I’ve told several friends about my job teaching German to refugees and gotten a lot of positive feedback. Several have asked if I get paid (I do) and said they’d like to be involved in something like that, even on a volunteer basis. Everyone is talking about the refugee crisis right now, with Germany taking in more refugees per month now than it has in twelve months in the past. (I believe the statistic I heard was, Germany took in more refugees in June of this year than it did in all of 2013). Chancellor Angela Merkel is under close scrutiny for the country’s refugee policy right now, especially after that video of her accidentally making a little girl cry went viral.
Individual Germans’ attitudes about refugees are all across the board, with some people focusing on human rights saying they should all be accepted no matter what; others intimidated by the practical issues of housing and integration who are a bit more skeptical; some who want them to go back to their home countries when it’s safe again to do so; and of course, the right-radicals saying they should be kept out (or driven out) no matter what. Although Germany’s refugee policy has been fairly open for the past couple of years, political pressure from human rights groups and the left caused Merkel to cave and implement what basically amounts to a no-holds-barred open-door policy – only then to incite anger from asylum opponents, and now the headlines are saying one in three Germans wants her to resign. You sure can’t please all the people all the time!
By far, however, the most prevailing attitude that I’ve seen in Hamburg is “refugees welcome.” While it used to just be the left-wingers and the liberals and antifa (anti-fascist) spray painting “Flüchtlinge willkommen” on trains and pasting “kein mensch ist illegal” (“no human is illegal”) stickers on light posts, the motto “refugees welcome” has now become something of a trend, sometimes to the point where I wonder if the original meaning has been lost.
There are plenty examples of “good” things people are doing to help refugees. For instance, people are donating winter clothing and jackets in huge amounts – too much, in fact. There are bins in drug stores for people to donate hygiene articles, and the internet went crazy over one supermarket that emptied its shelves to provide supplies for a busload of refugees that arrived unexpectedly.
But there are other ways people are supporting refugees with a bit more questionable usefulness. Things like standing on the station platforms and clapping as train fulls of refugees arrive. Sharing hashtags on social media and painting the slogans on highway overpasses and bathroom stalls. Or buying this stylish overpriced “refugees welcome” t-shirt from the Hamburg St. Pauli store. While on one hand, it is definitely a nice gesture to show solidarity and get politically involved, I have to wonder if actual refugees wouldn’t rather, say, have access to food and sanitation rather than be treated like celebrities.
I once stumbled upon a Refugees Welcome party across from the Hamburg Messehalle (Exhibition Hall), which is where some of the main efforts to support refugees are being held. The party was fun – there was a live band playing music in a language I didn’t recognize, people dancing, hot food, and people painting. And you know, I don’t know anything about where the money for that came from, or what it accomplished, or if there were donations or anything too, but it kind of felt to me a little bit like liberal people having a party and self-congratulating themselves for being so tolerant. The crowd was racially diverse and there may have actually been a good number of refugees there (you can’t exactly tell by looking and I didn’t ask), and who knows, maybe that warm food really did help and maybe those slogans really did make them feel welcome, but I felt a bit odd about the whole situation. It must be weird to be treated completely differently depending on whether your life situation is “fashionable” at a certain place and a certain time or not.