Espelkamp: A German town with a refugee past
Saad had studied computer science in Damascus before fleeing Syria's civil war. Now, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, he volunteers to help other newly arrived Syrians learn German. He's pretty good at it.
These Syrians cannot take part in proper language and integration classes because their asylum applications have not yet been processed. The same goes for the other refugees here. Without volunteer initiatives or help from church groups and other popular initiatives, there would be few options.
Nonetheless, Saad feels like he is in good hands in a town built by refugees. "The people of Espelkamp are very nice to us," he said, smiling broadly. But, he added, "I would like to live and study in bigger city - maybe in Bielefeld."
'Uncertainty and insecurity'
Bielefeld, a city of 328,000 people, is about 50 kilometers straight south; Berlin, the home to 3.5 million people, is 370 kilometers due east. Espelkamp, a town with a population of 25,000, is known as a place where slot machines are manufactured. The former location of Nazi munition factories had been planned and pounded out of the ground within a few years, only to be to be flattened by bombs at the end of World War II. Refugees from eastern Prussia and Silesia (now Poland) moved into the dilapidated barracks and founded the new Espelkamp after the war. Guest workers followed and, in the early 1990s, Russians of German ancestry arrived. Now, the newest residents come from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea.
"The uncertainty and insecurity about one's refugee status is simply unnerving for many," Mayor Heinrich Vieker said. "We simply weren't prepared for this mass immigration," he added. "We had to improvise."
A former school and vacant apartment building are used for housing. Two villages made from shipping containers and furnished with modern washing machines have become home to refugees.
Though hostile townies have drawn swastikas on refugee homes, Espelkamp has largely welcomed its newest residents. "We ourselves fled," Vieker said. "We experienced it. We have a special sensibility when it comes to dealing with the refugee situation."
Vieker is most concerned about the fact that many of the refugees seem to lack the qualifications for the few employment opportunities currently available in his town. "We simply do not have enough job offers here," Vieker said.
Refugees welcome again
Claudia Armuth, of Espelkamp's youth migration service, has worked with new residents for decades and pointed out that more people came to town in the 1990s from Russia than have arrived in the recent past. "Espelkamp no longer fears things like that," Armuth said. "We are well-organized."
Most of Espelkpamp's newest residents are Muslim. They have found spiritual support in the modest community center and mosque that belong to the DITIB Turkish-Islamic religious affairs union. The center was founded in 1977 by Turkish immigrants. About 500 people show up for Friday prayers, with refugees welcome.
Thirteen-year-old Abdalah Alalouis attended a recent Friday prayer with his brother. The boys, from Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, hope to reunite with their parents. "I want my parents to come to Germany," Abdalah said, having already picked up the German words to do so. The children have no desire to return to the war in their home country. "But my parents do not have the documents for entry," Abdalah said.