Tim Stafford

Cities of Refuge

The migrant crisis.

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In Hamburg, a short train ride from Berlin, I meet Glen Ganz, a German who grew up in Latin America and now works with refugees on behalf of the German Evangelical Free Church. Ganz presides over the Why Not? Café, a gathering place where refugees come for German classes and a wide variety of other volunteer-led events. Here they meet German society; here they can learn about Jesus. Ganz hopes to start 100 Why Not? Cafes in churches throughout Germany.

For Ganz, it's the opportunity of a lifetime. "This is the biggest migration in human history," he tells me. "If you believe that God made the world, and rules the world, you have to pay attention to what goes on. This is a sign of the time."

Ganz is often frustrated by unimaginative church leadership, and believes that immigration is God's response. "It's not a gift, it's a challenge. We decide if it is a gift. We need to open ourselves to other people. Society in Germany needs to learn to believe again."

I encounter a similar entrepreneurial spirit in Jochen Weise, who is working on a project to take over an abandoned Lutheran church and convert it into a multi-functional community center, complete with start-up companies offering job training, a museum of religious freedom, stores, a fitness center, a church and a school. Weise believes that Germany has entered a third phase of reaction—beyond astonishment and then welcome—in which people are asking how they can integrate refugees into German society. "This is where the church starts," he says.

That sentiment is echoed by pastor Uwe Kloter, whose small Hamburg church has launched a weekly coffee hour welcoming refugees from nearby camps. "I've learned a lot about my church," he says. "I see a lot of fear." But in the house of God, where God reigns, there should be no fear: "The challenge of the refugees is to help us to come back to the love of Christ again." Kloter notes that Chancellor Angela Merkel "is not very popular with the slogan, 'Yes, we can.'" (Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, chose to embrace the flood of refugees.) "But I think we can."

Others are less confident. I visit Steffan Schumann, whose third child Noah was born with severe handicaps ten years ago. Schumann quit his job as an economist and launched a remarkable facility, Kupferhof, offering respite to the parents of disabled children. In other words, he is a man with a deep commitment to caring for the weak, and a willingness to take risks to do so. Yet he is offended by the black-and-white presentation of the immigration issue: "Either you welcome them, or you're a Nazi." He thinks a quiet resentment is building that will show itself in the next elections. "Merkel is finished," he predicts.

Berlin: Tarek is from Aleppo, Syria. He’s writing a play to be preformed by refugees.
Image: Gary Gnidovic

Berlin: Tarek is from Aleppo, Syria. He’s writing a play to be preformed by refugees.

I expected to find a widespread immigration backlash after the New Year's Eve assaults in Cologne. What I find instead are people like Schumann who worry that Germany has taken on more than it can handle. "It's a world problem," he says. "Why is it just us Germans?"

Schumann takes me to see a camp in his neighborhood, an affluent suburb with horse stables and beautiful older homes. Army tents encircled with wire fencing were plunked down on a playing field in August. "People say they went on holiday and when they came back it was there." There was no notice or consultation. Germans seem to trust their government to an extent unimaginable in America, but the widespread intrusion of refugee camps does raise an alarm.

It seems to me that the tight security around refugee camps works against the larger goal of integrating refugees into German society. This is reinforced when we visit a camp near Klotter's church where security is inexplicably lax. As we stroll through rows of metal containers repurposed for housing, we strike up conversations with friendly Syrians living there. Mohammed immediately invites me into his 20'x8' container for a cup of coffee. While his wife struggles to heat water and his two children stare, Mohammed talks about his decision to leave Damascus. He and his wife were both school teachers until war drove them to Turkey, then on to Greece and finally to Germany.

Their living quarters contain two single beds and a dorm-size refrigerator. Yet it is obvious that, having nothing, they are proud to welcome me into their home. I saw much the same with Hassan Goraya, who brought out nuts and dried fruits to share with his visitors as we sat in the dingy lobby of his camp. To share hospitality, not just to receive it, is part of integration into society.

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