The Marienfelde Refugee Center has been the first stop in a new life for many East German and Russian-German families. As it prepares for closure, its last inmates begin their new lives in their new homeland.
Most of the buildings at Marienfelde are already empty
The Marienfelde Refugee Center on the outskirts of Berlin has been a silent witness to the comings and goings of people both full of desperation and hoping for a new beginning. The Center was established in 1953. Over the years, it has housed some 1,350,000 people who had fled communist East Germany. Later its staff helped ethnic Germans repatriated from eastern and southern Europe.
Part of the complex has already been turned into a museum
Now the center will close its doors to refugees at the end of June, although they will remain open for those who are interested in its history. One section has already become a museum documenting the people who passed through on their way to lives. Only a handful of residents are left. Olga Lehl and her extended family are some of the last people for whom Marienfelde is a temporary home.
They are ethnic Germans whose family settled in Russia hundreds of years ago. Many of these so-called Russian-Germans "returned" to Germany in the 1990s. But Lehl and her family have only been in Germany since last November.
Lehl, her husband, five children, two daughters-in-law and two grandchildren share five studio apartments in a three-story building complex at Marienfelde. She said they left Russia without knowing where they would end up in Germany.
"At first we thought we'd be sent to Krefeld, because that's where our relatives are. But Krefeld isn't taking any more ethnic Germans from the East," she tells Deutsche Welle. "So we were advised to go to Berlin. Otherwise we could end up in some village in the middle of nowhere. We were told that Berlin was the perfect place for us to get ourselves oriented in Germany."
Jumping through hoops to be German
The Lehls come from Solikamsk, a typical Russian industrial city four thousand kilometers from Berlin. The Lehls say they were unsatisfied with their life in Russia and that the economic boom of the Putin years had passed them by. They wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to start over.
The Lehl family is focused on integration
It took ten years for the family to get all the necessary forms and papers together to travel to Germany. And unlike the ethnic Germans who immigrated to Germany in the 1990s, the Lehls knew exactly what they were risking: they could end up unemployed, homeless and unable to speak the local language. They could end up feeling like second-class citizens.
That's why the key word in the Lehl family is "integration." Olga's son Johann and her daughter Anna attend integration courses at a Berlin language school. There they're learning the nuances of the German mentality and tips like how to find a doctor, or that you're not supposed to photograph people on the street without asking their permission.
Their brother Alexander says many Russian-Germans who came to Germany in the past weren't committed to integration and weren't willing to learn the German language. "They get welfare benefits from the state, but they have no interest in the country's language or its culture," he says. "They know nothing about German politics. At home they just watch Russian television, they shop at Russian stores and they don't want to work."
That's why the German government made the repatriation process more difficult. Those people who won't put the work into learning German "are just going to be too lazy to jump through all those bureaucratic hoops to come to Germany," he says.
The number of Russian-Germans coming to Germany has dramatically slowed since the 1990s. In the last year, the state of Berlin accepted about 175 Russian Germans. That was the number which used to arrive each month to the Marienfelde Center.
A new beginning outside the walls of Marienfelde
Now, more than 20 years after the borders between East and West Germany were opened, the Marienfelde Refugee Center is closing its doors for good. It will remain a part of history, but the Lehl family will have to take the next step in their lives as German citizens.
"My plans right now are pretty basic," says Olga's son Johann. "I need to find an apartment before my wife comes with our children and I need to find a job that will feed my family."
The family members are hoping to end up living near each other in the same neighborhood. Hopefully not one with too many other Russian-Germans, they say. They are determined to integrate into German society.
Author: Oxana Evdokimova / hf
Editor: Michael Lawton