After racist rally and arson, German town accepts first refugees
A small German town that became a byword for xenophobia when neo-Nazis rallied against a planned asylum centre and the building was torched two months ago accepted its first refugees this week.
With shy smiles, two families from Afghanistan and one from India attended a media conference Thursday in the nearby town of Naumburg in the former communist East, where local officials sought to stress that the region welcomes foreigners, despite the bad press.
Two days earlier the three young families had moved into apartments in the town of Troeglitz in Saxony-Anhalt state where unknown perpetrators set fire to the planned refugee centre over the Easter weekend.
The families, who have requested political asylum, are part of a large influx of people fleeing war and poverty for Europe, particularly its largest economy Germany, which took in 200,000 asylum seekers last year and expects as many as 450,000 this year.
The sharpest rise since the 1990s wars in the Balkans has been met with racist sentiment in parts of Germany, manifesting in the rise of the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement in the eastern city of Dresden which peaked at 25,000 protesters early this year.
In the town of Troeglitz, home to 2,700 people, anti-foreigner sentiment had being flaring for weeks before the fire.
Former mayor Markus Nierth resigned in early March, claiming he had received no support from local authorities when racist thugs protested outside his family home against the opening of the asylum centre.
Addressing reporters Thursday, district councillor Goetz Ulrich stressed that he had taken the unusual step of turning the first refugee group's arrival into a media event in order to send "a clear political signal".
The town would house a total of 40 refugees -- including the initial six adults and three children from Afghanistan and India -- he said, "even if some people see things differently".
"I am very glad that, after these difficult weeks and months, we have come this far," he said.
'They deserve a chance'
Ulrich, of Germany's ruling centre-right Christian Democrats, called on the people of Troeglitz to approach the families fleeing conflict rather than "remain trapped by their anxiety".
The former mayor, Nierth, meanwhile said he and his family were among the first to volunteer help the two Afghan families integrate and manage the challenges of day-to-day life in a new country.
Visibly elated, he said his daughter had helped them do the grocery shopping, his son had played with one of their children, an 11-year-old boy, "and this afternoon we will learn mathematics".
All the refugees want to start learning German and send their children to school, he said.
Nierth had harsh words for the "self-proclaimed patriots" of PEGIDA -- short for "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident" -- and said that refugees come bearing the gifts of "friendliness and warmth" because they want to achieve something.
"They deserve a chance," he told the press conference.
Another local citizen, Joachim Laake, said he had spent some time with the Indian family, who had received a broadly "sympathetic" response in town.
"We don't need far-right demonstrations, we need humanity and tolerance," Laake said.
Members of the Afghan families, who said they had been on the move over land and sea for months, expressed high hopes for the future.
One of them -- a 19-year-old mother, with her young daughter on her lap -- said she wanted to graduate from high school.
There were fears not everyone would be so welcoming. Ulrich said that although he did not expect new protests, he couldn't rule them out either.
"The main thing the refugees need right now, so that they can get on with life here, is calm," he said.
Ulrich said the families had heard about the ugly incidents in Troeglitz but had reacted in a "very composed" manner.
"These people have placed their trust in our society," he said, "and in the fact that human rights are respected here".
AFP / Expatica