Beyond Fear: On the Need for Empathy in Germany

As my grandma and I were eating at a Cheesecake Factory in Dallas, Texas, recently, two women overheard us speaking in German and asked, “What’s it like to be in Germany right now? Given, you know, the refugees…and the situation in Cologne.”

I was taken aback by their question, as many stories from Germany don’t make it to the American news, but the New Year’s Eve attacks had attracted worldwide attention due to the collective identity of the men who committed the crime. A quick recap is in order: On New Year’s Eve, over 500 cases of sexual assault were reported to have taken place in Cologne. The Cologne Police Department described the perpetrators as “of foreign descent, most likely Arab,” although more recent information has revealed that one of them was American and three were Germans. Nonetheless, the police department’s misleading information has succeeded in perpetuating an aversion to refugees.

The xenophobia resulting from the New Year’s Eve attacks has resonated not only in Germany, but all over the world and also in the predominantly white town right outside of Munich where I lived just six months ago. In recent weeks, it has been assigned its share of refugees, 300 young men.

To get a better idea of the town’s ensuing social climate, I asked a friend who is currently living there to engage with the citizens and collect their responses. After looking over what they said, we were both equally shocked by the prevalence of xenophobia. To many citizens, the refugees are the spitting image of Cologne’s perpetrators.

The responses included warnings that women should not wear shorts whilst jogging in the forest near the camp to respect the refugees’ culture or that they should seek alternate running routes altogether for their own safety. The owner of the restaurant across the street of the camp expressed “absolute shock” and complained that “it is now impossible for the guests to enjoy their meals in peace and quiet.” The construction managers working on building a preschool near the site insist that building there is ok because the camp is only temporary and will be gone before the school opens.

In addition to a relatively small group of volunteers that collects donations for the refugees, the town has also agreed to send three psychologists to the camp, take care of the sewage system, and organize a school bus for refugee children. However, the xenophobia displayed by the average citizen overshadows these significant, but ultimately futile, efforts.

The large majority of people in my town oppose the location of the camp in town, but not for the same reasons. Whilst some fear the presence of foreigners threatens their safety, one citizen is quoted in a local newspaper, rightfully inquiring: “Who came up with this? In the middle of the forest?! How is cultural and social integration supposed to happen?” The nearest bus stop is nearly a mile from the camp. People are advised to avoid the area, thus minimizing the possible interactions between refugees and German citizens even more – never mind the fact that these interactions are of utmost importance to social integration, as is the acceptance of refugees into European culture and lifestyle.

Although it is morally admirable of Chancellor Merkel to take in so many refugees, the question “What now?” is everywhere. Since Cologne, this concern has been voiced vehemently. The problem is that there is no uniform European plan for integration. Since the beginnings of the refugee influx, European countries have been caught up in political disputes and bureaucratic chaos. Political inconveniences have prevented human needs from being taken care of and, in turn, caused more social turmoil.

Criminality is not something refugees pack for the journey. It arises when they arrive at their destination and are treated as outcasts. A common attitude among xenophobes is that it is each refugee’s responsibility to integrate herself/himself, arguing that sexual harassment and cat-calling directed towards local women show that “the refugees just refuse to integrate themselves.” But this is irrational: refugees do not come to Europe to impose their cultures on us and eat away at European rights and freedoms. They do not risk the lives of their children on ragged rubber boats just in the spirit of adventure. In the most literal sense of the phrase, they have nowhere to go; they are condemned to Europe, so to speak, and are happy to have found refuge, until confrontation with a new culture presents a whole new set of difficulties. Culture shock should not be confused with an aversion to the new culture.

A recent comic published by Charlie Hebdo mimics the famous photo of two-year-old Alan Kurdi laying face-down on the shores of Europe. The caption reads: “What would have become of little Alan, had he grown up? – A groper in Germany.”

Without a doubt, this illustration is immensely disrespectful towards Alan’s family as well as the immeasurable number of other refugees who lost loved ones on their journeys. Nonetheless, there may be some truth to it. If Alan had grown up in the current European situation without any social integration plan whatsoever, the possibility of him turning to criminal behavior like many current refugees have would be very real.

Instead of keeping the refugees at an arm’s length, German citizens, in general, should interact with them and treat them like regular citizens. Distancing and aversion to refugees have resulted in unresolved tension between refugees’ cultures and German culture, manifested in the form of local criminal activity.
Finding a correct solution is a complex and difficult matter – but it is most definitely not to construct barriers. It would be very backward of Europe to rebuild walls like the one they spent nearly three decades tearing down.

Laura Haetzel PO '19 intends to major in chemistry with a concentration in biochemistry.

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