sees the refugee influx as a win for Germany.
No one here has forgotten the chaos of New Year’s Eve 2015, when a gang of north African men groped and raped women in Cologne. Almost a year later, a Tunisian Islamist drove a stolen articulated lorry into a Berlin Christmas market, killing 12.
He was one of more than 200,000 people still in the country even though their asylum applications have been declined.
The growing nervousness has been a gift to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), poised to enter the Bundestag with tough immigration policies. To face down the AfD pressure, and with burden-sharing from other EU countries still negligible, Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has adopted a tougher line on asylum and deportations.
In the election campaign, almost all parties agree Germany now needs a clear immigration law. The argument is over how liberal or restrictive it should be, and how this will impinge on the obligation under international law to accept and process people seeking asylum.
We all want to work – with no work there is no future
But while German media coverage of refugees swings wildly from mass euphoria in 2015 to mass panic a year later, places like Goslar are quietly getting on with it. At a tidy community centre outside the town centre, a group of women from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are listening attentively as a local official explains Germany’s education system.
On other days there are language courses, cookery classes, games and even first aid courses. Co-organiser Susanne Felka says this is an effort at joined-up thinking by the town hall, local housing agencies and her own Johanniter charity to avoid a repeat of the situation involving Turkish economic migrants in the 1960s and 1970s, who were left to their own devices on the mistaken assumption they would eventually go home.
“We started courses in April and one woman came along who’d been here for 20 years but never integrated, nor had any offer to do so,” says Felka.
After the presentation, the women – spanning in age from their 20s to their 60s – talk and joke, and make clear they appreciate the effort being made for them. Two years ago Mona, a 60-year-old Syrian Christian, fled with her husband, an engineer for a firm with 600 employees. They arrived in Germany – via a Lebanese refugee camp – with only the clothes on their backs.
“We all want to work – with no work there is no future,” she says.
Everyone involved with refugees in Goslar makes the same point. Germany’s population is ageing and shrinking, with 20 million fewer people forecast by mid-century, of which more than half will be over 50. Companies are already struggling to find new trainees, so for them, and small towns like Goslar, immigration is survival.
Politicians should concentrate on their jobs and not over-dramatise the situation
“We are not just helping them but ourselves, I’m convinced of that” says Junk, the mayor. “Politicians should concentrate on their jobs and not over-dramatise the situation, that only makes people insecure and strengthens the AfD.”
Back on the town square it is impossible not to be impressed by Ayham and Farah: polite, smart and with an iron will to make a go of it in Germany.
“Refugees are more flexible than people realise, but they need motivation,” says Farah, who is now battling German bureaucracy to have her dentistry qualifications recognised. “It’s not good to give them money to sit at home watching television.”
As we head our separate ways, Ayham shrugs when I ask him why he ended up in Goslar.
“When you’ve lost your homeland, it’s all the same whether you’re in Goslar or Göttingen, once it’s peaceful,” he says. Looking around, he adds: “But it’s good here.”