Between petards and volunteers: a new year in Dresden

The refugees we met in Dresden wanted to work and move freely and live normal lives. They were grateful to Germany for providing them a chance to have this universally human and (from the European perspective) relatively modest dream.

Author: Michal Majzner

On Sunday, January 3rd 2016, the first group of six volunteers from a newly founded initiative set out in Dresden to get information on the refugee situation there. We learned that locals were just as divided in their opinions on refugees as the Czechs were. Some tried to cope by actively participating and assisting the new comers, while the others protested against them.

Our first stop was the asylum house in Dresden-West, where the representatives from the organizations helping refugees, Gemeinsam im Dresdner Westen, welcomed us. A smaller villa, formerly a hotel, was now occupied by 60 refugees, waiting for their asylum to be granted in Germany. The volunteers who worked there told us how the locals had reacted to the refugees’ presence: “Many of them support our efforts, although some of our neighbors view it with suspicion; there was one incident when someone was setting off petards in front of the house to protest the presence of such an institution in our quarter.”

During our interview, the house residents began coming over to the canteen. One Syrian with perfect English joined us and told us about his plan to master the German language at A1, A2 and B1 levels in next few weeks, so he would be able to finish his studies at a local university.

We made new friends in Germany and gained some idea about the integration process and German society’s involvement – how they were able to both cope with the new arrivals and the anti-refugee sentiments present in portions of the public.

With Dresden having been in the former Eastern bloc´s GDR, the town’s experience with people from the Middle East has been all but non-existent. Despite this, many organizations and individuals managed to cope with and adapt to the new situation and were gradually prepared for potential problems.

We had two more meetings with the refugees after the breakfast. We met with Abdulkader, who came from Syria and had contacted us via the Internet. We arranged a meeting with him at Dresden’s main station, then sat down for an interview with him in a small restaurant nearby. He was a very affable IT programmer who’d set off from his native Latakia, although the area was relatively “safe” at the time. For him this meant that only 10 people a day were dying due to the war…

After a short pause and a trip to Central Dresden we made it to a prefabricated building where Abdul and his five Syrian friends were living in one apartment with three rooms. They made tea for us, and we had a nice chat with them. One might be surprised to find both an Orthodox icon at the window and a Quran near the bed there – that it was possible for people of different religions to cohabitate in one apartment.

Moreover, one of them, Hassan, greeted Romana. “Hi, I know you,” he said. On his way to Germany, he met her at Prague’s main station, where she worked as a volunteer.

How were they adjusting to life in Germany? They attended German language courses everyday. Albulkader had already found a job and Jaqub had received his permit to stay. They attempted to integrate as soon as possible, attending social meetings with German natives. The tradition of “Monday´s coffee,” organized by the volunteers in various parts of Dresden, played a very positive role. Refugees were exchanging important information that assisted their integration into German society and they established new friendships along the way. As the organizers told us in our first meeting, it was also the newcomers’ way to dispel the local inhabitants’ fears.

When we left the apartment we rushed back to the main station – Hauptbahnhof – for our last meeting. We met with a German volunteer, René from Rainbow Refugees, a NGO that was supporting 17 gay refugees there, who had been persecuted for their sexual orientation in their home countries, after they had left or even in the refugee camps.

One of two men who came with René at the station was a young man from Venezuela. He left the traditionally Christian culture he was raised in because they refused to accept different sexual orientations. Out of his whole family, only his sister had continued supporting him, and he was in phone contact with her.

Another refugee from Syria had faced police brutality due to his sexual orientation. He lived with his friend in Turkey for some time, but the situation was not good for him there either. Therefore he set off for Germany, where he was personally supported by one of the ministers, and then later by René´s organization as well.

All the refugees, whose stories we heard, said the just wanted to live normal lives, work and move freely. They were grateful to Germany for providing them a chance to have this universally human and relatively modest dream. Their willingness to integrate was inspiring. We were impressed by their mastery of the German language in their short four-month stay. Their goals were to study, work and contribute to society, which had via the state and volunteers mostly showed them kind, human faces. 

Blogs and interviews were produced within the project “Refugee stories, to which the volunteers contribute in their free time. The core of the project is build upon the We Can organisation, cooperating with the organisation Umweltzentrum Dresden. The project is supported by the Czech-German Fund for Future in 2016.

Michal Majzner

Michal Majzner

Michal Majzner is an industrial project engineer and civic activist. He’s co-founded several projects, including Prague Maidan, "President, leave!" and Refugee Stories ("Příběhy uprchlíků"). He is a member or supporter of several civic associations including "We are looking for president – The Kroměříž´s Appeal," Podhradí and Politics and Conscience.