Make yourself at home
The German city of Görlitz on the border with Poland is learning the challenges of integrating migrant communities. Thanks to the help of local activists, a lot of progress has been achieved in the last several years. Yet, the effects of the pandemic and rising social tensions has threatened to undo some of the important achievements.
Görlitz is a small city in Sachsen, East Germany joined with the Polish city of Zgorzelec by two bridges and a shared past. It is known for its renovated old town and rows of tenement houses with colourful facades that stare at those walking down the street. As I wander around the city, its silence and prettiness make the atmosphere somewhat odd, even spooky, as if something were hanging in the air.
“It’s a small city,” says Raffael, a local activist whom I meet in a park by the Neisse River. “You have probably noticed that everyone knows everyone here.” Indeed, I have. On the one hand, it makes living here easier, because you do not have to make a lot of friends to feel welcome. On the other hand, some newcomers still have it worse than others. “People in this city are not used to foreigners much,” Raffael continues. “Well, maybe except the Poles. But in general, they are quite conservative and often unwelcoming. So when more and more migrants started arriving into the city, sometime in 2015, there was no warm welcome here.”
There are various reasons behind people’s negative attitudes. The shadow of unreconciled past events, a sense of inferiority when compared to the West and the influence of AfD (Alternative for Germany) – a far-right, nationalist party which opposes the EU and immigration. Such conditions create a lot of tension in society and do not encourage dialogue.
As Julia, an activist living in Görlitz for the last 16 years, recalls, “Many migrants who came to the city used to hang out at Marienplatz, which is quite a central spot, because they wanted to use free internet available there for 30 minutes a day. Unfortunately, there were many problems, sometimes people acting hostile towards them.”
In 2016 some members of the local community made an attempt to create a safe space which would invite people to get to know each other and give a welcome to the incoming migrants. What initially was a four-week project turned out to be a long-term commitment for the activists. They rented out a property located close to Marienplatz and created “Café Hotspot” – a place which provided its guests not only with internet, but also complimentary tea, intercultural events, advice on life in Germany and, most importantly, a space for casual interaction and dialogue.
“The most important aspect of Café Hotspot was that there was no obligation, no responsibility to come. Everyone could enjoy it,” says Julia. The easy-going atmosphere of the place drew in many of those formerly sitting at Marienplatz, but also other local residents who came, led by curiosity or simply stumbling upon the place while walking through the old town.
“Café Hotspot was probably the most important place for intercultural dialogue in the city,” Raffael recalls. “But we have also organised other events, engaging more with the city space, such as celebrating the end of Ramadan.” It is a very important event in the Muslim world, as people come together to end a month of fasting. There is food, music and often dancing. The first public celebration in Görlitz was organised in a park behind the municipal theatre, and it turned out to be a success. Many people came, including those who did not understand the occasion but wanted to learn about it. But of course, there were also those who complained.
“The following year we decided to move the celebration to a different place, so that people would not complain about the noise and so that they would not try to stop it from happening. The event was then organised at Wilhelmsplatz, and it was quite big as well. Unfortunately, the fact that something disturbs the peace can be a powerful argument here,” adds Raffael, with a bit of disappointment in his voice. “There is much prejudice that is never directly admitted. People living near Wilhelmsplatz started complaining not only about the noise, but also about migrant kids destroying the grass with their bikes and footballs. Of course, all local kids were playing there, but only the foreign ones were blamed,” he adds.
This is the reason why Café Hotspot was such an important place, as everyone could feel at home there, Julia emphasises. “No one had to be scared they would be called a thief just because of their skin colour.”
In this sense the café not only created a prejudice-free space, but also channelled some of the hate and violence that used to be concentrated on migrants and refugees. As a place where they were known to hang out, Café Hotspot became a subject of some attacks as well, but broken windows do not hurt as much as broken bones. Unfortunately, personal attacks still occurred, and the activists involved in running the place received some nasty, threatening messages.
In 2019 Café Hotspot needed to change its location, as the building in which it was operating was supposed to undergo renovations. The name was left unchanged, but the new place is a lot smaller and the initiatives created to support refugees moved to another location. “Now the casual aspect is missing. There are no more spontaneous meetings and people are even starting to forget the language because they have nowhere to practice it,” says Julia while commenting on the present situation.
Raffael, who is engaged in advisory and legal help for refugees, has similar thoughts. “Of course, we continue our work, and people still come when they need help, but now the meetings are much more focused on problem solving. There’s no fun, there’s no mixing.” He recalls the events initiated and organised by the migrants themselves, such as regular falafel-eating meetings, which do not happen anymore. “It’s hard, even impossible, to organise something during the pandemic. Even before, we had reached mostly men, as in more traditional settings it is they who represent the family in the public sphere,” he says. Following this observation, there were also initiatives directed towards migrant women, which were quite well received. During regular meetings and casual talks, the women could present ideas for events and discuss their needs. “One of the most exciting things they organised were women’s dance parties, usually in the afternoons. They could unwind, take the headscarves off and have fun,” says Raffael.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has brought most of such activities to a halt. There are still some welcome meetings organised for newcomers by the municipality, but Raffael concludes that “the problem with formal meetings is that it is more difficult to address individual cases, and so they end up being quite general”. That being said, the city has still not developed a successful programme of institutional help for refugees and migrants coming to Görlitz.
“There is some institutional help, but the general viewpoint is that the refugees should already be assimilated. But such narration completely forgets about long-term problems, traumas, memories of violence and the new problems coming: kids getting into schools, etc.” Julia adds when asked who would have done the work if it was not for a group of volunteer activists.
Raffael believes that “the lack of development of institutional help is the city’s strategy to make the people feel unwelcome. Just last week I was working on a case where a family was denied an allotment garden on the grounds that they were foreign. It is something I really can’t understand.”
Need for more dialogue
It seems that in addition to the internal struggles that the migrants and refugees need to cope with, there is a pile of institutional and everyday obstacles which make living in Görlitz even more challenging. According to Raffael, finding a job here can be a real problem: “It’s difficult for those who are educated and ambitious, and if they do get a job, it’s usually somewhere else, so they can leave the city. But it’s harder for those who did not have a chance to get educated in their home country. Imagine learning a foreign language and looking for a job when you can’t read or write!”
Both Julia and Raffael are not extremely optimistic about the future of initiatives that promote dialogue, openness and understanding between the people in Görlitz. Although there are already plans to move many of the aforementioned activities into a local cultural centre – Rabryka. But it might be harder to get the people involved. “There is a lot of tension in society now,” Raffael says, “and because of the pandemic many people are living in their own social media boxes, surrounded by their own social bubbles. This doesn’t encourage discussion.”
And even though there might not be enough discussion, there is definitely action. I have learned that the complaints about noise created by migrants playing football at Wilhelmsplatz have been heard by the municipality, and the space was filled with white, metal deckchairs in order to encourage more sedentary leisurely activities. But as I reach the place on a sunny April afternoon, I see the deckchairs on both sides of the square being used as goalposts by a group of youngsters. It seems that, after all, obstacles do not have to stop people from enjoying their lives. Sometimes it’s just a matter of taking action.
Joanna Urbańska is a graduate of cultural anthropology and Hebrew philology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. She is a keen language learner, nature enthusiast, amateur musician and an aspiring storyteller; currently living in Germany, but left her heart in the Balkans.