From the Road: das Willkommen
New American Pathways’ chief executive officer, Paedia Mixon, was recently in Germany with representatives of Welcoming America and other leaders from Georgia. The group learned from their German colleagues, who visited Atlanta earlier this year, about their approach to refugee integration.
Reflections from Mannheim – September 2016
This year I have had the pleasure of participating in the Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange, a program sponsored by Welcoming America, Cultural Vistas and the Heinrich Boll Foundation. The program brought together delegations from refugee and immigrant receiving communities in Germany and the United States to share best practices and learn from one another.
The trip offered an amazing opportunity to learn not only from our German counterparts, but also from the other American participants who are engaged in really interesting work in their own communities. I was so impressed by the scale and coordination of work in Germany where they received over a million migrants in 2015 and 2016. By contrast the U.S. resettled 85,000 in 2016.
On this trip we were exposed to a lot of attitudes and approaches to integration. Just like here in the U.S., some Germans approach integrating migrants and refugees as a difficult, almost insurmountable challenge. Others see serving the vulnerable and persecuted as their humanitarian or religious duty. The places where I saw the most innovation and success, however, were those that saw opportunity in the newcomers they welcomed into their community.
In Mannheim, Germany for example, the city had funded a small business incubator for migrant entrepreneurs and an institute of oriental music. A local technical school that had declining enrollment had revamped their programs to meet the training needs of refugees and seen an immediate increase in enrollment. A local university was piloting a new program to help refugees get degrees in high-demand fields. I could feel the excitement in the air when I visited these programs.
The same is true in American communities. I saw a great example in the delegation from St. Louis that I met in Germany. They are part of the Mosaic Project whose mission is to transform St. Louis into the fastest growing metropolitan area for immigration by 2020 and promote regional prosperity through immigration and innovation. When I talked to members of their delegation, their enthusiasm was invigorating. They view immigrants as a vital part of the economic and cultural development of their community.
At home in Atlanta I see how refugees themselves respond to this approach. When the families we serve are able to use their skills and talents to make a positive difference in their community, not only do they thrive but the communities that welcome them thrive as well.
Small Town Heroes
The second half of our trip to Germany took us to the eastern part of the country where we visited the state of Saxony. Opposition to refugees and migrants settling in Germany is stronger in the eastern part. Saxony has been a hotspot for protests and has seen handfuls of attacks on refugee housing, mosques and migrants themselves.
Arriving refugees are assigned to states in Germany using the Königstein Formula, which assigns refugees proportionately based on tax receipts and population. The state of Saxony must integrate refugees assigned through this formula despite local opposition and a few local governments have stepped up and shown a strong commitment to integrating new residents smoothly.
We visited several of these cities and towns and were inspired by the statesmanship these local leaders displayed. Whether they agreed with national policies or not, they accepted that refugees were in their community and took seriously the job of welcoming them and supporting their success.
Politicians and government officials can allocate resources and create policies but it is the local people who create a truly welcoming community. While those that vocally oppose refugees are the minority of the Saxon population, many residents are still on the fence about the newcomers arriving in their communities. In this environment, stepping up to give your time to welcoming refugees is an act of courage. In one small town we met a group of truly courageous Saxons who inspired us with their compassion and hospitality.
The small town of Altenburg looked like a postcard as we drove up to the mayor’s office. With a population of less than 10,000, most people in Altenburg know one another. At the first town meeting to discuss refugees, the mayor, who wanted to welcome refugees into the community, was met with jeers and insults.
One couple stood with the mayor but were shocked by the lack of support from the rest of the community. This couple, a retired architect and artist and a teacher, took this experience at the town hall meeting as a challenge to recruit friends and neighbors and create a welcome center for refugees. Today there are around 50 residents who participate in Altenburg’s welcoming project. They host German classes, provide transportation for appointments and outings and started a “Creativity Café” where local residents and new arrivals share coffee and cakes, make handicrafts and do art projects.
We got a chance to participate in the Creativity Café. We were given ceramic hearts and served cakes and coffee. During our visit the snacks were not traditional German cake, but Middle Eastern sweets prepared by two women who had arrived six months earlier. They told us they felt like they had found family in Altenburg. The volunteers spoke of their welcoming work as transformative and they had obviously formed a tight bond with one another. Several spoke about losing friends and one man talked about leaving his job over their participation in this project – but each felt that he or she had made the right choice.
It was an honor to meet this group of small town heroes. I was humbled by their commitment to hospitality.
Willkommensschule: The Welcome School
The German Government has established a refugee processing center at a former U.S. military base in Mannheim. Families living at this center go through initial orientation, interviews, status consultation and medical screening. Once status is granted, families are sent to their resettlement community where children begin school and adults begin the integration process. Stay at the processing center is temporary but can take six months or more.
NGOs and volunteers working in the center noticed that children had little to do and decided to create the Willkommensschule (Welcome School). The small school was built from shipping containers and painted by residents and volunteers. The classes are taught by volunteers. On the day that I visited, I watched the students file out of their classrooms for a snack break. They laughed and played while enjoying fresh fruit and fresh air.
While they took their break, we visited classrooms and talked to teachers. The school director told us about the planning process for creating the school. At first education leaders and principals from local schools advised the school on structure and curriculum but the rigid structure did not work well with the constant in-and-out flow of students at different ages and levels. Eventually they adopted a looser structure with a focus on welcoming children and introducing the German language and some basic skills.
My first day, we visited a highly successful food distribution business started by a Turkish family who, at a time of economic downturn in Germany, got the idea to bring Turkish food products to German grocery stores. Today the BAKTAT Group has grown into 12 companies that both produce and distribute well-known food brands. They employ 1,500 people and have operations in Turkey, Germany, France and the U.S. The company’s founder helped establish strong institutions in Mannheim that focus on building bridges between the Turkish and German business communities and supporting entrepreneurship.
BAKTAT provides scholarships for refugee students in a local university focused on IT and Business Management with the aim to hire these students upon graduation. This company reminded me of so many successful immigrant businesses in the U.S. that start with the simple desire to bring a little bit of their old country to their new home. It’s inspiring to see an immigrant business leader supporting the refugees coming into Mannheim now.
Music in Mannheim: Oriental Music Institute
Walking through a multi-ethnic neighborhood in Mannheim, we turn into a small courtyard. Two Syrian musicians play beautiful music under a muraled wall.
Both musicians came to Germany as refugees. In Syria one was an instructor in a music conservatory. The other was a student at the same institution. They are now student and teacher at the Oriental Music Institute in Mannheim.
The Institute brings together musicians from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa and Germany for music classes and performances. The Institute was started by two Iranian brothers and receives funding from the city. In Mannheim arts are viewed as a critical part of integration, an important lesson for us in Atlanta.
First Day in Germany
Sept. 25, 2016: I spent my first full day in Germany visiting the city of Mannheim. The city is vibrant and diverse with a layered history of immigration. Mannheim has a large Turkish population who began coming as migrant workers over 40 years ago. Now they are home to immigrants from 170 counties.
We visited an NGO that houses unaccompanied minor refugees. As someone who has worked with refugees for 20 years, I felt immediately at home as I saw the warmth and passion of the staff and the strength and resilience of the young men living there.
Mannheim, like other German cities, was overwhelmed last year by the massive influx of refugees. Among them were hundreds of minors who arrived with no parent or guardian. They had to think quickly to find a suitable place for these children to live. Mannheim was once home to several U.S. Army bases and is using former U.S. military buildings to house young refugees. I had the chance to meet three of these young men – from Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria. Each talked of his own perilous journey and spoke about Germany with reverence and gratitude.
The boy from Syria made the journey alone at the age of 15. He was unable to talk to his parents at all during his journey but now calls them every night. As a mom I am always struck by the choices that parents living in dangerous places have to make to protect their children. I cannot imagine a place so bad that my best option for my child’s future is to send him off on his own at 15 with the hope that he reaches a friendly place where he can have a future. I can’t imagine the relief that his mom must have felt when he called her the first time safe in Germany.
This young man said of his journey, “I only slept for four nights the entire trip. I could think of nothing but Germany and wanted to be there as fast I could.” For these kids, Germany was a beacon of hope that guided them through an otherwise hopeless situation. In this way, this place reminds me of home.