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Seeking Refuge: In one German village, mayor lays welcome mat for migrants

The rising tide of refugees has many Europeans afraid for their safety and jobs. But Mayor Martin Birner is trying to build bridges between his constituents and those seeking a safe haven from war.

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    Martin Birner, mayor of Neunburg vorm Wald, Germany, a small Bavarian town near the Austrian border, stands outside the city's asylum center for migrants and refugees last month. Mr. Birner has worked with residents and authorities to help integrate the recent influx of refugees into the community.
    Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
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As unprecedented numbers of migrants and asylum seekers arrive on Europe's shores seeking refuge, some countries have made it clear that they are not wanted.

Hungary has announced plans to build a fence along its border with Serbia to keep migrants out. European leaders last month shot down a proposal by the European Union's executive arm to redistribute asylum seekers throughout the union with mandatory quotas. And across the continent far-right, anti-immigration parties are gaining ground. 

But here in this picturesque town in Bavaria, Mayor Martin Birner is doing his best to make refugees feel welcome.

Since April, the town and surrounding area have taken in some 170 asylum seekers, from countries including Ukraine, Iraq, Albania, and Syria. It wasn't an idea that was immediately popular with residents, but Mr. Birner worked to convince them that they should welcome, instead of fear, refugees fleeing from violence and repression.

“It's a great challenge, but my opinion is we're obligated to help,” he says.

'Welcome the immigrants'

Germany has received a huge share of asylum seekers in the EU because of its strong economy and generous assistance to refugees. In the first five months of this year alone, nearly 142,000 people applied for asylum in Germany. This town's asylum center offers a place to stay, normally for several months, while asylum applications are being processed.

Located about 80 miles north of Munich, Neunburg vorm Wald is home to just 8,500 people, and its historic center is full of narrow cobblestone streets. Local industry has attracted residents from around Europe, says Mr. Birner, but many were worried when the federal government asked the town to host the asylum center in renovated military facilities.

The mayor saw it as the right thing to do. And it wasn't the first time – the area hosted Kosovar refugees during the 1998-99 war in Kosovo. But his constituents worried about a crime wave, attacks on women's rights, or beggars on their doorsteps.

To dissuade these fears, Birner organized meetings in the town hall and answered questions from residents. He invited experts to speak on different topics, and asked doctors to draw up a health plan to assure people that the asylum seekers would not spread new diseases in the area.

“This is not what a mayor normally has to do ... but for me it was important to unify the people and show a sign to the population to welcome the immigrants,” he says.

Residents' fears weren't the only hurdle he had to deal with. An anti-immigration group from out of town put up fliers against the asylum center, says Birner.

Forging connections

But the mayor was persuasive, and in April the center opened its doors. On a recent afternoon he proudly showed a visitor around the three buildings, where tidy rooms with beds and chairs and a communal kitchen open off a central hallway. Solar panels cover the roof, and there's a soccer pitch nearby; mailboxes in the foyers have residents' names on them. 

The mayor's smile widened as he detailed plans to add a playground, install free WiFi, and provide bikes for refugees to get into town. 

Birner's goal is to help asylum seekers integrate into German society. He's working with local organizations to provide free services like German language classes, buses from the center into town, and recreational space where they can play handball and soccer. He says several Syrian refugees are playing with aplomb on local soccer teams – exactly the kind of connections through shared activities that he wants to see happening here.  

“What I'm trying to do is create a network so people can meet and take part in every day life together,” he says.

Still, it hasn't convinced everyone. Birner says one mother came to him and said she was fearful because many asylum seekers were walking past her house on their way to the market. “I told her she should make contact with them, speak with them, overcome those boundaries,” he says. That kind of personal contact, he says, will help residents see the asylum seekers as people, rather than as anonymous – and perhaps frightening – immigrants.

His case was not helped when two of the asylum seekers committed crimes in the town. One committed a sexual assault in the city park, he says, while another was caught performing lewd acts near a kindergarten. While both were arrested and have been removed from the center, the incidents created a furor. 

Hurdles

Librarian Christa Duscher says some residents are scared, like a mother she knows who now picks her children up from school instead of letting them walk home. “But I'm not afraid, because I know there are bad people here just like there are bad people everywhere,” she says.

She's glad that Germany, and Neunburg vorm Wald, are accepting asylum seekers. “These people are from war zones and I believe privileged people have to help.”

In the asylum center, residents say the people of Neunburg vorm Wald are mostly friendly. But many say they don't spend much time there, except when they shop at the market. They're mostly unaware of the mayor's efforts at integration. Their biggest need, most say, is simple: German language classes.

And that's something the mayor is working on. He hopes his efforts will inspire others, in other parts of Germany or Europe, to welcome the wave of refugees heading to Europe.

“I hope that my enthusiasm will encourage others to help, too.... I believe that if you give, you will receive."

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