In eastern German town, hostility towards foreigners goes far back

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Freital, on Dresden’s south-western outskirts, has become synonymous with hatred of foreigners. But the new refugees are not the first to feel the animosity. Anti-foreigner attacks and sentiment go back to the days of communist East Germany.

Freital, on Dresden’s south-western outskirts, has become synonymous with hatred of foreigners. But the new refugees are not the first to feel the animosity. Anti-foreigner attacks and sentiment go back to the days of communist East Germany.

Freital (dpa) – Tatjana Jurk twists the head of the German chancellor and takes it off. Cleaning it up a bit, she then twists the tiny object with the likeness of Angela Merkel back onto a Russian-style matryoshka doll.

“Back to work,” Jurk says with a laugh sitting in her office. Work in this case means trying to help foreign refugees in Freital, a town just on Dresden’s south-western outskirts that was in the headlines last summer amid anti-foreigner attacks by right-wing elements.

Jurk, 54, herself knows what it’s like to arrive in Freital as an outsider. “As Russians we were also cursed at and spat on,” she says about her experiences 14 years ago when she arrived from Kazakhstan. She was one of the “late settlers,” Russians of German ethnic origin allowed into Germany.

Now, Jurk heads a club called Zusammenleben (Living Together) that seeks to help immigrants to integrate into a society where often they face animosity.

She says that in her own case things had not been easy in Freital. “But it wasn’t easy for the people of Freital, either,” she says. Back then, the townfolk had not been consulted about the imminent arrival of the migrants from Kazakhstan. “And now the same mistake: nobody informed the people here,” she said.

The refugees mainly from Syria are living in a former hotel that already has a past history of housing foreigners. Back in the days of communist East Germany, so-called “contract workers” – from Hungary, Mozambique and, above all, Vietnam – were housed here. The workers were needed by East Germany for its factories, such as the stainless steel plant in Freital.

In 1989, the year that communism fell, there were 60,000 Vietnamese in East Germany, making up the largest segment of the foreigners in the country. But integration of these people was not an aim of the communist leadership.

“The Vietnamese lived an insular existence,” says Ines Kummer, a Freital city council member from the Green Party. Kummer now works for a “welcoming alliance” to help refugees arriving in Freital, and recalls her own efforts back in the 1980s to help the foreign contract workers.

“This was absolutely not welcomed by the state,” she said. “There were repressions, and I was called in for a talk.” The state kept the contract workers isolated. And the dominant ideology of the communist party kept hidden a dirty secret: the existence of extreme right-wing elements.

After the fall of communism in late 1989, the dirty secret began to emerge in Freital and elsewhere around eastern Germany. In September 1991, about 60 skinheads attacked a group of Vietnamese with iron bars and chains in Freital. In another incident, a pregnant Vietnamese woman was severely manhandled by right-wingers.

Today, about 80 Vietnamese still live in Freital. A comment one hears from the townfolk about them is “Those ones are really nice people. They have integrated really well.”

But one scarcely gets much information from the Vietnamese themselves. A woman was asked if she was afraid amid the incidents against the immigrants this year, she said “Afraid? Why afraid? Everyone here in Freital nice.” The woman declines to identify herself and her eyes are trained to the ground. “Please, no more,” she says about being asked anything further.

Tatjana Jurk admits to being frightened again this year when the right-wing extremists marched through the town. “When the black-clad aggressive masses went through Freital, I was also afraid, and it wasn’t just me,” she said, recalling the series of attacks on the refugee shelter.

Saxony State Premier Stanislaw Tillich eventually turned up in Freital and called racism a “scandal,” words coming much too late, in the view of many. In July, the car of a leftist politician was blown up and fireworks hurled at his office and at a refugee flat. People who sought to help the new refugee arrivals told of receiving threats.

Freital’s population meanwhile is shrinking, and is now down to about 38,000. Only about half as many people between 20 and 25 live here as was the case in 1990, while the numbers of people over 65 keep rising. Of the overall population, there are 982 foreigners, or 2.6 per cent of the total. Without them, the town would be even emptier.

But talking with the locals, the animosity shows through the polite speech. “I don’t have anything against foreigners, but …” is a phrase heard often among the Freital townfolk, the same kind of sentiment expressed from people at the anti-Islamic, anti-foreigner demonstrations of the Pegida movement.

Jurk is out to help people to learn more about other cultures, religions and the causes of migration. She is now head of the state of Saxony’s integration network and deputy chief of the Social Ministry’s advisory council for integration and migration issues. She, as well as many other volunteers, carries out work where needed to achieve Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pledge, “We can do this.”

And the erstwhile immigrant from Kazakhstan is convinced that the integration of the new asylum seekers of today will succeed. “It is supposed to work. It will work. Just as back then with us.”

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