As the refugee crises in Germany reached its heights in September 2015, I went to help both Germans and refugees. I had been in a similar situation 31 years earlier as a refugee in Germany. I, too, had escaped war and political unrest.
Although I landed in Germany by a plane and not by crossing the dangerous seas or walking for days by foot, I, too, sought refuge in search for hope, a future, and a better life.
Because of my experience, I could understand the fear and emotional and psychological distress of the refugees. But I was also able to understand the challenges Germans would be facing dealing with such a large number of refugees coming from so many different cultures, religions, and languages. I knew both sides needed help so I decided to put my language skills and political and cultural understanding to use.
As I travelled throughout Germany during my three-month stay interacting with German volunteers and refugees either helping out in language classes or attending social hours or speaking in conferences, I identified seven different attitudes toward refugees. These groups, by and large, are divided between those welcoming refugees, rejecting refugees, and partnering with an attitude of neutrality.
Welcoming Attitude and Acceptance
This view includes both religious and secular groups welcoming refugees and accepting their government’s “Willkommenskultur” [lit. welcome culture] policy. While two differing groups emerged among Christians – the convertors and the caregivers – seculars remained consistent in their reasoning.
The Convertors: These are Christians who looked at the influx of mainly Muslim refugees into Germany not just as a humanitarian crisis but also as a cry of humanity for spiritual salvation. “This history-making event” would determine the “destiny of Europe,” this group believed. Thus, they perceived this as an opportunity to evangelize Muslims, save their souls, and convert them to Christianity.
While working at a donation centre, I met a German woman who belonged to a group called “Awakening Europe”. This group, which began in August 2015, believes that god has called Europe to an awakening. The woman explained why she and others like her were so enthusiastic to help: “Jesus has commended us to go out into the world and spread the good news. We failed to go. Germans failed to go. But god in his mercy and wrath said, if you refuse to go to them, then I will bring them to you. So, it is our obligation to evangelize them, to receive them, to help them, to show them Christ’s love, to tell them about Christ, and to bring them to salvation. We cannot fail again.”
Numerous churches in Germany began baptizing Muslims by the hundreds and still continue to do so, celebrating the fact that they were saving sinners from going to hell, while dismissing the concept of political conversions versus spiritual conversions.
The Caregivers: These represent the more moderate and less radical approach. “It is our obligation as Christians and followers of Jesus to care for others,” they said. “When one sheep was lost from the flock of 100, Jesus left the 99 and went to search for the one lost sheep. Every refugee is important.”
This group looked at refugees individually as human beings in crisis and in need of help. They helped them without any expectations: No preaching, no discussions about faith or Jesus, no conversions. They provided simple literature in Arabic about their churches so “Muslims” who were attending the church could understand the covenants of the church and what the church believed in, so that they felt welcomed and did not feel like outsiders.
However, what both groups had in common was their perception that Germany was still a country with Christian values. They questioned whether Muslims would take over their country, and how Islam would influence Germany’s educational, political, and social norms, and consequently change their society.
Islamophobia can be detected at different levels – some more obvious than others – and they did not seem to know how to deal with it. Especially that no one of whom I met had the slightest knowledge about Islam.
They did not know how to talk to Muslims and how to deal with them. They were afraid of them; afraid of offending them or making them upset or angry. They were afraid of possible civil war should they offend Muslims. They were afraid for the wellbeing of their daughters and the future of their youth.
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The Seculars: These are Germans who don’t believe in religious faith. They neither practice Christianity nor perceive Germany as a Christian country. They look at refugees as members of the global community. Race, religion, location, traditions, and cultures did not matter to them.
They gave their time and resources and wholeheartedly helped refugees under the notion of helping people fleeing war, persecution, hunger, murder, and rape. Since religion and race were not factors for them, they did not give importance to religious, cultural, or linguistic differences, therefore they did not perceive Islam as a threat. In fact, they welcomed Muslims who might be contributing members to their society in the future. They simply perceived refugees as another human being with the same needs, fears, and hopes as they did. Nothing more, nothing less. They in fact didn’t feel inclined to criticize Islam or speak against Muslims. “They are human beings. That’s it! Religion doesn’t matter at all!”
There is also an anti-Nazi view among Germans who view their country’s efforts, as an anti-Nazi movement, a positive sign in the right direction to repair their historical image left over from WWII. They consider any opposition to embracing refugees as a continuation of their mistakes in the past. They perceived those who opposed their government’s welcome culture and acceptance of refugees into their country as Nazis.
This group is divided into two distinct groups: Germans and former refugees.
Germans: These include political groups such as the “Alternative for Germany” party, which vehemently opposes their government’s immigration policies, believing that these policies left their country vulnerable economically, politically, socially, and culturally. They protested against their government and formed small and large groups to publically oppose Merkel’s policies.
A part of unemployed Germans also rejected refugees. They despised their government’s policies of accepting “outsiders” and giving away a piece of the pie (their money) to others while they (Germans) were financially struggling. They complained that they could not find jobs and were afraid that refugees would be taking their jobs away from them.
Former Refugees: Many of former refugees who had become permanent residents perceived themselves as victims of German government’s “former” immigration policies, which made them wait years to become permanent residents. This group complained that it took them long years to receive residency, enter into the workforce, have a steady income, and slowly become members of the German society.
The thought of the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany, a place they had worked so hard to finally become permanent members, was frightening. They questioned what would happen to the job market, the price of housing, and if they would be able to find inexpensive apartments since the newly arriving refugees are being placed in apartments after passing their initial exams and waiting for the review of their immigration papers.
Of course, there were exceptions, but very few. Even those who engaged with the new refugees, and to some extent assisted them, are frustrated with the German government for allowing such a large number of refugees into the country. So a lot of frustration and resentment on the part of former refugees was witnessed and expressed. For this group, it might take years to accept the new refugees. Their acceptance will be based on two facts:
1) Continuous economic security in Germany.
2) Assurance of national security since most of former refugees have fled war and political upheavals. They do not want to be subjected to further political distress.
In every society, there are those who remain neutral and do not take sides. They have their own reasons for neutrality: Either they have no political inclinations or are not interested in getting involved in the affairs of their government. They are simply content with their lives. This does not mean that they do not have political opinions. They simply are not interested in engaging in political discussions. Instead, they prefer to focus on their own lives. Some feel that politics is too complicated and no matter what they say or do, the government is the decision-maker.
Despite the position Germans take about the refugee crisis in their country, Germany remains struggling to understand the crisis. What is obvious is that a “New Germany” has been born, and it will take time for Germany to adjust to this “new German society”. How all is going to play out is yet to be seen. What we know for sure is the fact that Germany has the strong will and determination as a nation to overcome this humanitarian crisis.