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'We must ask ourselves what we would do in this situation.' (Photo: Allliance/DPA)

Open Homes, Open Borders: A Dispatch from a German Village Sheltering 400 Refugees

Melody Ermachild Chavis

Dear friends, I could easily walk from our apartment to the village sport hall where 400 refugees arrived last night, Wednesday, September 16.  The German Red Cross worked for the past few days to get it ready with cots, food, shelves of clothes organized by size and gender, toiletries, toys for kids...many in the village are proud of their work and compassion.  The exhausted and traumatized refugees were picked up at the Frankfurt train station after dark in rented buses in the pouring rain.  One can only imagine their journeys—over sea and land, across several nations, walking for weeks.

This 400 are part of the 20,000 refugees arrived in Munich in the past few days. (That's how many Britain has pledged to take in the next five years!)  Most refugees carry only perhaps a plastic bag.  Here at the sport hall they will be registered and fingerprinted....then what?  Perhaps a million refugees will have arrived in Germany before the end of the year.  German population = 80 million.  That's like 3.5 million people with nothing coming into the US all at once, with no plan for their livelihood.  It’s like 3 or 4 Katrinas at once.  But, one has to help people in such desperation.   

The debate in Germany is fierce. Germans have long had a consensus: We agree that people who need help should be helped, with medical insurance and care, with a good education, with "social help" of all kinds—parental leave, good pensions, help for the disabled, etc.  We pay high taxes so that a beautiful infrastructure can be shared by all.  But the current debate is over:  How far can this consensus stretch?  Most Germans did not even want to help the Greeks, who are Europeans and Christians.  Can they help one million people from another culture, language and religion whose skin is generally darker?  Will the German consensus break?  Iraq was destabilized, and millions fled to Syria; Syria was destabilized by drought and refugees and war; now, destabilization is spreading with the flow of refugees.  Of course, we must help the refugees.  But destabilization is a fact.

This morning I woke up thinking, we'll go to the sports hall and invite someone to stay in our guest room—a mother and baby, or a young man alone.  On the way home, we'll stop and get what they want to eat to feel at home—there's hummus at Aldi, but as for Halal meat, no chance. Maybe the woman would be my size or the man my husband's size—we have extra clothes. This, anyway, was my naive fantasy. No,no,no!  That is not what's happening.  The refugees will remain under guard in the hall.  They won’t go out into Wiesbaden.  Police around the sport hall will also protect them from neo-Nazi attacks that have happened elsewhere recently.  (Last week, in another part of Germany, buildings being readied for refugees were set on fire.)  The refugees will be interviewed and vetted, examined to find out if they are traumatized and need counseling help.  They won't just melt into the village into people's guest rooms.  So, it’s not like 400 new people just came to the village.  It's more like a new Immigration Detention Jail just opened—hundreds locked up awaiting asylum or deportation.  Maybe "our" refugees will go on, once vetted, to other nations... there's talk on TV of Canada or Brazil.  

Still, when I think of how peaceful it is at our home at night, I wish someone could come over here just to sleep—it'll be so noisy in that hall, lights will be on.  Helplessness—no one's favorite feeling.

The city of Wiesbaden has a Facebook page with photos of volunteers, and of the first arrivals.   One man commented on FB that he didn’t understand why most of the refugees seem to be men.  I know part of the answer:  we saw an interview on German TV news with a doctor who is working in one of the huge camps in Jordan, where hundreds of thousands spent the last three winters without adequate shelter, medicine or food, no schools, no way to go back to Syria, no future at all.  Four million Syrians have had to leave their nation.  The doctor said that practically every family in the camp had recently sent its strongest son off in the direction of Germany, in the hope that he could survive the journey, find work and send back money, and eventually perhaps send for more family members.  What a hard decision to make!  Their mothers must fear never seeing them again.  (Indeed many must be at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.)  We’ve seen such young men interviewed on TV, saying that if they stayed in Syria, they’d be forced to fight for one side or the other.  Seeing photos of so many children in refugees’ arms, it seems that many whole families have set off together—all of us or none!  We must ask ourselves what we would do in this situation.

There is a feeling of surrealistic shock.  I've lived here off and on five years. The village is partly medieval, partly modern.  The feeling is of peace: bucolic grain fields, fruit orchards, horse farms, the old churches with their steeples, young professionals commuting to Frankfurt.  I never once imagined that 400 Syrians would arrive here.  I could not imagine that Bush's invasion of Iraq, which every person I know in the US tried hard to prevent, would push desperate people to this village in middle Germany near the Rhine... nowhere near a border.  

There is no end to the long line of human beings underway tonight.  Angela Merkel has said, "We can do this!"  With this spirit, Germans are trying.

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