The gossip is growing louder.
“All refugees are heading to our country.”
“Refugees are mooching off of us, but they don’t need our money. They all have smart phones.”
And especially since the sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, blamed mostly on immigrants: “Our girls can’t walk home from school alone anymore.”
These are just some of the claims and accusations circling through Germany, which sits at the epicenter of Europe’s refugee crisis. But the city of Nuremberg in northern Bavaria has an answer. It is training “ambassadors for diversity” to diffuse social tensions and shore up tolerance amid a mass migration of outsiders to towns across the country.
While Germany and countries throughout Europe scramble to give language, jobs skills, and cultural classes to refugees to aid the process of integration, locals face a steep learning curve as well – and have a significant role to play in forging a peaceful co-existence.
"This is not brainwashing,” says Thomas Mueller, coordinator of the municipal integration policy in Nuremberg. “It’s not to convince people that every refugee is a good man. We look at the situation squarely. The ambassadors learn how to argue in a calm way, in a positive way, and to argue with all the facts.”
'Seeing things more exactly'
In many ways, Nuremberg is perfectly poised for such an experiment.
While infamous as the city where Hitler’s “racial laws” were announced, it’s spent the decades since committed to tolerance, memorialized by its Way of Human Rights monument, says Wolfgang Heilig-Achneck, a journalist for the local Nürnberger Nachrichten.
Today he characterizes the city as one of restraint. He believes that's why it hasn’t become a hotbed of protest in the refugee crisis, despite the pressure that local Bavarian officials have put on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policies. Most asylum seekers have entered the country through this southern state's Austrian border.
“Everything in Nuremberg is cooked on a low heat,” Mr. Heilig-Achneck says.
And yet, the extreme right has sought to make inroads here, and the refugee crisis has put new wind in their sails, says Herbert Fuehr, a retired local newspaperman who is now part of the region’s anti-racism alliance. He says his concern today is that the far-right is convincing moderate Germans with simple reductions of complex problems, such as, “Germany is no longer rich because refugees are here.”
That’s where the ambassadors come in. The training wasn’t designed specifically to respond to the refugee crisis. It was to tackle intolerance generally. Still, most rumors today concern the current flow of migration.
So if someone says that all foreigners are criminal, the ambassadors are taught to respond with facts.
It is true that crime is higher among younger men worldwide, and that younger men comprise the majority of those entering Europe. That might influence crime rates among refugees in Germany. But it doesn't mean that all foreigners are criminals. Speaking in such terms strips away the stereotype, organizers say.
When locals grumble about the iPhones that refugees carry, they explain that it’s their lifeline on the immigration trail.
When they say all refugees are coming to Germany, they answer that it is true that one million refugees have come to Germany but that there are currently 60 million refugees in the world.
“It’s to see things more exactly,” says Kiki Lucaciu, the project’s coordinator.
So far Nuremberg has trained 80 such ambassadors, and aims to have reached 150 by year’s end. They are also considering a training program geared specifically for nurses and teachers, those who deal with the public and encounter vast opinions.
The current program, which began as part of a network with a dozen cities around Europe interested in creating "anti-rumor cities,” consists of four different workshops on the facts of migration, common prejudices and stereotypes, effective communication and response strategies, and role-playing. Today it is supported by Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.
“It is about everyday life situations,” says the trainer Andrea Kaliner, who works for InkuTra Intercultural Trainings, part of the migration and integration unit of the Arbeiterwohlfahrt, or Worker’s Welfare Association, in Nuremberg. Whether meeting the neighbor in the elevator, having a family dinner, or overhearing a conversation on a bus, she says, people are often faced with a rumor or discriminating comment and often ask themselves, “What should I say or can I do?”
The best prevention is personal contact. In the pretty town of Schnaittach, population 5,000, some locals were worried about the reaction to the 100-plus asylum seekers who have arrived. Christine Rothascher, who gave newcomers an intensive six-hour German class this summer over her holidays, says she thought prejudices would be bigger here than in Nuremberg. “It’s the other way around,” she says.
In fact, the asylum seekers living here say the Willkommenskultur, or welcome culture, is still strong and that events in Cologne have not significantly shifted attitudes – a sentiment reflected in a national poll this month that a majority of Germans saying the same. “The people of Germany have been friendly and respectful,” says Syrian refugee Habib Akroush, as he sips tea at the Rothaschers' house.
Ms. Rothascher’s husband, Christian Rothascher, a local doctor, says that stereotypes have been broken with simple conversations. When residents come to his office with concern, he always advises, “’Speak with them. Look at them and say hello.’” It almost always works.
Arguing for something
Such spontaneity is harder in bigger towns, where refugees live in large complexes, often separated from the locals. At one in Nuremberg, it’s impossible to get past the security at the gate. Conversations with refugees only happen when they leave the premises. In Schnaittach, you can just knock on their doors.
Maximilian Richter, a software engineer who volunteers with refugees in Nuremberg, says he invites asylum seekers to concerts in his free time. But most of the city’s population doesn’t do that. So he decided he'd be most effective as an “ambassador for diversity.”
With the training, he says he immediately learned how to navigate things differently, especially in polarized times.
At a wedding last summer at the height of the inflow into Germany, he says the girlfriend of a friend began, out of the blue, to disparage refugees. It was intended as small talk, he says, but it quickly descended into a heated argument that brought the two sides nowhere closer.
“I was really over-emotional. That wasn’t the place I wanted to be,” he says. “And I’ve learned the goal is not to convince the counterpart in the conversation. That never works.”
What does work, he says, it testing people’s assumptions – and always showing respect and empathy. “You can give them some info, like facts or numbers, but you can quickly go overboard with that too. It doesn’t work if you are like, ‘I have it all figured out.’”
Ms. Lucaciu says another key lesson is learning when not to engage, which she recently put into practice, after hearing someone criticize homosexuals. It was on the metro, and she sensed that she shouldn’t get into a debate but that it was important that other commuters heard a dissenting voice. “I’m not of that opinion,” she said out loud, and that was it. “The key is to say something, so that rumors don’t spread.”
“We’ve learned it’s easier to argue against something than to argue for something,” she says. The training, then, is ultimately aimed at "empowering people" to learn, she says, to argue for.
• Europeans face a steep learning curve in integrating refugees from the Middle East. But education for refugees about their new home's laws and mores is equally important. For more, read part 1: 'How do you help refugees become European? Give them lessons.'