What might be the last chance this city has for a future was five years old when a bomb – probably from Syrian President Bashar Assad but maybe from the Islamic State or al Qaida – destroyed the house he was living in with his parents and two sisters.
Bashar, whose last name is being withheld because his grandmother still lives in Homs, Syria, and his family believes she could be targeted if identified, didn’t talk for the next two years. His parents bemusedly note that when he finally did, it was in German, not Arabic. They also note that it was only after this former industrial powerhouse and current industrial wasteland had welcomed them, clothed, fed and housed them and made it very much known that it was thrilled to call Bashar and his family locals.
Bashar is one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees, from Syria, from Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Libya and on and on who’ve arrived in Europe this year. As Germany marked the 25th anniversary of reunification on Saturday, he’s also a symbol of hope for this city in the formerly communist east that has seen nothing but decline since the Berlin Wall fell.
The refugees arrive with little more than terrifying stories and hopes for a chance at normal lives. While elsewhere in Europe walls have been erected, laws passed, and angry citizens have worked to scare away these refugees, Germany has made headlines internationally for being welcoming.
But even within what is now popularly called Germany’s “welcoming culture,” this impoverished city in central Germany is notable for its hospitality. It’s not simply kindness. Dessau has a need. As they did in the 12th Century and again after the Thirty Years War in the 17th Century, when the city also needed new blood, Dessau’s leaders are counting on immigration.
Dessau has a long and storied history. The Bauhaus architecture movement, which sought to elevate the lives of the masses through design, had its beginnings in Dessau. Adolf Hitler’s Blitzkrieg in World War II depended on the Third Reich’s Junker bombers, which were built in Dessau. During the communist decades, Dessau was on the edge of East Germany’s chemical triangle, which meant jobs.
c Of those residents, more than a third are older than 65. One of the city’s recent innovative plans has been to tear down entire city blocks of apartment buildings, to try to increase population density in the surviving pieces of town.
Dessau, simply, was dying.
Then refugees started to arrive, in small numbers, until this summer when the trickle turned into a relative flood.
“The scientific models have all shown us that re-population by our own means, having enough children for this city to grow, is now impossible,” explains the mayor, Peter Kuras. “The reality is that if people weren’t coming to us, I’d have to be out there, buying out ads and recruiting residents. Other people call this a refugee crisis. We call it manna from heaven.”
While in Munich and Berlin, leaders are scrambling to make old army bases and old airport hangars work as emergency shelters, stacking beds from wall to wall so they can protect new arrivals from the elements, in Dessau they can provide every arrival with a freshly painted, newly carpeted and fully furnished apartment.
In fact, they’ve thought through what demographers believe new arrivals need to thrive in Germany and instituted a plan: No more than one or two apartments in any block of apartments should be inhabited by refugees. Refugees here aren’t sent to a camp, but integrated immediately into the community.
When I meet young refugee families with children, I look into their eyes and see the hope they have for a better life. I think they can see the hope in my eyes, of a future for my city.
Peter Kuras, mayor
Officials here say the arrivals are new neighbors, who will need some help adjusting. So existing residents are teaching them German and helping them navigate Germany’s infamous red tape. The primary delay in getting refugees settled is how quickly apartments can be freshly painted and re-carpeted and enough beds added for the number of new arrivals.
After arriving only a year ago, Bashar and his two sisters are thriving in German schools. Even more thrilling for Dessau, he now has a baby brother.
Bashar’s father, Sayd, notes that one of the family’ biggest problems is finding a night when they can cook their own meal and dine at home without visitors.
“Everyone living around us has us over all the time, or drops by to make sure we’re well,” he says through a translator. “It’s a wonderful problem.”
Kuras notes he only really has three questions to answer to deal with in this “refugee crisis.” The first two: Can Dessau get enough of them and will German law allow the city to make legal residents of enough of those arrivals?
The third question may be the most difficult: How to persuade these new arrivals not leave, as so many others have in recent years.
“When I meet young refugee families with children, I look into their eyes and see the hope they have for a better life,” Kuras said. “I think they can see the hope in my eyes, of a future for my city.”
Demographers point out that Dessau’s problems are magnified versions of Germany’s problems. Germany has a thriving economy, but its biggest threat is an impending labor shortage. According to a United Nations population study, Germany, with a median age of 46, is the second oldest nation on earth (behind only Japan). For comparison, the median age in the United States is under 38. Syria has a median age below 23. Dessau’s median age, city officials note, is 58.
We have our share of neo-Nazis. Every place does. But we are a small city and we know who they all are.
Walther Matthias, Dessau housing authority public relations director
Anja Passlack, director of the Dessau Housing authority, manages 10,000 city controlled apartments. Right now, more than 3,000 are vacant. She puts the numbers a bit more bluntly.
“Every year, about 1,200 of our residents die,” she said. “A few children are born. But if we are going to continue to get only 1,000 refugees a year here, we’re just breaking even. Still, breaking even in Dessau is a huge step forward.”
But that’s if they can keep them as residents. Part of that is making new arrivals feel welcome. Walther Matthias, the housing authority’s public relations director, notes that not everyone in Dessau sees the big picture regarding the refugees.
“We have our share of neo-Nazis,” he said. “Every place does. But we are a small city and we know who they all are. I visit them, one on one, and explain that if they cause problems for our new residents, they (the new residents) are gone. We cannot allow that.”
Especially as the new arrivals come with good educations and a strong desire to make better lives.
“Maybe this generation of German youth here, after so many years of high unemployment, they think, maybe I’ll work, maybe not,” he said. “These Syrians arrive hungry. They do not want a handout, they want a future. We need their attitude.”
It will be difficult to keep the new arrivals happy for long, though. Germany is not an easy place for a new arrival to start a business because Germany is not an easy place for anyone to start a business. The redtape is legendary. Many of the arrivals come with university degrees, but Germany doesn’t necessarily recognize those degrees. Officials here want changes in national law to fix these issues.
And they want jobs. At the Multicultural Center that former Iraqi refugee Razak Minhel helped build since arriving 30 years ago, a group he’s convened talks about a recent arrival, a dentist, who hadn’t been able to find any local opportunities. He had left that morning for Berlin, where he had found a job.
“The irony is that we’ve got the attitude and room to take in many people,” Minhel said. “We can help save them from the horrors they have lived through. But maybe for the same reasons that people have been leaving this place since reunification, they cannot then stay and save us.”
Bashar’s family fears this. Sayd in Syria was a truck driver. Here, he’s trying without luck to find a job.
“I want to stay and build a life in Dessau,” he said. “They have been so kind to us. It is a good place. I hope this is possible.”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews