Barmbek knife attack: when a terrorist attack happens in your neighborhood

On an uneventful, drizzly Friday afternoon, a young man wielding a kitchen knife walked into a Hamburg supermarket and started stabbing people.

Police stand in front of the Edeka supermarket where a man murdered one and injured six people using a kitchen knife in a possible act of Islamist terror July 28. Photo: DPA

He killed one person and, as he fled, injured six others. Bystanders apprehended him in the street and held him until police arrived and made the arrest.

According to an eyewitness, before he struck, he shouted “Allahu Akbar” – the Muslim call to prayer, meaning “God is great” in Arabic. Although police have yet to confirm if the attack was motivated by radical Islam, in the court of public opinion, it was an act of Islamist terror.

The supermarket, while not one I frequent, is about a 10-minute bike ride from where I live. It’s located on the main street of Barmbek, the working-class neighborhood that is my home in Hamburg. What do you do when a terrorist attack happens in your neighborhood?

The location of the knife attack in Barmbek, Hamburg. Map: Deutsche Welle




This attack is particularly painful for me because I’m involved in a volunteer organization in Barmbek that works with refugees. For the past year I have been teaching German classes once a week on a volunteer basis to asylum seekers in my neighborhood, and I’ve been gradually taking on more coordinating responsibilities and trying to expand our offerings. We are doing so much to reach out to people, to promote integration and community, it’s a shocking reminder that things like this can still happen.

The refugees I work with are nice people. Some are Muslim, some are Christian, some are atheist. Some are refugees because they are Christian or atheist, and they come from Muslim-majority countries where they would face discrimination as non-Muslims. The experiences refugees in Germany go through are vastly different from another, and their age, background and education level are all factors that affect how successful they will be in Germany.

Volunteers and participants with the organization Welcome to Barmbek pose for a photo after taking a harbor tour on Hamburg’s river Elbe in September 2016. I’m on the left.

I am have a disproportionate amount of contact to refugees who are highly motivated to integrate, because the ones I meet have actively sought out a volunteer organization to help them learn the language, find an apartment and find a job. It is easy to get a rosy view of the situation in Germany when all of the people you interact with are more-or-less success stories, who go above and beyond to help each other have a chance at a future in Germany. To be reminded that, of the one-million-plus refugees in Germany, and the dozens that I know personally, there are still a handful who hold radical views and are prepared to commit acts of violence, is a shock.

The attacker was born in the UAE, had unsuccessfully sought protection in Germany and was due to be deported. However, his deportation had been delayed as he didn’t have any identifying papers. He lived in a refugee camp, which police ransacked and investigated following the attacks.

An obvious response to this attack would be to streamline the bureaucratic process to make it easier to deport people who were refused asylum protection. But this is not a solution.

One highly-criticized component of Germany’s current asylum policy is to deport people who are refused asylum *if* it is safe to do so. This sounds like a good policy, until you realize what the criteria for “safe country of origin” is. In the case of Afghanistan, this criteria is questionable: By German law, Afghanistan is considered a safe country, meaning refugees from Afghanistan whose asylum claims are denied (about half) are at risk for being deported.

This is not helped by the fact that Germany, once criticized and praised for its “open-door policy” for refugees in 2015, appears to have unofficially reversed its asylum policy and is now granting fewer asylum applications than ever before, preferring to offer so-called subsidiary protection, which is only temporary and does not include family reunification. This means more people than ever will be at risk for deportation.

At the end of May, a bomb attack at the German embassy in Kabul killed 150 people. A month later, the next plane was scheduled to deport a new group of people to Afghanistan. Due to massive criticisms and protests, the plane was delayed – but the German government did not reverse its position, and resumed deportation once the outcry had blown over.

IMG-20170508-WA0000I personally am acquainted with two young men from Afghanistan who are under threat of deportation. Both are intelligent, ambitious people who are trying to get an education so they can get a good job in Germany. One wants to work with children, the other wants to be a nurse (see photo: right). Both have taken German classes, have done internships, and are highly involved in their communities through this volunteer organization. It’s a lengthy legal process to overturn a deportation decision, and so far all we have accomplished is delaying the process by writing appeal after appeal. If the young men can secure apprenticeships before the appeal process is finished, they can stay in Germany. But it’s not over yet.

I’m not saying Germany should completely do away with deportation. An individual from a rich, safe country like the UAE with known connections to radicalism and violent tendencies sounds like the perfect candidate for deportation, whether he has papers or not. (Or on the contrary, he could be the perfect candidate for a de-radicalization program, such as the one that made headlines in Aarhus, Denmark in 2014). But expanding Germany’s deportation policy is not the answer. I’m even hesitant about streamlining it, because bureaucratic delays have allowed us to buy time for the refugees I know to keep them from being – in my opinion – wrongly deported.

So what can we do? How to crack down on radical Islam and prevent further violent attacks, without deporting the wrong people and without increasing anti-Muslim sentiment in an already-discriminatory society? Foreigners in Germany already face disproportionate barriers to integration into the job market and the housing market. Housing discrimination and hiring discrimination, while officially banned, is very much alive. Anecdotal evidence abounds of people being denied an apartment or a job because they weren’t perceived as Germany, and a joint investigation by Der Spiegel and the Bayerischer Rundfunk revealed that people with Arabic- or Turkish-sounding names have a much lower chance of being invited to an apartment viewing than people with German names.

I don’t know what the best response to terror is, but more discrimination and more deportation is not the answer. I will continue doing what I always do, teaching language classes and supporting integration efforts in my community. Maybe we cannot reach out to everyone, but we can continue making a difference in at least a few people’s lives.


One thought on “Barmbek knife attack: when a terrorist attack happens in your neighborhood

  1. LaTurner Gretchen

    So sad to hear this. These people are in the minority as much as super extremists in any religion, but they affect how the world sees and treats the millions of good refugees that need shelter and care to escape horrific conditions.

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