The surge of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Africa, and southeast Europe has posed significant challenges to the European Union’s and Germany’s identity, and sense of obligation to people fleeing war and persecution around the world.
In 2015 alone, Germany became a new home for nearly 1.2 million displaced individuals.
While the fair and manageable accommodation of these people in need throughout the EU will require a political solution that can be agreed to in the coming months, the integration of these individuals into new communities not currently equipped to handle the task looms as the longer-term challenge of this crisis.
As Germany’s challenges grow, the need for new ideas and innovations in the area of integration will prove increasingly essential. It is here where the United States, a nation of immigrants with decades of experience in refugee resettlement and integration, is uniquely positioned to serve as an important resource for its friends across the Atlantic.
Beginning this week, the Welcoming Community Transatlantic Exchange (WCTE) will address this need for further cooperation and to build the capacity of local leaders by connecting 24 German immigration practitioners and municipal officials with American counterparts during an 11-day, five-city U.S. visit.
Before the group’s arrival in Atlanta on Monday, we caught up with both American and German WCTE participants to learn more about their communities and what they hope to take away from this program, which will also bring a group of U.S. officials to the five participating German communities this fall.
President & CEO
International Institute of St. Louis
St. Louis has a long tradition in welcoming refugees including a diverse community of Muslims who speak a number of languages and come from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia. We have also welcomed Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians, and most recently a small number of Syrian refugees. We can learn and share with our German counterparts to the benefit of both delegations and their larger communities.We are eager to be exposed to new ideas to fold into existing as well as future initiatives.
Among our many objectives, we desire to help St. Louisans better understand and appreciate the complexities and the rewards of creating and living in vibrant, culturally diverse communities.
Commissioner for Integration and Migration
City of Mannheim
With 43% of the population of Mannheim having a so-called “migration background” representing 170 different countries of origin, the city has successfully implemented many projects and initiatives in the field of education, culture, social welfare, and employment to support newcomers in finding their way in the new society. These approaches have been continually modified over the past few decades, focusing more and more on structures and services and their need to adapt to the changes in our population. Integration means a continual process that challenges the newcomers as well as the host society and its institutions as a whole to adapt to the ongoing changes brought about by migration and the increasing (cultural) heterogeneity of our citizens.
Mannheim looks forward to an exchange of ideas with our local partners from the United States: their knowledge and longstanding experiences as integration experts in a “classical immigration nation” will provide us with different perspectives and approaches and may help us arrive at a different understanding about what “integration” means, including the role that the public sector plays in this field. Which are the tasks of the municipality in the U.S.? Who are the drivers and stakeholders managing and shaping successful integration policies? What does “successful integration” look like in the American context (melting pot or salad bowl)?
Caritasverband für Dresden e.V.
Region of Sächsische Schweiz-Osterzgebirge
The region of Sächsische Schweiz-Osterzgebirge is marked by a tension between open and welcoming values and traditionally closed systems. As a region that underwent little social change for many years before experiencing a massive change through German reunification in 1990, Sachsen has seen nationalistic and populistic surges in recent years as a lingering result of the ongoing search for identity. Right-wing groups have even hijacked the phrase from reunification, “We are the people!” (“Wir sind das Volk!”), at that time used to counter an unjust regime but now being twisted to limit the rights of refugees.
On the other hand, Sachsen has many people actively defending and promoting human rights for the refugees, taking on the responsibility to help reduce their suffering without thinking of the possible consequences for the welcoming community. Between these two poles remains a large group of people who are torn between fear and the strong desire to help: people who are hesitant but ready for a dialogue, as long as it doesn’t come in the form of a lecture. Charitable groups in the region that work with refugees are caught in the middle as well, receiving on the one hand anonymous threats by right-wing groups but at the same time providing the public with means to support and the will to help people. German chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement “We can do it!” (“Wir schaffen das!”) is not questioned, but translated into action.
The extreme positions and challenges that emerge in our region are representative of the uncertainty that pervades the country at large. It is therefore all the more pressing to develop concepts for means to meet all human needs and provide a welcoming framework as a basis for humanitarian values in such a region. Political action is also necessary for these initiatives to succeed, as the positions of center-right political parties in our region are being increasingly pushed to the extreme right.
The Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange, thus, gives our region the opportunity to develop new ideas for dialogue and to move away from the spiral of fear and violence.
Metro Atlanta hosts the second fastest growing foreign-born population in America. We have seen the demographics of our city change dramatically over the last 10 years and are currently developing a robust immigrant and refugee integration plan for the City of Atlanta. As our plan evolves, we are eager to learn from other countries – namely about their opportunities and challenges with immigrant and refugee integration, so we can continue to best serve our new neighbors here in America.
I hope to broaden my perspective and spark new ideas around immigrant integration to bring back to my community. Germany has incredible policies and programs on housing, workforce development, childcare, and a variety of social services. Taking home key learnings about these policies and programs would be especially beneficial to our municipal government in Atlanta, so that we can best serve our rapidly growing foreign-born community.
In many ways, the refugee crisis is the new shared challenge of the transatlantic relationship, requiring dialogue and cooperation between the United States and Germany. As the two leading powers in this crisis, the example set by each nation in rising to the occasion will impact the approaches towards inclusion by other countries in their respective regions.
In the United States, “it is easy to forget that integration for previous waves of immigrants took a long time. Immigrants who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries did not enter the country and quickly find their way into the mainstream of American life. Integration took generations to play out fully.”
The same dynamics will prove true for the new refugee populations in both the U.S. and Germany for decades to come.
Our hope is that the Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange will support this process and serve as a two-way learning opportunity for those in both countries tasked with making their resettlement communities more welcoming.