In small-town Germany, welcome mat rolled out for refugees

The town of Rellingen (population: 14,000) has accepted 110 refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Volunteers work hard to integrate them and guide them through the bureaucracy.  

Michaela Rehle/Reuters
A migrant holds a child as they wait to cross the border from Austria to Germany near Freilassing, Germany, September 17, 2015. Germany briefly shut its land border with Austria and has pushed for other European nations to take their share of asylum seekers.

At times over the course of Europe’s refugee crisis, Germans have appeared conflicted over their government's much-vaunted "welcome" policy. 

Not Rellingen.

While Germany has flung open its door to the hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving in Europe from the Middle East and Africa, it also insists on deporting those deemed economic migrants. It briefly shut its land border with Austria and has pushed for other European nations to take their share of asylum seekers. 

But in Rellingen, a small town north of Hamburg, there’s no such equivocation: It’s been full steam ahead in the effort to ease the hardship of the refugees assigned here.

“We know the refugees have had terrible experiences, many of them lost family members and their homes are destroyed,” says Angelika Wilder, a retired chemical lab assistant and volunteer here. “We want to do what we can to help them make a new home in Germany.”

Rellingen’s hospitality exemplifies how thousands of Germans are chipping in to give a human touch to the massive task facing overwhelmed federal and state agencies. German officials have indicated the country needs an influx of migrants to take unfilled jobs. But the short-term challenge of accommodating new arrivals can be daunting. 

Rellingen has a roster of 85 volunteers who do everything from providing food and clothing to language classes and homework help to 110 mostly Syrian and Afghan refugees resettled in this leafy town of 14,000 inhabitants. Sometimes the most important service is simply providing a shoulder to lean on. 

Assistants like Mrs. Wilder also help to navigate the bewildering bureaucracy the refugees face. “Everything is on paper, we tell them all the papers they receive are so important,” she says, since documentation determines everything from housing placement to authorization to bring family members to live in Germany.

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Those granted asylum must take 800 hours of a German “integration” course, including language classes, but slots are hard to come by. The volunteers help match their charges with class openings.

Two other critical lessons the volunteers impress upon the refugees: Don’t arrive late for an appointment in Germany; and keep a close eye on your mailbox.

“A lot of the young men especially aren’t used to looking into a mailbox, and they might let a week go by before they think to check it,” Wilder says. “But we tell them here they will receive everything by mail. If you don’t check your mailbox, you might miss an important appointment.”

Wilder stands out as a volunteer because she speaks Arabic, having studied in Syria. That means she has heard all the arduous tales of refugees fleeing the conflicts back home. They relay the exorbitant sums paid to smugglers to reach Europe: it can cost 5,000 to 6,000 euros ($4,450 to $5,340) to travel from Greece to Germany.

Syrians here tell of a multicultural society now destroyed, their relatively prosperous lives upended. “In Syria I am a rich man,” says Abdullah Abdullah, who owned a hotel and souvenir shop Damascus. But Mr. Abdullah is Sunni, and after his property was confiscated by Shiites, threatening phone calls in the middle of the night prompted him to flee.

Abdullah has one young daughter with him. But one son was murdered after he identified to police in Cyprus the smugglers who had brought him from Turkey. The rest of his family is scattered to the wind: a daughter in Sweden, two sons in the Netherlands, his wife and two other children in Dortmund, Germany.

Youth at risk

Paradoxically, Wilder says, the young men are often the most vulnerable. She has had two who dabbled in the Hamburg drug trade and were evicted from their community housing; others blow their 300-euro monthly stipend on beer or expensive sneakers, sleep past noon, and miss appointments.

But most refugees are ready to take advantage of their new life. 

One of those is Hussein Gawish, a Syrian Druze restaurant manager. He left home last year after fighting intensified in his district south of Damascus where daily bombings and mortar fire had all but closed down his two children’s schools. 

 “It was so hard to leave them behind, but now I have a plan, to settle here in Rellingen so I can bring my family here,” says Mr. Gawish, who used a pseudonym because he fears for his family in Syria. “Then my children can go to school.”

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