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Meet the Germans Taking Refugee Integration Into Their Own Hands — With Respect and Candy

VICE News visited Giessen, one of the registration towns for 10,000s of newly arrived migrants, and met the volunteers who are helping them learn about "German values."
Photo by Ralf Hirschberger/EPA

Outside a reception center in Giessen, in the state of Hesse in central Germany, two women get out of a taxi. They wear headscarves, long shirts, and matching trousers: one in red, one in blue. They unload two suitcases from the trunk of the car before being pointed in the direction of a glass booth.

"What's your first name?" a security guard asks in German from her chair behind the glass. Neither woman understands.


"How about your last name?" the guard presses on, holding out a form. Again, the women shake their heads, looking confused. They only speak Farsi, but they've just arrived in Germany — the country that could be their home for the rest of their lives.

* * *

Some 1.1 million new migrants and refugees arrived in Germany last year. In the months since Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the country was essentially opening its borders to asylum seekers, the debates on immigration and integration have become heated. One major turning point was the New Year's Eve attacks in Cologne, when several hundred women said they were robbed or sexually assaulted by a group of men of "North African or Arab appearance."

In the discussion about what will happen next, many Germans cite the neologism parallelgesellschaft, or a parallel society, as something they want to be avoided. Coined in the mid-1990s, this is mainly used to refer to Turkish immigrants who began arriving in Germany in the 1960s as Gastarbeiter — or "guest workers" — and have remained there since. Some 3 million people with a Turkish background live in Germany today and they are often accused as being unwilling to integrate themselves into society — though as a group they have also faced significant obstacles, and remain more likely than other migrants to be poorly educated, unemployed, or underpaid.

Related: Here's What Happened at the Dueling Protests Over the Mass Sexual Assault in Germany


Now Germany is facing another unprecedented influx, and Germans say they want to avoid the mistakes of the past — but suggestions differ on how to go about that. What aids integration, and how does an already overburdened system find the resources to enable it?

Giessen is one of several towns with a registration center. Tens of thousands of newly arrived migrants and refugees go there to be processed, before being distributed around 50 camps in the region. Around 4,500 refugees are currently living in an old US army depot there while waiting to be transferred. They normally stay for between six weeks and six months.

For many newly arrived migrants and refugees, Giessen — a university town with a population of 78,000 — is the first experience they will have of Germany. So VICE News went to visit.

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"We do this because we love our country," Birgit Ziemann told VICE News. Along with her husband Carsten Wittmann, she has set up "culture training," a half-hour class they teach in the city's largest refugee camp. At the moment it's a pilot program: they have 12 volunteers in three separate teams.

"The idea was born because we saw the needs of the refugees and their need to understand more about German behavior and our culture, and at the same time we wanted to bring Germans into contact with refugees so they can learn from each other," she said.

The class is done through silent performances — to overcome language barriers.


The volunteers act out a scene where a woman falls on the ground. She's lying on the floor, and three others rush to her help, bringing her to hospital. Once they turn around, the audience sees signs on their backs that signify Muslim, Christian, or Jew. "In Germany we are friends," the actors finish by saying.

At one stage during the performances they'll hand out candy, and then come around with a bin to collect the wrapping. "That's a basic introduction to German waste disposal," Ziemann said, adding that it wasn't yet necessary to explain the much more complex German system of recycling.

Outside the refugee camp in an old American barracks in Giessen, where around 4,500 migrants and refugees live. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Wittmann, a business consultant for a bank, said one of the major issues for new arrivals was learning how to go shopping. In the nearby Aldi superstore, he said some would put things straight into their bags before paying, or stand too close to the cashier.

Elsewhere, other migrants perched on top of toilet seats and squatted, rather than sitting on them, or began fires in the kitchens with wood instead of using the oven.

"Refugees are not a homogenous group, and even if they're coming from the same countries there are a lot of differences," he said.

Related: Retaliation Attacks in Cologne as 'Hooligan' Gangs Launch Foreigner 'Manhunt'

"I think this will stay with them for all of their lives," he said. "I think this is their first experience of Germans smiling at them. They do paperwork in offices but that is more stressful."


There's another byproduct of this type of integration program, Wittmann said they hoped to make the German volunteers, and by proxy their peer groups,  "more understanding, more sensitive to other cultures because this will also make the Germans more relaxed and robust to influences from [anti-Islam group] PEGIDA and other influences."

Wittmann also pointed out one of the major flaws with placing any sort of definition on "German" values: "Often the people who are against the refugees reference German values, but if you ask them what our values are they have no clear answer."

At the bus stop for the Number 1 Bus — nicknamed the "refugee bus" by some locals because it goes past the refugee camp. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Ziemann, who works as a garden designer and accountant, said she felt their work was "only a drop in the ocean."

Migrants who arrive are not allowed work for the first few months while their asylum applications are pending. Most stay in camps and have limited opportunities to meet Germans or see much of their new country. Instead, they often are reliant on volunteers or organizations to reach out to them.

"In the beginning everything is new, they're thinking: where am I?" Ziemann described the situation. "They're coming here and the Germans say: 'Oh, they have to learn this.' But who will teach them?"

"They need this. When you don't explain something, nothing will happen… But it needs to be [done] with respect."

The new tents at one of the refugee camps in Giessen. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

They said it can be hard to get refugees to attend because it's completely voluntary and the sessions are irregular at the moment. Around 30 or 40 people come — children, women, men.


Following the Cologne attacks, the couple is now deliberating how they can include a scene about sexual assault into their performance. "Freedom is not the freedom of the man to touch the woman, but the woman to wear what she wants without being touched," Ziemann said.

Ziemann also said they felt the classes are empowering to women. "The women are coming with very sad eyes, and after this half hour that changes, they get some new ideas for their life: that a man can help them. That it is normal that a man is helpful."

At the end they want to give the refugees a handout with the key messages written in their language, that they can later show to their friends.

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It's not just Germans who are helping run the classes. Harle Mar, 20, a Syrian refugee from Damascus who has been in Germany for one year, is also involved.

When he first arrived in the country he stayed in three different camps: one in Munich, two in Giessen. Now he's living with Germans and studying, and his German is fluent.

Mar detailed some of the things he had found hard when he arrived. "For example here the people are direct. They are friendly, but they are direct. That is how they are." He said in Germany if someone asked you whether you wanted coffee and you said no, they wouldn't ask again. "Whereas in Syria they would ask more than 100 times. This can create problems."

He continued: "To buy food, it's hard in Europe. It's not like the system in other [places], like Africa, so it's hard to know the system. And maybe some Germans will get angry because they will see what we don't know. But [the refugee] has never been in this situation. Just tell them how to do something and they will do it."


He said he was aware of the backlash after the Cologne attacks, but that those who carried them out were just a tiny minority. "There is now just this year one million refugees," he said, while disputing that Islamic cultures didn't have much respect for women. "These people who did this, they don't represent all refugees. There are refugees who are doing good things. They are really fighting for this life. It's not about them representing us, and it's not about them representing our culture."

Train tracks in Giessen, Germany. This is the first stop for many migrants and refugees who arrive in the country. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

"The problem now is a lot of refugees without integration. We have to help, we have to do something," Mar said.

Mar also said it was harder for old people who were afraid of change, as well as for those who aren't very educated. "Some people can't write in their own language. It's also hard for them."

Others find the comparisons between Germany and where they have come from very hard to comprehend, like his friend who had been through the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, where he almost starved to death.

"Now he has trauma… He can see how it is so different, he can see how there is food everywhere here and there is no hunger like he saw [in Yarmouk], it's a lot [for him to take in] because we were in war. We were in war," Mar repeated.

Mar praised volunteers including a group called Angekommen, who he said gave advice, held parties and classes, and took new arrivals to city landmarks. He said he hadn't met a German who wasn't pleasant to him, but has heard of other friends being attacked — in one incidence a group of German men brought dogs into a refugee camp and set them loose, before beating up some refugees.


In general, though, he is grateful. "History will remember the way the Germans were good to us."

* * *

Robert Seigher, volunteer coordinator for the Lutheran Church in Giessen, told VICE News that he used to organize tea or coffee events in the Giessen camps where people could come together and chat, but since the camps begun overflowing there's been no rooms without beds in them.

He recognized the differences in the newly arrived migrants. "They bring along very different conditions. Some are highly educated, have university degrees or have even worked as engineers or doctors, and there are also others who are illiterate even in their mother language, and it's very different. You can notice that there are some people who want to learn German right away and there are others who have a really hard time. They hardly speak any German."

Seigher said there were more opportunities available for people coming from certain countries like Iraq, Syria, and Eritrea, and that the German lessons provided by volunteers in the refugee camps were "a drop on a hot stone" — very much the beginning of what was required.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd