Tom Waurig: Saxony′s torchbearer for tolerance | Generation 25 | DW | 20.09.2015
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Generation 25

Tom Waurig: Saxony's torchbearer for tolerance

The local skinheads are no strangers to him - and they know him too. Tom speaks out for refugees and tolerance despite the dangers involved. Spend a day with Tom.

It's one of the last hot summer days of the year. The weather report said there might be a rainstorm later on, but for the time being the sun is out in Pirna, 25 kilometers (15 miles) outside of Saxony's state capital, Dresden.

Since 8:00 am, Tom Waurig has been sitting at his desk at the Pirna offices of an organization called Aktion Zivilcourage, dedicated to defending the ideals of democracy. The phone hasn't stopped ringing. The people calling him want to help the refugees at the first arrival center in the neighboring town of Heidenau by donating clothes, toys and money, but also by offering German lessons or distributing food. The association organizes the help for the refugees, with the support of the German Red Cross.

Whenever he gets a free minute, Tom tries to finish proofing the latest edition of the charity's own magazine, of which he is the chief editor.

Then there are also those endless discussions on Facebook, where online users try to gang up on him, arguing that the donations should go to Germany's homeless population and not to the refugees.

Others accuse his charity of spreading leaflets around town which tell Pirna's citizens to stop eating pork and start wearing headscarves. This was a cynical attempt at dragging the organization's name of through the mud: Although the official logo of Aktion Zivilcourage was printed on them, it was in no way involved in the publication of the flyers and now Tom is trying to rectify the facts.

Whatever happens, he always seems to have his work cut out for him. This was just an average morning in the life of the 25-year-old. Through it all, he doesn't let critics get to him.

By the time he gets to show me around town, it's already past midday. But he's glad to spend time with me because he hopes the media will go beyond the usual stereotypes about "the East" and neo-Nazis by discovering this picturesque part of Saxony.

Developing respect for different cultures

We start exploring Pirna by taking a stroll along the market square. With its central bell tower and quaint little water fountain, it could be a scene from a postcard: Wherever you look there's pristinely renovated Wilhelminian architecture. The city was hit by floods in 2002 and 2013, but has been quick to restore things.

"Each summer we organize a Market of Cultures here. Many locals get to try certain foreign tastes for the first time. And it's always brilliantly received," he says, although he has to admit, "a few 'comrades' always show up too."

Right-wing extremist organizations often call themselves "The Free Comradery." With his dry sense of humor, Tom refers to them as comrades, too. They might as well come, he says, then they'll see how great it is to share cultures. "We all know who they are. They know who we are. And no one really stands in each other's way," he adds.

Tom's love for Pirna is infectious, even though he wasn't born here, but in Görlitz, which used to be part of East Germany. That was in January 1990.

He tells me how his mother keeps reminding him on his birthday how she went across the border to West Berlin for the first time after the Wall had come down, while she was pregnant with him as a 23-year-old teacher in what was then East Germany.

Tom says he sometimes calls his mother to ask her about how things used to be back then. History plays a big role in his family: His grandfather was among the displaced German population in Silesia - now part of Poland - after World War II. He moved to what later became East Germany and later took part in the uprising of 1953. He ended up in a Stasi prison. The Stasi also came for his grandmother, threatening her with not allowing her daughter, Tom's mother, to attend college if she didn't cooperate with them.

"There's no one in my entire family who would like to go back to those days," Tom says.

Staying in the East to campaign for tolerance

Does the East/West split still play a role today? "Not for my generation," replies Tom. He says he considered studying in universities both in the western and eastern parts of Germany. In the end, he ended up going to Dresden so he could remain involved with his work at Aktion Zivilcourage.

He got involved working there as a volunteer during a gap year after high school. He gets mad when he hears everyone claim that there are only neo-Nazis here. "We know there's a problem here, but we're also doing more here than anywhere else." Saxony has the most organizations against right-wing extremism in Germany.

East Germany's anti-fascist ideology tried to hide the fact that xenophobia existed, too, explains Tom. The former politics student tries to analyze the roots of racism rather than just look at its symptoms.

"The Vietnamese and Mozambican guest workers who were sent from other socialist states were kept in their own neighborhoods, which resembled ghettos," he explains. The German population didn't get in touch with foreign cultures.

Pirna's first kebab shop didn't open until 1995. Apparently it was a big deal back then - the only fast food available used to be bratwurst.

Neo-Nazis on the football pitch

Tom wants to take me down to the River Elbe, where there's a unique memorial: A total of 15,000 colorful crosses serve as a reminder of the Nazis' euthanasia program. There's one cross for each victim. This was a school project led by Aktion Zivilcourage.

Tom and his team organize workshops to discuss tolerance and democracy. Right-wing extremism has gone down significantly in Pirna over the past few years, he says.

Just then, we spot a man coming around a corner who looks like the epitome of a neo-Nazi: Shaved head, broad shoulders, big arms full of tattoos - he's even got a pit-bull terrier. "He's the owner of a local tattoo shop," Tom whispers. I can tell that he feels rather uncomfortable about the fact that we ran into one of his adversaries, but it leads Tom to tell me more about the right-wing scene in Pirna.

"I often see that guy at the local soccer games whenever our team, Dynamo Dresden, plays. But I also know that he used to be part of the SSS movement."

The local neo-Nazi collective SSS (Skinheads Sächsische Schweiz), a movement with paramilitary structures, was well-known beyond the city limits of Pirna and was declared illegal in 2001. Many of its former members, however, have now joined other like-minded groups around Pirna, such as the far-right political party NPD. Others prefer to partake in hooliganism, Tom tells me.

Tom is also a die-hard fan of Dynamo Dresden, despite its many problems with right-wing elements. He says that he has to support his team and not allow the field to be overrun by neo-Nazis.

Tom isn't afraid to be left face-to-face with the hooligans either. He recounts how three skinheads had beaten up a friend of his for no reason, while Tom was still in school. Back then, he grew up believing that was part of life in Pirna. Now he tries to take matters into his own hands by campaigning against hate.

How Tom deals with hate

Tom returned to his home in Görlitz three years ago to see if he could live there. He tried to work with the local council until the NPD wrote an aggressive article about his political ambitions.

When Tom's parents read the article, they suggested that he stop being involved in local politics, afraid that someone would perhaps seek to burn down their house.

"You know you're on the right path when the NPD writes something negative about you, for they must be afraid of losing votes and being booted out of the council," he says. But then he pauses and adds that it was rather strange to read someone else write such hateful things about him. When he reported the incident to the police he was told that the NPD's article was protected under press freedom. The irony did not escape him.

"I don't let things like that get to me. If you allow yourself to be intimated by such things, you might well have picked the wrong job. But hey, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?"

We decide to take the train to Heidenau. Each Tuesday night, Tom and his colleague go there to play football with refugee children from Afghanistan.

A visit to infamous Heidenau

The small town in eastern Germany has become synonymous with the recent surge of attacks against refugees. The NPD organized a rally against a local first arrival center for asylum-seekers, which later led to clashes between protestors and the police in charge of protecting the asylum home housing 250 migrants.

Germany's Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel visited Heidenau in the wake of the conflict and called the demonstrators "vermin." Chancellor Merkel also paid a visit to the controversial town of 16,500 residents a while later, where locals congregated to boo her.

Tom attended the rallies, too, but as an observer. He says that he and his boss attend many such public events held by right wing groups to spot new trends and themes.

"Most of those demonstrators were men between the ages of 30 and 40, who basically are hooligans who continue their rage from the soccer stadium onto the streets of Heidenau," Tom explains.

"There are also some younger ones among them. They're like adventure tourists among Neo-Nazis. They tend to come for the thrill - like those guys over there!"

I turn my head and notice four youths with remarkably short hair staring back at us, and not in a friendly way. Then Tom tells me that he has also spotted 15-year-old girls among the protestors.

He says that it's become acceptable to use terms like "infiltration" and "overrun" when speaking about asylum seekers. Sometimes, he says, it's hard to understand what motivates people to act that way. "They don't even think of themselves as racists," Tom bemoans.

Football as a universal language

We arrive at the soccer field and meet Tom's colleague Ronald. He has already picked up the refugee kids at the first arrival center next door. Some of the youths are already kicking balls around while others are still joining the group. Then they divide themselves up into two teams - using arms and legs as their means of communication. None of the refugee children speak German yet, and the two Germans don't speak Dari. But using football as a universal language, that doesn't seem to matter.

It starts to get dark. Thunder and lightning loom, but no one wants to stop the game. They only decide to stop once everyone is absolutely soaked, and resort to finding refuge under a tree. Some even continue to play in the rain; they're all ambitious and surprisingly good players.

Even the trainer of the local football club, SV Heidenau, noticed the motivated youths and approached the group last week, asking them to join his team. Tom says that he's now excited about the prospect of bringing some Afghan players into the established youth league and mixing up the local soccer scene.

When I ask him how he feels about the idea of them perhaps being rejected or attacked, Tom replies that he isn't too worried about that: "I really don't think that the people that took to the streets here earlier this year would actually do anything to harm these refugees. I think that would be another dimension of animosity altogether, and I don't think that's what we're dealing with here. And I hope it never will be."