Elena Klett teaches German to refugees who have fled to her homeland from Syria, Pakistan, Nigeria, Eritrea, Gambia and other war-racked nations. She has also served with the German Catholic Worker “Brot und Rosen” (“Bread and Roses”) in the northern city of Hamburg. Members have been offering hospitality to and living with refugees for 19 years.
“The people I teach are all men, from the age of 19 until 35,” Klett recently told The Tidings by email. “We have different skin colors, different religions and we have the best time together learning German, laughing with each other and especially learning from each other. I’m thankful for every single one of them for they have enriched my life in so many ways.”
Last year when Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed refugees fleeing civil wars and other violent oppressions, most of Klett’s fellow Germans applauded her “we can do it” mantra. But with nearly 1 million men, women and children asylum seekers now straining national and local resources, the cheering has mostly stopped, The Los Angeles Times and other news outlets have reported.
Before Christmas, we asked Klett, who lives in Baden-Wurttemberg in South Germany, how the prodigious resettlement is going and how Germans are responding to the largest refugee crisis facing Europe since World War II.
So how are the refugees faring right now?
They are often in former military buildings that haven’t been used any more or other buildings that have been empty. Now that so many refugees came, they started to also have people in gymnasiums, halls, any place you can think of that allows to have a good number of people sleep there. I’m not close to one of the bigger refugee camps, but there are refugees in most of the cities, even the smaller towns. They have little apartments that they share with each other.
Are media reports correct about many Germans taking a not-so-friendly attitude towards the fleeing refugees? Is there really out-and-out hostility against them for overburdening your country that’s been reported lately?
It’s more like people who have a not-so-friendly attitude towards the fleeing refugees were the ones who weren’t welcoming in the first place. So it’s not like they changed from one extreme to another.
But the people who were torn in between have now more questions about how the situation will further unfold and how we will deal with this situation in the future as more people will be coming to seek … asylum and it’s important to also integrate them.
The ones who were always against taking refugees in have become more radical, and the sad truth is that the number of assaults against refugee houses has drastically increased this year compared to last year. This is only a minority of people who are so hostile but it is an issue that has to be taken seriously.
So, in short, one could say that the people who were welcoming are still welcoming, maybe a little weaker and more exhausted because they wish for more support and resources from the government. But they’re still welcoming.
The people who were struggling between having sympathy for the refugees and the disruption in Germany are asking for a more precise plan on how things will be handled in the future and what the next steps looks like. And the ones who never liked them being here, do still think that way or think even more that way as more refugees have come to Germany.
Sounds like Germans are struggling between having sympathy for the men, women and children fleeing for their lives, and the disruption they’re causing Germans?
I think the majority of people agree that we have to help the people who are fleeing for their lives, period. The question is how will we further handle this situation and that’s where people are not all on the same page.
Not in Germany and not within Europe. There’s an unjust distribution of refugees within Europe.
Most refugees want to go to either Germany or Sweden to seek asylum so there are some countries that say “that’s not our problem then.” This is an issue.
And the other issue is that there is no official number, a limit on when Germany will turn away refugees. So whenever you read or think “the Germans are complaining about the refugee crisis,” keep in mind that there’s no definite number of how many refugees can come in the future. So there is no end in sight — and this causes an uncertainty that makes some people afraid.
Imagine this in America, no limitations on immigration.
Now this is the tricky part — on the one hand some people ask for a definite number, a limit when Germany will say “no.” But how do you implement these rules practically? Do you say 100,000 people can come? And to the one who is number 100,001 you say, “We’re really sorry, you have to turn around and go back to your country where there is war. Sorry about that!”
Would walls and fences stop them from coming? And is that even something we would consider? You see the crux? This is what the discussions are mostly about here in Germany.
How much interaction is there between foreign refugees and locals?
There could be more interaction between refugees and locals. That’s true. Refugees have little interaction with Germans — that goes both ways. The language plays a major role. Language is essential for the communication. Many refugees don’t speak the language yet and not all Germans speak English (and not all refugees speak English, either). This is a rather new situation for both parts.
Germans are not necessarily the people who stop by at the refugee’s next door to ask them where they’re from and how they’re doing — as it is not so much their mentality in general. And the refugees were fleeing for their lives and find themselves in a country where so many things are new to them, the surroundings, the people, the language, the culture, etc.
Speaking with the refugees, all of them had a wish to get to know the locals and to interact more with the Germans. That way it is also easier to learn the language for them.
Because if they’re always surrounded with people who don’t speak German, they have no practice and can’t pick up words like they can when talking with Germans.
As a German, I can say that I think it’s very important and rewarding to seek contact. It might take a little courage for some people in the beginning to leave their comfort zone and talk with people you’ve never talked to in your life before.
But I speak from experience when I say it is very enriching. Talking and getting to know each other takes away fear and prejudices, and it is a huge chance to grow and broaden your horizon. We can all play our little part here.
Are most of the refugees still living in refugee camps in Germany? What have you heard about conditions in these camps?
For the first weeks or months (it depends), refugees live in a camp with many people. People from different nationalities being together in a rather limited space all the time can cause tensions. But according to the refugees I talked with, people mostly live in peace together.
From there they move into apartments that they share with other refugees until they get their permission to stay in Germany or they get denied and have to leave the country. If people have permission to stay for three years, they can look for their own apartment.
According to the refugees I talked to, the conditions in the refugee camps have been good. They got taken care of and people were nice to them. With the increasing numbers of refugees by this year, some of the camps however are overcrowded now as space becomes more and more of an issue.
How do you, Elena, feel about the refugees?
I can say that the refugees that I met have all been an enrichment to my life. I love people from other countries and different cultures because being with them broadens your horizon. We get to learn from each other and share stories.
Many of my friends who came to seek for asylum have incredible sad stories. I think it’s important to remind oneself why they are coming to us. One time I asked one of my friends, “Weren’t you afraid that something might happen to you when you went on that boat to come to Europe?” And he told me, “If I would have stayed in my country, I would have died anyways. So there was a chance that I could survive when I stepped on that boat.” …
I know what it is like to be in a foreign country where everything is new to you at first. Where you don’t know anybody. People in L.A. have been so welcoming when I first came. [Klett has been coming to Los Angeles for four years to live and work with the Los Angeles Catholic Worker on Skid Row.]
I know what it feels like to have someone who shows you places or who’ll say, “Let me help you with that.” This is one of the reasons why I want to give back.
I’ve once been the recipient of such a warm welcome and now it’s on me to give the people a warm welcome who are new in my country, make them feel welcome and let them know there is someone who cares. And I love to do that.