The central rail station here these days is a maze of eager but confused young men with backpacks and plastic bags, and exhausted families with overstuffed luggage holding what’s left of their worldly possessions. They collapse against walls, squat on benches, or pace, trying to figure out how to navigate new lives in this medieval city.
Walking under banners proclaiming “Willkommen zum Oktoberfest” (Welcome to Octoberfest) and a McDonald’s ad that proclaims “Your hunger ends here,” they represent but a small piece of what has been called the European refugee crisis. But that is seen in Munich and much of Germany as a chance to reinvent a nation.
As many as 1 million refugees, primarily from Syria, are thought likely to settle in Germany this year. So far in September, this Bavarian city of 1.5 million has taken in an estimated 70,000 refugees.
And the city appears to have taken them in with little trouble. A hastily organized but large group of volunteers and federal workers has made sure that each arriving refugee has found a roof, a bed and, especially for the children, plush toys and cookies.
All we want is the chance to live a normal life.
Lubna, Syrian refugee
The group was put together so quickly that it’s yet to get an official name, says its spokesman, Colin Turner. The vests that the volunteers now wear are labeled simply “refugee aid Munich.”
“That’s really just a description,” he said.
Munich has always specialized in receiving visitors in mid-September, when the annual Oktoberfest begins, a time when women in low-cut dresses offer frothing mugs of beer and oversized pretzels and sausages as a welcome to visitors whose primary purpose is to consume beer.
Concerns that that drinking tradition would clash with the arrival of so many refugees whose lives have been unsettled by war and deprivation even sparked the governor of Bavaria, the state where Munich is located, to ask that no refugees be sent here, at least for the next few weeks.
The governor, Horst Seehofer, called German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-arms welcome of refugees “a mistake, and a mistake that should not be repeated.” His staff warned ominously that the Muslim arrivals might be shocked by the tradition of being very drunk in public during the last weeks of September and the first weeks of October.
“I have asked that for this time, Munich not be the primary destination of asylum seekers,” he said.
But it was too late, Munich’s Lord Mayor Dieter Reiter said. The refugees were already on their way.
Piling off trains at the end of a journey that for some took a week and for many as long as a month, the refugees seem shell-shocked. Many, when approached, shy away, terrified, the memory of abuse in recent days clear on their faces.
Some believe their journey is only paused. A 21-year-old arrival from Damascus, who gave only his first name, Bashar, said he had been an engineering student in Syria. He carried stamped copies of his university transcripts, professionally translated into German, wrapped tightly in cellophane.
“I need to get to Hamburg,” he said, referring to the German city a six-hour train ride north. “Their engineering school is very good. I want to study there.”
He paused to gather his thoughts, then added, “But today, arriving here, realizing I’m safe, this is a good day. Right now it’s a very good day.” Still, like many refugees, he refused to be photographed or give his last name. He does not want to endanger those he left behind.
Despite the rise of neo-Nazi and anti-immigrant groups around Germany in recent years, Munich residents have rallied to welcome the refugees.
Refugee aid spokesman Turner said thousands of volunteers have signed up to help with everything from constructing beds to handing out fresh fruit and drinks and helping refugees find their way around town.
Exactly how many volunteers is an unknown. While 4,000 have been formally recorded, hundreds of others have offered to help, their names handwritten on a half-inch stack of forms he holds. “We don’t have time to officially enter them in the system, so we don’t know how many people we have here,” he said. “We’re really not asking for new volunteers right now. All of our shifts are full.”
He said the system for dealing with new arrivals has been so refined that now only an hour passes between when a new refugee arrives and when that person can lay their head on a pillow.
“The people arriving here have been through so much to get here, they have a right to expect no less from us,” he said.
Today, arriving here, realizing I’m safe, this is a good day.
Bashar, Syrian refugee
He noted, however, that the arrivals have insisted on taking much of the needed work upon themselves, building beds and setting up emergency tents.
“They’re coming here to make better lives for themselves,” he said. “It’s clear that in doing so, they will make Germany a better place.”
It isn’t all benevolence. The mayor of Duisburg, Germany, recently noted that he was very willing to take a lot of Syrians if he could first get rid of some Roma, or Gypsies.
But Munich’s mayor sees the plus side in a city that is desperate for new residents.
Reiter noted that a full third of the spots in Munich’s job training programs now go unfilled. The three-year programs pay workers to learn trades, from car mechanics to hotel workers, computer technicians to hairdressers. On Thursday, Merkel made a similar observation, urging car makers to consider bringing in refugees for training.
Reiter said he’s encouraged by initial studies indicating that the literacy rate among the refugees is 90 percent.
In the station, Lubna, 20, had just arrived and said it was nice to have a chance to breath, and to smile. She’d made the journey with her parents and brother from their home in Golan, Syria.
When asked why they’d left, her father shook his head and noted, “Daash arrived. It was time to go.” Daash is the Arabic term for the Islamic State.
When asked what they hoped to find in Germany, Lubna, who had been a law student at Damascus University, laughed briefly and said, “No war, some peace, some quiet. All we want is the chance to live a normal life.”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews