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Germany prepares refugees for New Year fireworks

Kate BradyDecember 29, 2015

As Germany prepares to welcome in the New Year, refugees are being informed about the fireworks and festivities. Some psychotherapists believe the explosions could trigger memories of the wars from which they fled.

Silvester Berlin 2012 Feuerwerk
Image: imago/Michael Schulz

Like millions of revelers around the globe, Germans will welcome in the New Year on Thursday by lighting up the sky with fireworks. But even for Europeans, who are accustomed to beginning January with a bang, the huge scale and rather chaotic nature of German celebrations are incomparable with those in nearby countries, where fireworks are often confined to small gatherings in gardens and organized public events.

Come December 31, a large segment of Germany's population defies the country's reputation for orderliness and takes to the streets, carousing and letting loose with hand-held fireworks. As the clock nears midnight the boisterous merrymaking means it's near-impossible to pass through some city centers.

In light of Germany's unprecedented influx of refugees in recent months, many local authorities, psychotherapists and refugee help organizations have called on the German population to show consideration to their new neighbors, over concerns that the loud explosions could be traumatic and trigger flashbacks.

According to a report published by the Federal Psychotherapy Chamber (BPtK) in September, 40 to 50 percent of refugees in Germany suffer from post-traumatic stress or depression.

Gunshots and bombs

Taking the potentially distressing effects into account, the district government of the western German town of Arnsberg has banned the use of fireworks at refugee homes. As well as noting the increased risk of fire, spokesman Christian Söbbeler said the sound of the pyrotechnics could provoke extreme stress for asylum seekers.

"Those who have fled war-torn areas associate the bangs more with gunshots and bombs than with new year," Söbbeler said.

Similarly, volunteers at a refugee home in Troisdorf, close to Bonn, have also notified residents about the upcoming celebrations. Asylum seekers who are currently staying there are predominantly from Afghanistan.

Ruins after bombs in Aleppo, Syria
Psychotherapists fear that fireworks could re-awaken memories of conflictImage: Reuters/A. Ismail

Olaf Conrady, a photographer who volunteers at the refugee shelter, told DW that refugees had been informed by flyers and talks about the fireworks.

"We've also informed them that there may be more ambulance sirens, due to injuries and maybe the odd fire. But we have tried to reassure them that such incidents will be predominantly harmless," Conrady said.

In the eastern German city of Leipzig, Dietmar Link of the St. John's Ambulance Brigade (Johanniter Unfall Hilfe) said that calls to ban fireworks near refugee homes were not an attempt "to spoil the fun of traditional New Year's fireworks."

"Bearing in mind the children who have been traumatized by war and violence, consideration in the immediate vicinity of asylum accommodation should be understandable," Link said.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

In an interview with DW, psychotherapist at the University Clinic of Freiburg, Dr. Joachim Bauer, praised efforts to prepare refugees for New Year's Eve.

"On experiencing stimuli that played a role in a trauma, such as images, smells and sounds, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) such as re-experiencing the traumatic situation, anxiety, panic, shock, or freezing can be re-triggered," he said.

"For this reason it seems sensible to prohibit the customary New Year's fireworks in refugee shelters and the surrounding areas," Bauer added.

Children in a displacement camp in Lebanon smile for the camera
St John's Ambulance has asked German revelers to think particularly of young refugeesImage: Zakira/UNICEF

Anxious children

Syrian mother of two, Majid Abdul Wahid, arrived in Germany a month ago. The 35-year-old told DW that although she enjoyed watching fireworks displays, after a while, the sound of the explosions was too much and she became anxious.

"My six-year-old daughter doesn't like them at all," Majid said, adding that it reminded her too much of the bombs in Aleppo.

"Even though I tell her to look at how pretty the fireworks are, she becomes scared."

During a 10-month stay in Lebanon, Majid said she and her daughters would see fireworks there every weekend.

"Fireworks are nothing new to us," she said, "It's just the sound that can reawaken these memories."

Ban 'unnecessary'

Psychotherapist in Bonn, Dr. Kurt Hemmer, told DW, however, that banning fireworks completely in and around refugee accommodation wasn't necessary.

"Very few of the refugees will be actually suffering from post-traumatic stress," Hemmer said, adding that most would be incapable of travel if that were the case.

Although admitting that the fireworks could bring back some memories of conflict, few would suffer post-traumatic stress to the extent that they thought they were back in their war-torn home country, he told DW.

Hemmer supported initiatives to inform the refugees, however, such as that in the municipality of Reichenberg where "trial fireworks" were let off ahead of New Year's Eve to prepare asylum seekers for the loud explosions.

New year, new start

Admittedly, whilst New Years Eve could be problematic for some refugees, others are looking forward to the celebration. One asylum seeker, who wished to be known as Sameer, fled from Kobani in Syria earlier this year and now lives in Aachen, on Germany's border to Belgium and Holland.

"The information I need is where the celebrations are!" Sameer told DW. "I want to be outside and watching the fireworks with everyone else."