By James Angelos
The Mzayek family outside a shelter in Eisenärzt. Credit Hellen van Meene for The New York Times
It was on a Friday in September 2014 that Thomas Kamm, the mayor of Siegsdorf Municipality, an affluent cluster of villages in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, learned that the world refugee crisis would be coming to his town. He was barbecuing for his wife’s birthday when he received a call from the German Interior Ministry. Four hundred asylum seekers, who recently arrived in the European Union on the Italian island Lampedusa, were being transported to Germany, the ministry official informed him. A vacant bungalow resort located in one of the villages under the mayor’s jurisdiction — Eisenärzt, population, 1,300 — had been determined a suitable place to house them temporarily. Kamm, a thin, middle-aged former mechanical engineer and a singer in a local a cappella group, managed to negotiate down the number of asylum seekers his town would host, to 200 from 400. The villagers, he told me, were wary of hosting a large number of foreigners from places like Syria and Afghanistan; 400 of them would be “absolutely a no go.” The first migrants arrived on buses two days later. Kamm said he would never forget the looks on their faces. “Pure exhaustion, pure fear,” he said, exhaling so deeply that his lips flapped together. Each of his parents lived through World War II, he told me, but they never said much about their experiences. “I can understand why after seeing those refugees.” That Sunday, Kamm went to local churches to inform the citizenry. “No one was happy,” he said. Still, most people recognized the need to help: “Humanity stood in the foreground.”
This amalgam of alarm and empathy was once again evident last June, when Kamm returned to church to inform the villagers of Eisenärzt that more asylum seekers were on the way. By then, the original 200 migrants had been resettled elsewhere, but many more asylum seekers from places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan were arriving on Greece’s Aegean Islands in perilously overcrowded boats, then forging a gruelling path through the Balkans toward the security and prosperity of Northern Europe and, most often, Germany. Bavaria was the first German state they encountered along the way. Migrants were showing up in train stations or emerging from the backs of smugglers’ trucks, and it often fell to local officials, people like Kamm, to find somewhere to house them. Asylum seekers ended up in school gymnasiums, shuttered big-box stores and crowded tent encampments.
Kamm told the people of Eisenärzt that an order of Franciscan nuns living in the village would be leaving town. In their place, 100 Syrians would be moving in. The Mallersdorfer Sisters, based in a convent in northern Bavaria, had maintained a presence in Eisenärzt for 85 years. The village, with its forested hills and alpine air, served as the sisters’ vacation spot and retirement home. On Monday evenings in May — when area Catholics in this heavily Roman Catholic part of the country observe Maiandacht, a time of devotion to Mary — the sisters would gather outside the newly built chapel on a grassy hill by the train station, not far from the crystalline flow of the White Traun River, and sing lilting Bavarian hymns. By 2015, though, Germany’s declining birth-rate and declining religiosity had taken its toll on the sisterhood. The once-crowded residence, constructed in the late 1960s, was mostly empty, and the two dozen sisters who remained, many of them in their 80s, had agreed to sell their residence to the municipality for the purpose of housing asylum seekers.
Many of the villagers were not pleased with this development. Some expressed concerns about the safety of local women and children, and others later grumbled about the cost to taxpayers. The mayor argued that the move prevented a more unpalatable outcome. It was clear that the Mallersdorfer Sisters’ mostly vacant residence was an ideal shelter; technically, it was big enough to fit 350 asylum seekers. If the municipality did not buy the building, the district government or a private investor seeking to rent it to the government would, and those outside buyers would likely fill it to capacity. Ownership would provide the town with some ability to control its fate.
The mayor’s argument was widely accepted around town, but this did not seem to comfort him. In his office last fall, Kamm suggested that he had barely prevented a citizen uprising. Had 350 asylum seekers come to Eisenärzt, the reaction would have been “riots,” he told me. The situation, he believed, still remained volatile. I found it hard to imagine rioting in a bucolic Bavarian village and asked the mayor if he was being a bit dramatic. He said that he meant something like the anti-immigrant protests that were occurring weekly in Dresden and had spread to other parts of Germany, sometimes attracting tens of thousands. These were not just peaceful demonstrations, Kamm said; there was something menacing about them. Should the situation in his town “escalate,” he expected similar protests. He said that the majority of asylum seekers were men from Syria, many of whom would try to bring their families — “their three kids and their two wives,” as he put it. “The number of Syrian people will explode here.”
The mayor told me that he had received anonymous letters that were “clearly xenophobic.” They did not represent the views of the vast majority of his constituents, he said, many of whom exhibited commendable charity. But the mass of people entering the country was so uncontrolled, he said, that even people with good intentions were upset.
Kamm had a few policeman friends who had worked on the border; his doctor, too, had volunteered there. They shared with him disconcerting stories about the chaotic registration of migrants, many of whom arrived without documentation. One arriving migrant, he heard, needed a new kidney; others had ailments requiring expensive medicines. The German taxpayer was on the hook for their care.
“They are not voters for far-right parties,” he said of the people who told him these stories. “They are fulfilling their duties to humanity. But when they see what the reality looks like, they have doubts.” Should the government not act to reduce the migrant influx, he feared an unseemly political backlash. He referred to a German expression to make his point: One should not paint the devil on the wall.
By the end of August, the Mallersdorfer Sisters had departed. In September, the first of the Syrians arrived.
In the past five years, as the number of people displaced worldwide by conflict and persecution has reached a level not seen since the end of World War II, many Germans have expressed pride that their nation — which unleashed the violence that prompted the earlier mass flight — has now become a beacon of safety and opportunity for imperilled and dispossessed people around the world. The degree to which many Germans embraced this new identity became exceedingly clear last summer, when Hungary tried to stop the mass of Germany-bound migrants travelling through the country by cutting off their access to trains.
Migrants stranded outside Budapest’s Keleti train station chanted: “Germany! Germany!” And within days, roughly a thousand of them had set out on foot from Hungary and across Austria to Germany, some of them holding posters of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Merkel, fearing chaos should she turn the migrants away, instead sent German trains to pick them up, a decision she later called a “humanitarian imperative.” As migrants arrived at Munich’s central station, local residents greeted them with cheers and applause. Some handed out chocolate and balloons. Germans spoke of their strong Willkommenskultur, or “Welcome Culture,” and German politicians portrayed the warm reception as a moral achievement, a further step toward redefining modern Germany as a benevolent nation that has moved beyond the ignominy of its ultranationalist past.
The rise of Willkommenskultur was especially striking because Germany, like other European countries, has not traditionally viewed itself as a destination for migrants. Until the turn of the millennium, national policies on immigration could be summed up by a mantra often repeated by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Merkel’s predecessor and mentor, that Germany is “not an immigration country.” This was despite the earlier arrival of hundreds of thousands of “guest workers,” labourers from Southern Europe and Turkey, who came to work in West German factories during the postwar economic boom. The change in attitude has been rapid; in 2012, Germany, with its strong economy, became the second-largest immigration country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, after the United States. The scale of the influx last year — roughly one million asylum seekers in all, nearly half of whom made formal applications — was exceeded in German history only by the influx of “ethnic Germans” who were expelled from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union after World War II. The country now faces the greatest test yet of its willingness to transform itself into a multiethnic nation.
The migrant influx has also put widely held convictions about European values to the test. Some countries have instituted border controls to manage or repel the movement of migrants, undermining one of the European Union’s fundamental pillars: free travel across open internal borders. The influx has also increased the popularity of far-right, anti-immigration parties, and even centrist politicians now often see an anti-immigration stance as a necessary act of political survival. In January, Denmark, whose minority government is dependent on cooperation with the far-right Danish People’s Party, passed a law enabling authorities to seize jewellery and cash from asylum seekers in order to offset the costs of their stay. In Austria, an initial welcome of asylum seekers dissipated after far-right parties made decisive gains in regional elections last fall. In February, Austria led a coordinated effort with countries to its south to shut down the migration route through the Balkans. The move trapped tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Greece, a nation with a woeful incapacity to care for them. Many have been stranded in squalid, makeshift camps.
Merkel, concluding that the only way to hold the European Union together was to curb migration closer to the source, pushed for a deal with Turkey. Turkey — in exchange for, among other incentives, the revival of stalled talks on its bid to join the European Union — agreed in March to take back Syrians and other migrants who used the country as a steppingstone to Europe. The deal, questionable in legal and ethical terms, did little to quell the concerns of many Germans about the migrants already among them. Terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels have inflamed fears that ISIS is exploiting the refugee crisis to infiltrate Europe undetected; they have also heightened longstanding concerns about Islamist radicalization in disaffected migrant communities. In February, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service assessed the risk of a terrorist attack in Germany as “high.” And the wave of sexual assaults and robberies attributed to a multitude of young North African and Middle Eastern men, among them asylum seekers, on New Year’s Eve in Cologne drew comparisons to the mass sexual assaults on women in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution, sparking a debate about a clash with “Muslim culture,” as one conservative parliamentarian put it.
Through it all, Germany continues to struggle with the challenge of transforming itself into a republic of shared ideals rather than shared blood. Across the mainstream political spectrum, there is a growing sense that German values must, in the face of rapid social change, be quantified and propagated. What exactly those values are, however, is far from settled. German political discussion on the matter often revolves around the concept of leitkultur — or “leading culture” — common values that extend beyond mere adherence to the law. Conservative leaders often describe those values as Judeo-Christian and suggest that those from other “cultural circles” stay out or adapt. Some German leftists counter that a formerly Nazi country should not compel anyone to abide by a perceived set of common values. Amid the debate, efforts to relay German cultural values to newcomers can become muddled. A guide to “Germany and its people” published by the Bavarian public broadcaster tells migrants to “always look the person you’re talking to in the eyes.”
As Germany struggles with these questions of identity, fear is fueling the kind of far-right, populist backlash that, until recently, was contained by a mindfulness of the Nazi past. The migrant influx has been accompanied by a sharp rise in extremist demonstrations and violence directed at foreigners. It has also provided a boon to Alternative for Germany, a far-right party that formed in 2013 in opposition to the euro and that has now galvanized support by vowing to keep migrants out. Supporters at party rallies often chant: “Wir sind das Volk,” or “We are the people,” a refrain previously employed by pro-democracy demonstrators in communist East Germany, when the phrase evoked a yearning for democratic rights. Now it has been co-opted by far-right groups who perceive the “we” as having a tribal or ethnic meaning. In January, Alternative for Germany’s leader, Frauke Petry, suggested that the German police “make use of firearms” if necessary to keep migrants from crossing the border. After the attack in Brussels, she declared: “The dream of a colorful Europe is broken, bombed away yet again. Accept it at last.”
Merkel continues to present an optimistic face — “We can handle this,” has been her rallying cry — but domestic critics accuse her of having failed to grasp the severity of the public’s worry. Much of that criticism has come from an ostensible ally, Horst Seehofer, the head of Bavaria’s state government. Seehofer leads the Christian Social Union, a more conservative sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, that has ruled Bavaria almost without interruption since the end of World War II. He has threatened to sue the federal government for failing to secure the national border and calls for a strict limit on the number of asylum seekers allowed to cross it. It is no surprise that such opposition should come from Bavaria, a border state with an independent streak dating to its incorporation into the German empire in 1871. Bavarians still sometimes refer to the Germans to the north, derisively, as Prussians. They are proud of their relative economic affluence (unemployment in the state, at around 3.9 percent, is among the lowest in Germany); devoted to their cultural heritage (it is the land of Oktoberfest and a centuries-old beer-purity law); and speak a dialect that, unless diluted, can be virtually incomprehensible to other Germans.
In that sense, Bavarian towns like Siegsdorf Municipality sit at both the symbolic and the practical heart of the conundrum facing Germany. Whether the nation deals successfully with the migration challenge or succumb to fear and nationalism will largely be determined by how communities like Siegsdorf — those directly charged with welcoming the migrants — confront the challenges ahead. Like much of Bavaria, the town clings steadfastly to a sense of tradition. The vital question the villagers and their asylum-seeking neighbours now face is whether together they will be able to define a new one.
Among the first Syrians to show up in Eisenärzt was Yasser, a stocky, 37-year-old seaman from the Syrian port city Latakia. When the bus dropped him off in front of his new home, Yasser told me, he had the sense that none of this strange new reality could be his. He said he had felt that way since a day last summer, when he was working on a ship bound for Tartus, Syria, and received word from a friend back home that uniformed men were looking for him. Until then, life in Latakia had still been manageable, despite the war. The city, a stronghold of Bashar al-Assad, had not seen the kind of fighting that has shattered other parts of the country. Yasser told me that he could still find work at sea to provide for himself and his wife, an architect in her mid 20s. They had lived a good life in Latakia; he had decorated their home with various souvenirs from his international travel — a sword from China, a tiger sculpture from Sierra Leone. In his free time, he rode his Suzuki motorcycle, and the roar of its 1,000-c.c. engine was a source of pleasure and pride. Yasser told me that he completed his mandatory military service years ago, but the men in uniform wanted to re-enlist him to fight for Assad. He could not fathom fighting for any side in the conflict. “I cannot hit a cat,” he told me. Rather than return to Syria, Yasser said he disembarked from his ship off Istanbul and joined the human tide making its way to the European Union. His wife remained in Latakia. (Yasser, like many other Syrians I met in Germany, asked that I withhold his last name to protect the safety of relatives back home.)
When Yasser arrived at the Mallersdorfer Sisters’ former residence in September, he was shown to his single room on an upper floor and greeted by the caretaker of the residence, Beni Beilhack, a multiple-pierced 36-year-old with thinning hair and a persistent smile. In the following days, Yasser, bored, began to follow Beilhack around, hoping to help with work around the residence. Eventually, Beilhack delegated some tasks to Yasser: repairing a broken doorknob, blowing leaves off the hiking trails near the residence. By October, Beilhack had outfitted Yasser with work clothes and made him his unofficial assistant.
The two communicated with a peculiar mix of English, German and Arabic. Under Yasser’s tutelage, Beilhack’s command of Arabic profanities expanded rapidly, and Beilhack dispensed this knowledge liberally throughout his workday, to the delight of many of the young Syrian men. Beilhack, who worked as a truck driver before the Syrians came to town, told me he did not miss his old job, and he seemed to relish his interaction with the Syrians. He started inviting Yasser to family dinners. After school, Beilhack’s son, Luca, then 12, often came by the residence. The Syrians were generally “warmer” than the local residents, Luca told me, adding, “I’d be happy if they lived here forever.”
Beilhack’s 64-year-old mother, Evelyn, also works as a caretaker at the residence, where she lives on the ground floor with her husband. Evelyn held the position previously, when the sisters lived there. When Evelyn learned the Syrians would be moving in, she rejoiced. The nuns nitpicked about the smallest details, she told me, creating an oppressive work environment. She grew up in what she called a “very international” town, a place called Geretsried, south of Munich, which was settled by Germans expelled from Eastern Europe after World War II. Later, Southern European guest workers arrived. Growing up there left her open to seeing what the asylum seekers would be like. “You hear from a lot of different places about what an abominable people they are — not Syrians, but altogether, this whole mass of asylum seekers that are streaming in here,” she told me. People called them “terrible and slobs and poorly raised and primitive.” She wanted to find out for herself, she said. “I thought: I’ll take this on. I want to see this. I want to know this.”
Her experience with the Syrians did not confirm the prejudices. “They are respectful; they’re nice,” she said. Like her son, she seemed to enjoy the Syrians’ company. One evening, a saxophonist from Damascus serenaded her in the former chapel, stripped of religious relics, where the Mallersdorfer Sisters used to worship. The saxophonist stood next to the recently installed foosball table and puffed out a version of Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” One of the young Syrian men sitting next to Evelyn feigned being her companion in a cafe. “Garcon! Two glasses of wine!”
Through his conversations with the Beilhacks, Yasser began to understand something of life in Germany. Evelyn told him how much money was deducted from people’s pay checks for taxes and health insurance, and the cost of living generally seemed far higher than in prewar Syria. Back at home, his wife did some work in a private office, but he would not allow her to work for a firm. Women in Syria were not supposed to hold down such jobs, he said. In Germany, however, he would have to reconsider. He and his wife probably wouldn’t be able to afford a house and a car if she didn’t work too. “Life here is hard,” he said. If the war in Syria ended, he told me, he would go back in a minute.
Despite his growing friendship with Beni Beilhack, Yasser spent a considerable amount of time cocooned in his room, his mood dark. Yasser had worked since his teenage years. Out at sea, he was a boatswain, supervising deck crews. In Germany, he was living in what was effectively an isolated dormitory with little to do but smoke and sip tea. During his journey from Turkey, another migrant told him that Germany would allow him to bring his wife after six months. Yasser, however, was realizing that it would take a lot longer, if he would be able to bring her at all. “I can’t live without my wife,” he told me. The process of “family reunification” — a legal method for recognized refugees to bring their families to join them — is often long. German politicians have meanwhile debated whether to seriously limit the practice. In November, the interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, announced that Syrians would, in the future, be granted a lesser form of protection instead of refugee status, and as a consequence, they would lose the right to bring their families. The announcement sparked uproar within the governing coalition, and the ministry backtracked.
One day in October, Yasser’s spirits sank still further. Across the street from the residence, next to the small Eisenärzt train station, some Syrians found leaflets bearing the message “No Asylum.” Yasser didn’t leave the residence for several days. “How would you feel if you found out some people don’t like you?” he told me. Beni Beilhack noticed that the S on the leaflets was written to resemble those used in the angular logo of the Nazi SS. (On another occasion, I found similar fliers at the train station; in addition to the menacing S, the L was shaped like a hangman’s gallows.)
Like Yasser, Beilhack took the message personally. “If some right-wing extremist comes here, I’ll be standing in front,” he said. Last year, Germany had more than a sixfold increase in the number of violent crimes directed at residences for asylum seekers and refugees: 177 offenses, including 94 cases of arson or attempted arson, according to a provisional tally by the Federal Criminal Police Office. The growing violence drove the German president, Joachim Gauck, to speak last August of two Germanys in conflict with each other: “Bright Germany” — the Germany of charity and compassion — against “Dark Germany” — the Germany of hate and xenophobia.
In Siegsdorf Municipality, it was not hard to find “bright Germany.” Shortly after the Syrians arrived, local volunteers organized German-language courses for them, and one morning, Anja Bech, a psychologist, stopped by to teach one class with her three small children. The children sat at a table playing with dolls and a teddy bear.
“Good morning,” Bech said to the all-male class in German. “These are my children.”
The Syrian men responded in unison, as instructed: “Those are your children.”
Bech seemed to take genuine delight in the Syrians’ progress. “You’re all very good!” Her children helped with the lesson, holding up colored pencils and announcing the hues. “This is orange,” said Elena, who was 7. “Orange,” the men repeated. “This is what a teddy bear looks like,” said Jakob, age 5.
Most people I met, however, did not seem embroiled in a cosmic battle between bright and dark sides, as Gauck had outlined it; instead, many occupied a kind of gray Germany, where ambivalence reigned. Even some of those who reached out in fellowship to the asylum seekers were not free of apprehension about their arrival. When I met a local Catholic priest, Thomas Graf von Rechberg, in his office in Siegsdorf, he told me that Pope Francis’ visit to Lampedusa in July 2013 — Francis’ first trip outside Rome as pope — had moved him to reach out to asylum seekers arriving in his area in order to calm rising tensions and to “defuse the social explosive agent.” When, the following year, 16 asylum seekers, many of them from Afghanistan, moved in to a guesthouse near a towering church where he preaches, Graf von Rechberg began making occasional visits. Last November, the day after the terrorist attacks in Paris, he planned to go again, but he was struck by what he described as a “strange feeling” that made him hesitate. He nevertheless decided to visit the home to hand out pictures of Mary and some sweets.
“It was for me, really, psychotherapy,” he told me. It didn’t matter that not everyone accepted the pictures of Mary. The experience healed him “from the mistrust that forms.”
Graf von Rechberg is an interesting man. He invited asylum seekers into his home for dinner, but he held an almost apocalyptic view of their presence in Germany. Many of them, he predicted, would come to live in Muslim-majority ghettos like those in Paris, “where they don’t do anything, don’t work and then watch some stupid Internet films, and then some will carry out terrorist attacks,” he said. “I can’t change that. I can only accept it, and that will be our future.”
I asked him if this vision wasn’t a bit fatalistic. He told me that he saw matters in a religious light. Germany’s Christians had grown too complacent and materialistic, and the challenges ahead — ISIS attacks included — would force them to remember their Christian values. “Cozy postwar Germany” was a thing of the past, he told me. And yet he saw this new unease as good for the soul. For him personally, the discomfort was a chance for self-improvement and an opportunity to double down on values of openness and benevolence in the face of anxiety. “Germany is very much bound in this international migration of peoples,” he said. “I must realize this chance, because if I don’t, then I’ll get bitter.”
One Saturday night in Eisenärzt, I crashed a party at the volunteer fire department. The social life in small Bavarian towns like Eisenärzt revolves around their vereine, or clubs, whether the ski club, the shooting club or the volunteer fire department. On the night of the party, the fire trucks had been backed out of the garage, and in their place, a buffet was set up. People dined on roast pork and bread dumplings, washing it down with bottles of lukewarm local beer. A D.J. played Bavarian folk.
I sat at a table across from Rainer Klapfenberger, a 62-year-old retiree who serves on the town council. Klapfenberger, a Social Democrat in a part of the country where there are not many Social Democrats, told me it was proper that asylum seekers and refugees in Germany benefit from its expansive social safety net. For Klapfenberger, however, the problem was that the same safety net had proved inadequate for many Germans. “How many people in Traunstein” — a small city nearby — “are picking through the garbage for bottles?” he said. “We’re giving preference to the refugees against our own poor people. Many people don’t understand that.” That sentiment is widespread: In February, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, called for an increase in public spending — “a new solidarity package for our own population” — in order to quell such discontent. Gabriel said he, too, often heard Germans say, “For them you do everything, for us you do nothing,” and this required remedy. (Merkel’s Christian Democrats rejected Gabriel’s idea.)
As the effect of the alcohol set in and the dance floor filled, I went to sit with Hans Scheck, a retired metalworker and the chairman of the Eisenärzt Trachtenverein, a club dedicated to preserving local sartorial and dance traditions. Members of the club dress in Tracht (wool jackets and lederhosen) and some perform Schuhplattler (a dance that involves a lot of slapping of the shoes, thighs and knees). Scheck’s son, Christian, joined us, half-jokingly offering to “translate” his father’s Bavarian dialect for me.
“People have justified worries about how things will turn out if other cultures take the upper hand,” the elder Scheck said in the small firehouse meeting room, where we had moved to escape the loud music. He’d seen one Syrian walking around town with a girl on his shoulders, presumably his daughter. “Where was the wife?” he wondered. Scheck presumed this was a sign of gender inequality. “With us, men and women are equal,” he said.
At this point, Christian, who worked for a medical-supply distributor, chimed in. The refugees, he believed, would have a hard time entering the work force. He praised Germany’s strong apprenticeship and vocational-training tradition, of which he had partaken, and was skeptical that asylum seekers’ qualifications could compare. In September, Germany’s labor minister, Andrea Nahles, warned that fewer than 10 percent of asylum seekers arrived with the qualifications needed to immediately begin a job or apprenticeship. Unemployment, she warned, would rise. Over the long run, many German economists said, the migration wave would benefit the economy, but everyone agrees that this will require significant upfront investment in education and job training.
Christian and his father didn’t think it would work out well. Many of the Syrians wouldn’t want to stay in a small village like Eisenärzt anyway, Christian said. They would want to go to Munich or Berlin. “That’s the one advantage that we have.” As an afterthought, he added that his son had enjoyed playing with some of refugee children who briefly stayed in town one year earlier. They met on a soccer field. “The children can get along with one another a lot more easily than the adults,” he said. “They’re free.”
On the November night that I first met Khalil Qraluq, an asylum seeker from Afghanistan in his early 20s, he was drinking with his Afghan housemates. Qraluq came to Germany two years earlier and was living at the guesthouse next to the church in Siegsdorf — the place Graf von Rechberg occasionally visited. It was a Sunday, and several Afghans were gathered in one bedroom. Afghan pop music pulsed from someone’s mobile phone. The windowsill was lined with plates of tepid, untouched kebabs, which the kitchen downstairs had prepared. Most of the Afghans were drinking beer, but Qraluq was having vodka as he smoked an uninterrupted series of hand-rolled cigarettes. He tended to puff the smoke out of his mouth and inhale it again through his nose, giving the impression that a roiling white cloud was suspended over his upper lip.
Qraluq was not in a good mood. Nobody in the room was. Whereas the Syrians up the road were virtually assured of receiving refugee status, Afghans, who last year were the second-largest group of migrants entering the country, won some form of protection less than half the time. And there were signs that Germany, which for years had considered it impossible to repatriate Afghans, might soon start sending some back. In October, de Maizière, the interior minister, declared it “unacceptable” that so many Afghans were coming, he said, as not all parts of Afghanistan were unsafe. A few months later, he visited Kabul and discouraged Afghans from trying to come to Germany, saying, “You will lose your money and gain no future.” Qraluq later noted with grim resignation that the day of de Maizière’s visit, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked a Kabul police complex, killing at least 20 people.
Many of the Afghans I met in Siegsdorf told me that the Taliban would immediately kill them if they returned. On the night I met him, Qraluq told me not to believe everything I was told. “Lots of people who come here are lying,” he said. Qraluq, however, said he had no reason to lie. He told me that he served as an interpreter for British and Danish troops operating in Helmand Province in 2011. The Taliban, he said, got word of his cooperation with foreign troops and threatened him and his family. When that happened, the family fled to Pakistan. From there, Qraluq continued on to Germany. If the German government tried to return him, he was certain he would be killed: “I’m on top of the list.”
Qraluq went back to his small room, which he shared with an Eritrean asylum seeker with whom he did not get along — “I’ve become allergic to the sound of the Eritrean language,” he said — and came back with some evidence of his interpreter service, like letters of appreciation from two Danish captains.
“Khalil is very pleasant and never complains,” read one of them. By his own account, though, Qraluq was no longer as pleasant as he once was. Two years of waiting on an asylum decision had left him embittered. He had trouble sleeping and felt constantly tense. He was tired of being an asylum seeker, he said, of getting dirty looks on the street. “When they look, they hate me.”
Qraluq’s unhappiness hadn’t made him idle. He attended vocational school and had learned to speak pretty good German. He also worked roughly 50 hours a month at a supermarket in Traunstein and was set to begin an apprenticeship there later in the year. The day after the drinking session, I met Qraluq at an auto-repair shop where he was interning as part of his vocational-school training. As he cleaned the grease off a hose with turpentine-soaked paper towels, he told me about the time in Helmand Province that he was sitting in a tank with Danish soldiers and a roadside bomb went off in front of them. “The gunner was bleeding from his eyes, nose and ears,” Qraluq said. A few days later, I accompanied him to his job at the supermarket. We arrived a bit early, and he lit a cigarette outside, in front of a large advertisement that said, “The Best of the Best.” Qraluq told me that he used to want to be a politician or a diplomat. Now he just wanted a simple life. If everything went according to plan, he would complete his supermarket apprenticeship in three years. A few moments later, the deputy store manager, Philipp Huber, 22, walked out and lit a cigarette. He praised Qraluq for being self-motivated. It wasn’t easy for the supermarket to find good workers like him, he said.
Qraluq started his shift in the drinks aisle, making sure the juice cartons were perfectly aligned. Later, he visited a break room and lit a cigarette. After a few drags, a voice echoed over the sound system. “Khalil to the vegetable department.” Qraluq quickly extinguished the cigarette and ran out to stock some persimmons.
In just five years, applications for European asylum doubled and then doubled again, to nearly 1.4 million in 2015 from 287,000 in 2010.
“How sweet!” said Sieglinde Seidl, a smiley woman who had just taken a seat in the break room. “Very nice guy.” Seidl was a butcher and had worked in the meats department for 26 years. “When I hear people complaining about refugees, I tell them, ‘You don’t know how good you have it,’?” she said. She then vaguely recalled having some colleagues long ago who were refugees — she couldn’t quite remember from where — but they had to leave the country. “Maybe they were from Bosnia?” I suggested. In the early-to-mid-1990s, during the Bosnian War, Germany gave temporary protection to 345,000 refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 1996, the German government started an effort to send them back. Seidl thought Bosnia sounded right. It was a real shame when those former co-workers had to leave, she said. “I hope these refugees get to stay.”
When I met Qraluq again in late winter, he was more anxious and had dropped out of vocational school because of absences. He was trying to get back into a better mood, he told me, but it was a struggle. He had seen Syrians receive refugee status even though they arrived in Germany long after him. He could not understand why the Europeans didn’t want Afghans. “What is the problem with us?” he said. “What did we do in Europe? No Afghans attacked Paris.”
In my visits to Eisenärzt throughout the fall and winter, I found plenty of resentment toward migrants. People who expressed these feelings frequently didn’t want their names mentioned. On a walk through town one day, I met a man who, as he was emptying paper into a recycling bin, vented about exploited German taxpayers paying for refugees and about Muslims demanding to build mosques. When I asked him his name, he shook his head. Anyone who says these things in public “is immediately labeled a Nazi,” he said. Often, my efforts to talk to local residents were met with reticence. Graf von Rechberg, the priest, told me Germany’s “brown history” — a reference to the Nazi era — made many people reluctant to voice their true feelings.
It was not entirely surprising, then, that one of the most openly angry people I met in Eisenärzt was an American woman from Ohio named Allison Kollmayer. I ran into Kollmayer at the village Christmas bazaar, a small sale to raise money for charity at the local church. The event mostly drew elderly residents, who dined on cake and coffee served to them by women in dirndls. When I arrived, I sat at a table and tried to make conversation about the 100 Syrians in the village. The guests reacted with remarkable silence. Then someone introduced me to Kollmayer, who was holding one of the items for sale — a pine cone topped with a miniature Santa hat. “We are against this huge onslaught!” said Kollmayer, who married a local man and has lived in Eisenärzt for three decades. “I’m really, really angry.”
After fuming for a while, she paused and laughed, as if amused by her own anger. She seemed a bit uninhibited for the gathering, and people in the room looked uncomfortable. “You should not discuss it,” a woman in a dirndl whispered to Kollmayer. “He’s writing it down.” Kollmayer was not dissuaded. She told me she “was not prejudiced against anyone” but was angry about the disorderly way the Syrians rode their bikes on the street (“I’ve almost been run over twice!”). She was angry about the amount of cash asylum seekers were getting from the government (“They should get a little bit, but not what they have”). She was angry that, according to her, the police were not allowed to talk about the crimes migrants committed (“My girlfriend’s daughter is a police officer, and they’re not allowed to report the truth”).
This last belief, that criminality among asylum seekers is being covered up, has become increasingly common. Social media and far-right websites abound with dubious claims about an epidemic of rapes and other crimes. The aim is to fuel fear. At an Alternative for Germany rally that I witnessed in Freilassing, a nearby border town that became a main migrant crossing point, one speaker referred to the “biological, totally natural sexual needs” of the men coming over the border. “I don’t want to know what will happen to our women and children when these men leave the camps.” Far-right groups reclaimed a Nazi-era slur — lügenpresse, or lying press — to argue that politicians and journalists were working in tandem to cover up the ugly truth. A growing distrust of state institutions and the media, caused by worry over the migrant influx and perceived sugar-coating in the reporting about it, made many people more receptive to misinformation.
In November, de Maizière tried to counter the rumour-mongering by announcing the initial results of a police study that found asylum seekers and refugees were, on the whole, not likelier to commit crimes than the general population. After the flurry of sexual assaults and robberies in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, however, far-right groups claimed vindication. An initial police report described the atmosphere on the night of the attacks as “relaxed.” By mid-March, 1,139 criminal complaints had been filed; 485 of them involved sexual offenses, ranging from sexual insults to groping and rape. The police response was widely viewed as a cover-up, and the outrage was widespread. Alice Schwarzer, a prominent feminist, warned that Germany was “naïvely importing male violence, sexism and anti-Semitism” and called the episode a consequence of “false tolerance” that endangers German democracy. Merkel, mindful of the public outrage, called for vigorous prosecutions of the offenders and pushed for legislation that would make it easier to expel foreign criminals. The episode, however, played into the hands of far-right groups seeking to both stoke and capitalize on Germans’ growing fear.
The day after I met Kollmayer, I heard more allegations about government cover-ups. It was a Saturday evening, and I went to a restaurant on Eisenärzt’s main street. I hoped to find a stammtisch, a regularly scheduled beer-drinking session that is often established among groups of friends in Germany. I had witnessed a few such gatherings in Freilassing. The stammtisch brings out Bavarian dialects, so I often had a hard time making out what people were saying, but I could pick out one incessantly uttered word: “refugees.” Generally speaking, the speakers didn’t seem pleased. In Germany, stammtisch talk is often considered beer-fueled blather not to be taken seriously. Horst Seehofer of Bavaria, with his blunt criticism of Merkel’s migration politics, often stood accused of trying to appeal to stammtisch opinion. This was meant as an insult, though I wondered why the stammtisch was so often dismissed. It seemed to me a place where people said what they really thought.
The restaurant in Eisenärzt was dimly lit, and only one of its tables was occupied. The two couples sitting at it, one of which ran the place, stared at me with somewhat puzzled expressions. With my dark beard, I often wondered if local residents took me for a Syrian. The looks I received weren’t always particularly warm. The scene seemed too sedate to qualify as a proper stammtisch, but it was too late to leave.
“Can I have a beer?” I said. A woman rose to serve me.
“Where are you from?” said one of the customers. He was tall, and his bald crown nearly reached the portraits of King Ludwig II of Bavaria on the wall above him. When I told him I was from the United States, he smiled as if this was O.K. The man, who later introduced himself as Michael Scholz, a produce-truck driver, told me there were too many migrants coming over the border. “This is why the Germans will get nasty again,” he said. He then put up his right arm in the manner of a Hitler salute so that there wasn’t any doubt about his meaning.
Eisenärzt, a village of 1,300 in Bavaria, became a reluctant host of asylum seekers. Credit Harf Zimmermann for The New York Times
Scholz went on to describe his grievances. One of his teeth had gone “kaputt,” and he needed a replacement. He had to pay 2,100 euros out of pocket, even though he’d been working and paying health-insurance premiums for decades. The Syrians living down the street, he said, would get the same care free, and as a result, his premium would rise. How was that fair? (Later, I learned that premiums for the publicly insured were set to rise in 2016, as they have in previous years, but the rise wasn’t because of asylum seekers, whose health care costs, while considerable, were covered by separate state financing.)
He also told me that asylum seekers had raped three women in Freilassing. (The mayor of that town told me there were no rapes.) Scholz’s companion, sitting next to him, said the police couldn’t speak about such matters because of a “pledge of secrecy.” She didn’t want to give me her name and nearly burst into tears when Scholz did, worried about the consequences. “You can’t say these things,” she said. “There’s no freedom of opinion.” Scholz told her that he didn’t care. He was fed up. Then he turned to me. The municipality had to put in new kitchens for the Syrians, he said. “Who pays for that? I do. And for that, I get massively nasty.” Another couple entered the restaurant and joined the table, ordering sausage and French fries. They nodded approvingly as Scholz went on. “Ninety percent of those who come aren’t refugees,” he said. “They come here because we have the cash.” They wore Adidas shoes and had iPhones, he said. “I can barely look at them because I get so angry.”
Scholz held up his beer glass. “Prost,” he said. “To Seehofer.” He looked at me. “Seehofer is good,” he said before drinking. That didn’t mean that Seehofer would get his vote, though. Scholz told me he had not been an active voter, but the next chance he got, he would vote for the Republicans, a marginal party founded in Bavaria in the 1980s, whose ideology he accurately described as “pretty brown.” Scholz told me he had no problem with foreigners. In fact, older generations of immigrants from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia helped build Germany with their labor. Unfortunately, the Syrians would now destroy it. I asked him if he thought his views were typical or if he considered himself an extremist. His companion said she worked in a paint store in Freilassing. A lot of customers shared these thoughts, she said. Scholz added, “When the stammtisch explodes, then you’ll see what happens.” He paused and said: “Wir sind das Volk.”
A few months later, in three state elections held in March, Alternative for Germany did very well. In the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, the party came in second, earning 24 percent of the vote. In Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, both in the west, it earned 15 and 13 percent. Fear of migrants had turned the far right into a viable political movement; the stammtisch had made itself heard.
One morning as spring approached, I met Mayor Kamm in his office in Town Hall. Several months had passed since we first met, and new asylum seekers were still arriving in town. Twenty Pakistanis, he told me, were in the process of moving into a guesthouse in one of the villages in the municipality. At the same time, many of the Syrians in Eisenärzt had begun to receive refugee status. This meant that it was time for them to move out: to find apartments, look for jobs and begin new lives in Germany. Many Syrians left town to join friends and relatives in bigger cities and were replaced by new Syrian arrivals.
Others wished to stay in Siegsdorf Municipality, the only German home they knew. This presented a set of entirely new challenges. The mayor was considering ways to provide low-income housing and how to ease access to the job market. At the same time, he still seemed worried about the local mood. He told me about one nearby municipality where residents got into an “open confrontation” with elected officials over opposition to a residence for asylum seekers. By contrast, things in his town were quiet, he told me, but this could change instantaneously if one of the migrants did “something bad.” I asked the mayor what he meant. “A rape,” he said in a matter-of-fact manner.
A few weeks later, after the attacks in Brussels, Graf von Rechberg noticed what he called “a greater wariness” among his congregants. On Holy Thursday, he gave a sermon on how Christians ought to confront the darkness and evil implicit in the Brussels attack. He advised congregants to pray for peace, to avoid the temptation to hide from outsiders, to accept refugees. During the service, Graf von Rechberg washed the feet of a Pakistani asylum seeker, as Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet before the crucifixion. When I spoke to him later, Graf von Rechberg still seemed resigned to a darker future for Germany. The social problems and fanaticism that led to the attacks in Brussels, he told me, were perhaps unsolvable. Still, it was everyone’s spiritual obligation to try. When I asked him if he visited asylum seekers to hand out gifts after the Brussels attack, as he did following the Paris attack. Graf von Rechberg suggested the violence had become grim routine. “I can’t go by after every attack,” he said.
At the Mallersdorfer Sisters’ former residence in Eisenärzt, Yasser continued to try to transition to a normal life in Germany. In December, Beni Beilhack accompanied Yasser to his asylum interview in Munich. The questioning lasted about an hour. Had Yasser witnessed an aerial bombardment? (No.) Had he ever fought for Bashar al-Assad? (No.) Had he fought for ISIS? (No.) A few weeks later, Yasser received notice: He had been granted refugee status. Yasser, who was still missing his wife and wondering how long it would take to bring her, was ambivalent about the news. Beilhack seemed to try his best to cheer him up. He helped Yasser file the application to bring her to Germany and found him a modest one-bedroom sublet in Eisenärzt.
The move took place on a sunny Saturday morning. Beilhack and Evelyn gathered the items they thought Yasser would need, down to small details. Evelyn packed cutting boards and an oven mitt taken from a storage room filled with goods donated by local residents. Beilhack procured plastic chairs and a table for the balcony. That morning, Yasser looked as if he hadn’t slept much. The day before, he asked me if it would be proper, according to German custom, to knock on the neighbours’ doors and introduce himself. I referred the question to Evelyn. “That’s a hard one,” she said. Some of the neighbours, she added, had complained about a Syrian moving in. Yasser decided he would forgo the introductions.
After he arrived in his new apartment, Yasser stood on his balcony and took in the view: the neighbouring houses and the pine-tree-covered hill beyond them. It was very quiet. Yasser joked with Beni about disrupting the serenity. He would raise chickens on the balcony and invite all the Syrians over for a party. Yasser grabbed Beni’s son, Luca, by the hand and mimicked a foot-stomping Syrian dance. “Allahu Akbar!” he whispered as if screaming. “Police coming in one minute,” he added wryly.
After Beni and Luca left, Yasser didn’t bother to unpack his bags. He sat down on the couch and gazed at the orange shag carpet. I asked him how he felt in his new home. This was not his home, he told me. Syria was his home. He believed Germany was far more hospitable than other European countries, but still, he would always be a foreigner. When people saw him, they thought: “Nicht aus Deutschland,” he told me. Not from Germany.
Yasser then stepped out onto the balcony for a cigarette and peered at the lawn below. One neighbour, an old man in his slippers, appeared on the path next to his house. Before turning the corner, the man glanced up at Yasser for a moment and then looked away, saying nothing.
James Angelos is a writer based in Berlin and the author of “The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins.”