In 2015, as almost a million asylum seekers poured into Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “We can do this.” Was she right? Five years later, we take a closer look in the most average of average German towns.
With its population of around 20,000, the town of Hassloch is essentially the largest village in the Palatinate region of Germany. Still, it is well known in the country for being a special place – in that there is nothing special about it. Decades ago, the realization was made that from a demographic perspective, Hassloch is a microcosm of the country at large, with its age, gender and economic breakdown roughly reflecting that of Germany as a whole. Indeed, its demography is so normal that it was chosen in the 1980s by the Society for Consumer Research as the place where new products would be tested. After all, if people in Hassloch like it, you can be relatively sure that people in the rest of Germany will too. If Germany is a tree, Hassloch is its bonsai.
What, though, can the place tell us about Germany’s handling of the huge influx of refugees five years ago? On Aug. 31, 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel held a press conference in which she discussed the challenges that the wave of migration presented for the country. Hundreds of thousands of people were making their way into Europe at the time across the Mediterranean and along the Balkan Route – and many of them had set their sights on Germany. It marked the beginning of years of political discord, pitting EU countries, political parties and individuals against one another. In that press conference, Merkel said: “Germany is a strong country. We have done so much. We can do this!” It is a sentence that would become a trademark of her tenure.
Now, five years later, we know that almost exactly 890,000 asylum seekers came to Germany in 2015. But have we “done this”? It’s hard to say, just as it is difficult to define exactly what “this” means, or even who “we” are. It all depends on your perspective. In Hassloch, the question as to who managed to “do this,” and when and what that means, leads to a number of places — to a city administrator, to an expert on parrots, and to extremely German families with colorful collections of passports. This story, though, begins in city hall.
On the list of the most common German last names, Meyer is in sixth place. And Tobias Meyer, the town’s deputy mayor, looks so similar to his center-left predecessor that the two are often mistaken for one another. Meyer is a cheerful sort with expressive eyebrows and average height. In his office, he says that he joined the center-right Christian Democratic Union, Merkel’s party, on his 18th birthday out of admiration for Helmut Kohl. He sees himself “as a centrist” politically. “I find it astonishing,” says Meyer, “that not even the fall of the Berlin Wall changed our status as an average town.” It almost sounds as though normality in Germany is unchanging, no matter what happens and no matter who comes into the country.
Since 2015, Hassloch has been home to between 500 and 600 refugees. The precise total is unknown, since many either returned home or quickly moved onwards. Currently, the town is home to 152 refugees, including 72 whose asylum applications are currently being processed. Back in 2015, after that summer of migration, the total was 211, which represents 1.1 percent of Hassloch’s population.
And what about the 890,000 who showed up in Germany with its 82 million people? “You see?” says Meyer. Exactly 1.1 percent.
Meyer is happy to talk about refugees at length, and isn’t shy about saying that some of them came expecting a rosy future without wanting to do much in return. Or about the fact that, from his perspective, the town hasn’t changed much as a result. Perhaps more instructive, however, is a visit to the administrative expert in city hall, a certain Ms. Behret.
First, though, a final question for Tobias Meyer. Has Hassloch “done this?” Meyer’s response: “Hmmmm.”
The office is little more than the physical manifestation of the rules it is there to enforce, furnished with myriad filing cabinets with fake beech veneer. There are a few signs of life pinned to them, such as vacation pictures or funny Dilbert-esque cartoons about office life from the local paper. There are rows and rows of “meeting minutes” and “official correspondence,” along with a few stoic office plants doing their best to provide atmosphere. And in the middle of it all sits Christine Behret.
“I love my job” it says on her keychain. She is the only woman in a leadership position in Hassloch city hall and she says she has been carrying around the keychain since her first day there. “I fought for this job,” Behret says. She describes herself as “a bit tough.”
“We at the regulatory authority have a slightly different view of certain problems,” she says. “When a Sikh man shows up in your office, sits down on the floor and says he’s not going anywhere until he is allowed to cook in the hostel” – which isn’t allowed due to fire regulations – “then friendliness doesn’t get you very far. You have to pull out your English and affably throw him out. But you can never forget that you are dealing with a human being.”
In her accounts, the phrase “we can do this” sounds mostly like a ton of work. Back in 2015, Behret says, she and her colleagues worked seven days a week. No public office, she continues, was prepared for the onslaught: They needed beds, food and doctors, despite the shortage of family practitioners in many rural areas of Germany. The first question to answer: centralized or decentralized accommodations? Hassloch chose a mixture of the two, which included a large hostel. Most of the refugees, though, were put up in 51 apartments that had been rented for the purpose. The asylum seekers were housed together according to complicated parameters, for which Christine Behret received additional training in “intercultural competence.” She said they learned such things as “women have no power in the places they come from, but here, women tell them what to do.” It is a sentence that has been part of the German migration debate for decades.
Behret can provide a precise description of the asylum seekers in Hassloch using just a few sentences. She says they have “the entire spectrum” in the town, from a mathematics professor from Syria to others who can’t even write their own names. “The typical cases come by once a month to pick up their checks. For some of them, it’s enough. Others start working at McDonald’s at some point, or deliver packages for Amazon.”
There was the alcoholic from Nigeria who shoplifted every day. “He was sent to us with no warning whatsoever. And no file,” Behret says. “How can something like that happen?” In that case, Tobias Meyer drove to the central reception center in the nearby town of Kusel to see what had happened. They then came by and picked the man up, she says.
She tells the story of the man who died, yet couldn’t be buried because he had no birth certificate. “And if you haven’t been born, you can’t die.” In this room, focused on the administration of people, where everything is perfectly arranged, it is clear that she derives a certain amount of pleasure from such moments of turmoil.
Behret’s main problem, though, is a different one: “We get the people faster than the files arrive. I don’t know if the person might have hepatitis, or tuberculosis, or scabies. We don’t have anything except their names, nationalities and dates of birth.”
In the Bird Park
There is a birdcage standing on a small blanket in Wilhelm Weidenbach’s living room. The bottom of the cage is lined with newspaper, with the brass-colored lattice rising above it. The door usually stands open. Weidenbach says that he taught his last parrot to sing German folk songs.
Weidenbach, a 64-year-old retiree, has been in a wheelchair since suffering an accident and is the chairman of the Hassloch Club for the Protection and Care of Domestic and Foreign Birds. Every morning at 9 a.m., he heads over to the Hassloch Bird Park, one of the area’s places of interest.
Last year, Hassloch was hit by a major storm that left the park in disarray. Together with a local group that helps asylum seekers, Weidenbach organized a day for volunteers to come and help out — and not long later, the municipality got in touch to ask if the asylum applicants would be willing to come by more regularly. The first of them came to the park just over two weeks ago, and they now work there three days a week for four hours at a time. On a recent Friday morning, they were busy with rakes and hoes at the duck enclosure: Ranj Suleiman, a Kurdish man from Iraq; Mohammad Ali Mozaffri from Afghanistan; and Aria Rahimzade from Iran — three of the 72 asylum applicants in Hassloch currently awaiting a ruling on their status.
Suleiman was a computer technician, Mozaffri wanted to work in old-age care and Rahimzade had his sights set on becoming a hairdresser. All of those professions are in need, but because the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) hasn’t yet decided on whether they can stay or not, it is difficult for them to find real work. So the three of them rake detritus out of the enclosures for 80 cents an hour.
Weidenbach says they’re doing a good job. Iran? Iraq? People are people, he says. All they have to do is follow the rules and show up on time. And it’s important for them to learn the language and speak German among themselves, he says, though they sometimes have trouble understanding the local dialect he speaks. In the courses they attend, they are learning high German.
Mozaffri talks about how he got to Germany from Afghanistan three years ago: “Walking. Bicycle. Boat.”
“Yes, necessity is the mother of invention,” Weidenbach jokes. The men likely would have laughed if they had understood him, but they didn’t. So Weidenbach repeats himself, slower and louder: “Ne-cess-i-ty is the MOTHER of in-ven-tion!”
Now, the three start laughing, though they still haven’t understood him. No matter, they continue on to the emu enclosure, pushing their wheelbarrows past the parrots. Suleiman makes a face and jokes: “They speak better German than we do.”
The municipality has bought a flat-roofed structure at the edge of town. Plastic chairs have been set up in the grass outside and there is hardly any natural light inside, with the only window being a skylight. A bit of carpeting hangs over the fence and it is quiet.
This is where the levity from the aviary comes to an end. Suleiman, Mozaffri and Rahimzade live here, and there is a sign on every door inside covered in pictograms to illustrate all that is forbidden in the hostel: wall clocks, coffee machines, irons, hairdryers, washing machines, vacuums, cameras, telephones and computer monitors.
The structure is home to around 30 asylum seekers. The metal bed belonging to Mozaffri can be found in the corner of Room 3, where the wall is covered with bits of paper bearing the German words he is currently learning. On the other side of a metal locker is another bed, belonging to a young Iraqi, whose asylum application has been rejected. He says that he grows afraid at night when he hears doors close and that he can’t bear living in the hostel for much longer. Indeed, it seems to be part of the concept to make it as uncomfortable as possible.
At the end of June, decisions were pending on 43,617 asylum applications. BAMF works through the files, specialized lawyers file grievances, papers are intentionally hidden and replacement documents must be requested from Eritrea, Morocco and the many other countries from which the applicants come.
The asylum applicants, such as the three that work in the Bird Park, are stuck in limbo. They have made it; they have arrived in Germany. But at the same time, they haven’t yet made it. They haven’t yet “done this.”
In a survey conducted by BAMF, 44 percent of asylum seekers who participated reported having good or very good knowledge of the German language. Three-quarters of them felt welcome in Germany. But the phrase “we can do this” was primarily focused on the other side. Merkel was referring to the Germans.
Andreas Rohr is a man knee-deep in statistics. There are no plants in his office and there is likewise little in the way of decoration. Rohr used to work as a treasurer in the town administration and has a business degree. He is a family man with a strong physique and a gray shirt that matches the textured walls around him. In 2015, he was the Hassloch bureaucrat responsible for the refugees, though today his portfolio includes daycare centers, leases and cultural activities. He is able to distill Hassloch’s ability to “do this” into columns of numbers.
From an administrative point of view, Rohr says, Hassloch has indeed been successful. “In 2016, we spent around 550,000 euros ($630,000) on shelter costs and about 870,000 euros on benefits for the asylum applicants. We were reimbursed for all those costs by the administrative district. But the town was responsible for personnel costs and materials. We only had two part-time positions back then, but now we have four working in that division, and it was five at the peak. A full-time position costs 50,000 euros, so we’re talking about a quarter million per year at that time.”
The municipality was responsible for everything beyond room and board — and that required both money and patience. A “debate informed by the basest kind of envy,” as Rohr calls it, erupted in Hassloch as a result. He says he avoided bars for quite some time because of it. Christine Behret has even made the conscious decision to live outside of Hassloch.
The houses are lined up like ramparts along Neustadter Street in the center of town, which is empty of people except for a young Black woman, who poses for the camera. It’s like a scene from a BAMF brochure.
The woman’s name is Becky Idowu and she lives in a ground-floor apartment in one of the houses. The blinds are closed, just as her roommate likes it — a German homeless woman who Idowu has been living with since November. The two share a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, and there are two additional beds, though they aren’t currently occupied.
Idowu grabs a stool. Her roommate glances up briefly before quickly returning her attention to her mobile phone. She doesn’t speak any English and Idowu doesn’t speak German. They communicate via a translation app.
Idowu is from Nigeria. Prior to making her way to Europe, she spent three years in Libya, where her sister operated restaurants in the capital Tripoli. The country’s ruler at the time, Moammar Gadhafi, brought Black mercenary fighters to Libya. The country had always been home to racism, but after the dictatorship was toppled, Idowu says, they were hunted down. Idowu’s sister, she says, had only just managed to lock her apartment door when her pursuers shot her in the head through the door.
Becky Idowu took her sister’s 3-year-old daughter and fled across the sea. The girl was sitting on her lap when the inflatable raft capsized. There were 250 people onboard, she says, but only 30 of them survived. “I can see myself in the sea.” Then comes the next image: “I am sitting in a small boat,” with people all around trying to save her.
She slaps her thigh, looks down at her hands and then leaves them there. “I lost her,” she says over and over again, her eyes growing misty. Her roommate continues scrolling through her phone. Idowu says she doesn’t even know the woman’s name.
She wakes up every morning at 4:30 a.m., crawls out of bed, leaves the apartment and heads into the center of Hassloch, past the town hall, and wanders around for an hour. It’s a way of killing a bit of time in her long days.
Helping people like Idowu regain traction in life is also an element of “we can do this.” There are lots of good intentions, even if they are sometimes slightly misguided. On the outskirts of Hassloch is the Holiday Park Pfalz amusement park, home to a number of rides, including whitewater rafting and “Beach Rescue,” where you become “the captain of your own small lifeboat.” Asylum seekers receive complimentary tickets to the park, a friendly gesture to be sure, but someone like Idowu isn’t likely to take advantage. Her trauma therapy sessions begin in August.
Has Idowu “done this”? And if so, how exactly? There are no statistics for anguish.
For a few months beginning in the fall of 2017, normalcy in Hassloch was upended. Without warning, the administrative district sent a convicted sex offender from Somalia to the town.
“We had to organize police protection,” Deputy Mayor Tobias Meyer recalls. “They went by regularly to check on him and make sure he was taking his medication.” He continues: “A municipality like ours simply isn’t set up for something like that.”
The man ultimately left voluntarily, returning to Somalia. But by then, the first demonstrations in front of the townhall had already taken place, organized by the head of the local chapter of Alternative for Germany (AfD), the right-wing radical party. Ahead of state elections, AfD head Jörg Meuthen even paid a visit to Hassloch and the AfD ended up winning 18.8 percent of the vote there, even doing well in the more affluent areas of town — a reasonable representation of the political proclivities present in the country at large that fall. The result was a rather colorful coalition in city government — the “Papaya coalition,” as Meyer calls it — matching up the CDU, the Green Party and the FWG, a group of independent voters.
Merkel’s “we can do this” call, it seems, also awakened resentments and rejection in small towns like Hassloch — resentments that had perhaps always been there.
Ismael Ahmed is guiding his Škoda to a supermarket on the outskirts of Hassloch, where he intends to buy sesame crackers, onions, eggplants and other necessities. A miniature Koran swings from the rearview mirror as his daughter Suzan sits in the backseat listening to the Kurdish-Lebanese rapper Mudi singing about love in German.
If you ask about refugees in Hassloch, you will likely be directed to the Ahmed family. Perhaps because they are so normal. Perhaps because they have been so successfully integrated.
A Kurdish family, the Ahmeds sold their home in Syria when their son was to be drafted into the Syrian army. The parents have a total of six children, with the two oldest having left Syria earlier. They are both now married, with one living in Stuttgart and the other in Moers, a town on the Rhine. Four still live with their parents in Hassloch, where they received their official residency permits on Dec. 4, 2015.
The house where they now live has a yard and a brick barbecue. Who used to live in the house? “Two lesbians, I think,” says their daughter Suzan. Her best friend lives across the way and she plays on a local basketball team in addition to completing an internship with the police. School? “It’s totally OK, the teachers are totally fine,” she says. The Ahmeds are among the 5, perhaps 10 percent of refugees in Hassloch, according to a townhall estimate, who are in no need of public assistance.
There are, though, also families who are completely withdrawn, with their only window to the world at large being the schools their children attend. According to a BAMF survey conducted in 2017, around a fifth of those who have fled to Germany have never had contact to Germans in their private lives.
Another lesson from Hassloch is that integration depends heavily on who provides assistance. Gisela Broichmann, from a local organization that assists asylum seekers, is one of many volunteers who began working with refugees in 2015. She said one reason she got involved was to “combat her fears.”
Back then, the first thing she did for the Ahmeds was to set up a file folder with colorful dividers that provide a useful guide for what it means to get established in Germany. There were several sections, including 1) correspondence with the Office for Migration and Refugees, 2) the social welfare office, 3) the employment agency, 4) the job center, 5) address registration, 6) tax ID/social insurance/family benefits, 7) health insurance, 8) utilities.
Over the years, Broichmann has helped the family fill the sections with the appropriate documents. She also helped them buy furniture on Ebay Classifieds and brought them a stove and a sewing machine.
Why? “My family came from Silesia,” she says, referring to the former German province that has been part of Poland since World War II. “They also received help when they arrived.”
The Ahmed family has since reorganized the folder, from back to front. “Arabic order,” they say.
Ismael, the family father, is still a beginner in German and his wife is one level above him. In the test “Living in Germany,” she was able to correctly answer 24 of the 33 questions — making her, if you will, 72.73 percent German.
In December 2015, the Buzaladze family, originally from Georgia, also arrived in Hassloch, following interim stays in Budapest, Dortmund, Trier and Bad Dürkheim. Steps lead up to their apartment, where the geraniums are in full bloom.
Volunteers had prepared the apartment for them before they moved in, and had placed presents, a cake and a letter of welcome on the table. Their asylum application was rejected one year later and the family’s case is now at the regional court. They currently have a status of “tolerated.”
Their oldest son Zuradi is becoming a bricklayer while the mother Mtwarisa, 38, is in training for old-age care. German law prevents deportations if the person in question is participating in a training course. The father works as a gardener. When you meet them, it certainly seems as though they have made it, though the political adversaries of the “we can do this” spirit would likely dispute that. They would likely say that only war refugees should be allowed to remain in Germany and that the country has not succeeded if families like the Buzaladzes are not deported.
On this particular evening, the family raises a glass of sparkling wine – Rotkäppchen, the most German of all brands. Zwiadi, the father, toasts everyone’s health and then adds: “I love Angela Merkel.” The table is covered in fruit, arranged in the shape of flowers and small boats.
Have we done it? “Yes,” says the father. His son translates for him: “Because we all have work and we’re helping Germany. And Germany is helping us.” “We have done it,” says the mother. Then, all together, they say: “Prost!”
Recently, the state auditing authority announced that it would soon be making a visit to Hassloch. A routine affair. The year 2015 had been randomly chosen for a check, and the choice of the budget item 3.1.3 “Assistance for Asylum Seekers,” was just as random. The auditors are now examining all of the books pertaining to that period, though they have not yet completed their report.
For Christine Behret, Andreas Rohr and the Hassloch administration, the appearance of the auditors is no reason for panic. On the contrary, they were careful with their bookkeeping. Indeed, it almost sounds as though they see the audit a bit like the return of the dove to Noah’s Ark, like a sign of hope. Because in Germany, a crisis is only really over when the books are checked and can be filed away.