Sitting in an advanced English course in a German high school, Jane* blends into the crowd. She is surrounded by white faces and occupies her place amidst the neat rows of off-white desks. She reads the same textbooks, laughs at the same jokes and writes with the same pencils as her classmates. Yet, her past is so starkly different from the peers she sits next to. She is a refugee, who initially escaped to Greece and now lives in Germany with her mother. She has slept in refugee camps and has been forced to live with strangers in crowded spaces. She is one of the 1.1 million refugees who have come to Germany within the past year and are trying to integrate into German society.
Over winter break, funded by the Meinig Family Cornell National Scholars program, I traveled to Germany to gain on-the-ground information about the influx of refugees in Germany and to hear the stories of people like Jane who have been affected by the greatest movement of refugees to Europe since World War II. Currently, the primary issue of concern and goal for Germany is integration of these people. In the next few years, what will Germany look like? How will Germany change? By conversing with people directly facing the effects of the situation, I caught a glimpse of the integration process that has just started to begin during the past year and a half.
A remarkable response through the Willkommenskultur (Welcoming culture) has been fostered by ordinary German people who are motivated by a moral imperative to help and welcome new refugees. Adrian, a high school student I spoke to, had just spent his winter break on the shores of Greece, distributing socks and warm clothes to refugees arriving on flimsy boats. Maren, a full-time consultant, served as a grassroots organizer during the weekends, using food and community dinners as means to connect Germans and refugees. Henoch, a biotech scientist, expressed his belief that “it should be absolutely natural for Germans to provide any kind of help for the reason that they’re human beings.” As I looked into the eyes of person after person describing their commitment to creating an accepting culture, I couldn’t help but marvel at the inspiring acts of humanity displayed collectively through individual Germans.
And yet, there exists an apparent clash between moral desires and pragmatism. The challenges have also overflown to various parts of society. Some doctors are forced to work 2 a.m. shifts to accommodate newly arrived refugees. Christiane, a labor researcher, expressed her concern regarding the government’s mistake of letting in people without proper identification. Even “ideal immigrants” — young, university educated, and ready to work — are stuck waiting and receiving government support due to the bureaucracy. Furthermore, during my time in Germany, Cologne — the very city in which I was staying and the fourth largest city in Germany — captured international headlines for the attacks that occurred on New Year’s Eve. There, hundreds of women were attacked, sexually assaulted and stolen from by hundreds of “men of North African or Arab descent.” This incident of crime only bolstered the heightened tensions that permeated the conversations, news headlines, and street protests.
As a result, there was perhaps a noticeable shift in media sentiment, towards a more critical lens. Initially, some Germans felt that there was a degree of social pressure perpetuated by the media to fully support refugees without focusing attention on the challenges. Gerit, a German graduate student, said, “I think the media in this year will be playing a very important role in how the society in Germany thinks.” For many, German media outlets are immensely influential sources of information regarding the situation. However, instead of the polarized dichotomy depicted widely in portrayals, the German responses appeared to represent more of a mosaic, comprised of varying levels of concern and optimism and nuanced understandings. People are clearly conflicted on how to proceed. There exist reasonable people with valid, understandable apprehensions. Surprisingly, one Iranian refugee expressed her opinion that Germany’s choice “was the best decision for refugees, but the worst decision for Germany.” Ironically, some right-wing conservatives and immigrants share the same skeptical opinions. Many were very careful in articulating their thoughts, cautious not to offend or appear judgmental. Still, others were genuinely fearful of increases in crime. As one university student said, “In this situation, the simple solutions are the wrong solutions.”
Not even a century has passed since the horrific events of the Holocaust indelibly stained Germany’s history. And yet, present-day Germany has demonstrated a striking shift in attitude. As put by a German woman, “Only someone who has seen the wall through Berlin and the lethal fence of the Iron Curtain with their own eyes, can correctly assess what that means… This year our country has had the historic opportunity to show that our hearts have really changed, from a country that wanted to wipe out a whole nation of people to a country that can take in a whole nation of people.” Their actions are not clouded by idealism, but they are fueled by clear and thoughtful motivations. The complexities of the situation demand flexibility, adaptation and a willingness to be uncomfortable. As Germany wrestles its moral ideals with its pragmatism, the solutions cannot be reduced to simple answers.
*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.
Juliana Hong is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.