Germany has changed
A lot of things have changed over the past year in Germany. Racists feel emboldened. Alternative for Germany (AfD), which began as a Euroskeptic party, had been losing ground before large numbers of displaced people began to arrive and is now benefitting from many Germans' fears of refugees. Recent opinion polls show the AfD's popularity at 15 percent; in the 2013 parliamentary elections, the party couldn't muster the 5 percent needed to enter parliament. Now, xenophobia has become socially acceptable in Germany.
Of course, you have to put this into a European context: In France and Bulgaria, far-right parties hold more than 20 percent of seats in the national parliaments, and Hungary and Poland are ruled by the right wing. In Britain, the anti-immigration UK Independence Party provided the initial spark for the country's withdrawal from the European Union. In comparison, at least, Germany is still a haven of political centrism and stability.
Germany's relationship with its chancellor has also changed: Angela Merkel's popularity ratings have fallen. Many Germans are dissatisfied with her refugee policies. On the other hand, opinion poll ratings for the ruling parties are stable. Internationally, the chancellor is still held in high esteem. Even though many EU nations do not approve of Merkel's refugee policies, her voice still carries weight in decisive matters, such as the processing of Brexit. Her humanitarian gesture toward refugees was commended this spring by US President Barack Obama, who said she was "on the right side of history."
Many people in Africa and the Middle East respect Merkel because actions followed her words: She offered real help to people in real need. And Germans initially responded eagerly - they wanted to help, too - but that has begun to change.
Fear is growing
A series of robberies and sexual assaults committed by men thought to be foreign on New Year's Eve in Cologne and attacks in Ansbach and Würzburg over the summer stoked fears that terrorists had entered the country along with refugees, though the people implicated so far arrived long before Merkel made her fateful "we can do this" statement in summer 2015. Of course, we do know that some terrorists mixed in with refugees to gain entry to the European Union.
Yet, had the borders been sealed, hundreds of thousands of people in need would not have received aid. And Germans still want to help however they can. They teach their language to refugee children and take them into their homes; they help the adults find jobs. Without the extraordinary dedication of thousands of volunteers, many things would not have been as well-organized as they are.
The real challenges are still to come. Germany must get refugee children into schools and adults into the workforce. All of this comes with a monetary cost, and there are plenty of Germans whose own needs have been neglected.
And Germany must make its societal values clear. Refugees will need to learn German, respect the values of a free and democratic society, accept constitutional provisions on the Bible, the Koran and other holy scriptures, and acknowledge gender equality.
Yes, the arrival of large numbers of displaced people has pushed Germans out of their comfort zone; it demands a great deal from them. It has created challenges and, at the same time, opportunities. The good news is that cultural diversity holds great potential: Refugees who feel like they are part of society might also contribute to it. And the money they send back home to their relatives exceeds the amount that the German government spends on humanitarian aid.
If Germans stop viewing refugees as a problem and start looking at things realistically, they will realize that solidarity with people in need can strengthen a community bond. And someday we can look back at the ways in which Germany has changed and realize that it has been a good thing.
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