In Germany, Migrants Find Footing But Also Some Resistance Germany, always aware of its history of war, is taking in tens of thousands fleeing war and poverty. Many Germans have welcomed the newcomers, but some are struggling with the changes they bring.
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In Germany, Migrants Find Footing But Also Some Resistance

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In Germany, Migrants Find Footing But Also Some Resistance

In Germany, Migrants Find Footing But Also Some Resistance

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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She's been meeting some of the people who fled war in their home countries and the Germans who are struggling with just how much to welcome them. She joins me now from Berlin. Good morning, Rachel.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Hi, Linda, good morning.

WERTHEIMER: So Rachel, we know there are thousands of migrants who've made it to Germany through Munich. Are many of those people then moving on to Berlin?

MARTIN: If they can. For many of them, yes, that's the goal. Berlin is an ethnically diverse city, one of the most diverse in the country. The economy here is strong. But once they're here, it's a waiting game. We visited the main processing center for the migrants in Berlin; it's a social service ministry. And on the day we went, there were at least a thousand people there.

Each family has been given a number, a little paper ticket, the kind you might get at a carnival, and on the back is written a number, sometimes just scribbled down in pencil. And these numbers are key. When they pop up on the digital screen, when your number is called - everyone crowds around to look in this courtyard - and when their number is called, they're taken inside to begin the asylum process.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we've seen reports that large numbers of Germans are turning out to work as volunteers to help the migrants. Have you seen that in Berlin?

MARTIN: We did. There were at least a couple of dozen German volunteers there at the processing center on the day we went. They were serving lunch. We talked with a woman named Julia Visakovsky. She's a psychologist who had taken the day off work to come volunteer.

JULIA VISAKOVSKY: We basically have to make sure that everybody gets food. - children comes first, women comes first - and give them the feeling that everything's OK here.

WERTHEIMER: Germany is expecting at least 800,000 people to come in this year alone. How do the Germans feel about that?

MARTIN: Well, it's complicated, as you might expect. And to get a sense of this issue of how Germans are struggling with these demographic changes, we visited a town in the former Eastern part of the country. It's about an hour outside of Berlin. It's called Seelow and the population is around 5,600.

Twenty-five years ago, at the end of World War II, this town was the site of a ferocious last stand by Hitler's army, one of the biggest battles on German soil. We met up with the mayor of the town, his name is Jorg Schroder, and he's lived here all his life. He described an attitude that is typical of the former East.

JORG SCHRODER: (Speaking German).

MARTIN: Some people here are very open, especially in the upper regions, he tells me. They'll be friendly, approachable, helpful, but some have the mentality that if I don't know you, I'm a little worried about you. Locals here have had to get used to outsiders. The mayor told me that at the beginning of this year, there were 650 migrants in the region. By the end of 2015, he said, there will be 2,500, and officials here will have to accommodate them. I asked the mayor how his town is responding, and he answered by referencing the history that is so very present here.

SCHRODER: (Speaking German).

MARTIN: "Older people who remember the Second World War, they're a lot more open," he says. In 1945, all throughout Germany, there were 12 million refugees - people returning from war or from Eastern Europe. "These people who remember that are more open, but the young people", he tells me, "they have a problem." They see the foreigners coming and they think there's no work. "That's not the only fear," the mayor told me, "we've got Muslims and Christians interacting, and the young people have never been exposed to people of such different cultural backgrounds and in such big numbers." Others we met in this town feel an obligation to welcome the new arrivals.

Jens Lawrence works with migrant youth in Seelow. We met him at an outdoor cafe in the center of town. He uses the word responsibility. Germany, he said, has a unique responsibility to care for refugees of war precisely because of its role in World War II. And he said the outpouring of support for the migrants is drowning out the refrains from far-right groups about the threat posed by outsiders.

JENS LAWRENCE: We can also now be proud of Germany. But I think we can be proud that we fight against and said, no, this - not again. I think this is good.

MARTIN: There's a battle for the public image of Germany linked to this migration crisis. On the one hand, Germans volunteering to take refugee families into their homes, collection centers overflowing with donations. But there's the other extreme too - arson attacks on refugee facilities, right-wing groups protesting that migrants are a threat to German society. Here's sound from an anti-immigration rally in Dresden earlier this year. This is one of the speakers from the event.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking German).

MARTIN: "They haven't just come here to be our friends," this man says. "they've come here to change everything." This is a fringe group, but it's worth pointing out that until the year 2000, German law required that in order to be a German citizen, you had to have German ancestors. Laws like that have created barriers between Germany and its largest minority group, the Turks.

Imran Ayata was born in Germany, but his parents came here from Turkey in the 1960s as part of the so-called guest worker program. Turks were supposed to help fill the labor market, and then they were supposed to leave; many didn't. But Ayata told us that Turks have never been made to feel part of mainstream society.

IMRAN AYATA: I think you can't grow up with a name like Imran Ayata looking like me. You always have this situation where people look at you and say, where you from? And you say, I'm from Berlin. No, no, where are you from? I say, I'm from Berlin. No, I mean, where are you from? I constantly repeat, I'm from Berlin.

MARTIN: Ayata wonders how long the current welcome culture will last. We'll bring you more of our conversation elsewhere in the show.

Meanwhile, there are members of the German government who say there are real limits to the help Germany can provide. Jens Spahn is a member of the conservative CDU party, and he's the deputy finance minister for Germany.

JENS SPAHN: Not everyone can stay in Germany, can stay in Europe. If there are refugees fleeing from war, for example, from Syria, from Iraq, they definitely can stay in Germany and we're going to help them. But if there are people coming out of poverty reasons, which I do understand, but that's not a reason for asylum-seeking, and we have to send them back. And that's the hard decisions that have to come.

MARTIN: Those hard decisions may come soon. This past week, the German government proposed new guidelines limiting benefits for asylum-seekers. At the same time, economic migrants will be sent home. I asked the deputy finance minister, Jens Spahn, if Germany is prepared to help integrate these refugees if they choose to stay here permanently.

SPAHN: That will be very exhausting for both sides, for the refugees and for Germans, 'cause the people coming are from different cultures, from different traditions. They have to learn German to integrate into the society. We have values, same rights for men and women, which already starts to be a problem in some of the refugee camps. For example, the special relationship of Germany with Israel because of our history, everyone who wants to live in Germany and to become a German sooner or later has to deal with that as well.

MARTIN: Hearing Jens Spahn talk about Germany's history felt all the more profound considering where we were talking. His office, the Ministry of Finance, is housed in a massive stone complex in the center of Berlin. It was built in the 1930s under the Nazis. It was the headquarters for Germany's Air Force. There are posters in the cavernous lobby explaining the building's history. It is important for people here to remember Germany reinvented itself after World War II. It did so again after reunification. And as its population changes today, the country is reinventing itself once again.

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