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Refugees Start New Lives In Dresden, As Anti-Immigrant Movement Grows

Cassandra Basler
At his studio apartment in Dresden, Bassel prepares a plate of homemade hummus to enjoy at sunset during Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam, which is observed with fasting and prayer.

As the richest country in the European Union, Germany stepped up to house more than 1 million immigrants during the migrant crisis in 2015. Now the German government faces one of its biggest challenges: helping refugees fit in. Germans in the City of Dresden want to help. Some wouldn’t expect it, because that city is home to the country’s largest anti-immigrant group. 

Thousands of anti-Islam protesters march through Dresden’s old city center every Monday. They wave German flags and chant “resistance,” a call to challenge what they see as immigrants threatening to change their culture.

They’re known as PEGIDA, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West. The nationalist group just celebrated the three-year anniversary of its founding in Dresden. 

Credit Jens Meyer / AP
Protesters take part in a demonstration of PEGIDA in Dresden in 2016. Slogan reads 'Peaceful and united against wars of religion on German ground – PEGIDA.

Credit Cassandra Basler / AP
An anti-racism flag that says "Racism Kills!" hangs outside apartments in Neustadt, a part of Dresden that was built largely after World War II. Neustadt is home to many artists, students and young families.

In a smaller corner of the city, locals want to change Dresden’s anti-immigrant image. Michael Kobel co-founded “Wilkommen in Löbtau,” a group to welcome refugees to his neighborhood, about two years ago. 

“The media just see the ‘Monday people’ doing the marches,” Michael Kobel says, “But this is not the majority of the people.”

Kobel says PEGIDA marchers get press because anywhere from three to ten thousand people come from across the country. He’s gone to counter-protests, but could only rally two or three thousand marchers. Kobel says it would take more than a march to change PEGIDA’s mind about immigration.

“These PEGIDA people believe at the moment it's a threat, and it’s hard to talk to them,” Kobel said. “It's essentially hopeless.”

Kobel’s church started programs to help refugees live alongside people who may see them as a threat. Volunteers run German conversation classes, soccer kick-abouts and even career mentorship programs.

Today, Kobel meets with some of the refugees who he mentors at a friend’s apartment. Bassel and Mohamed didn’t want their last names used for fear of retaliation against their families. They tell Kobel what life in Dresden has been like since they came here from Syria. Mohamed says he actually has gotten used to the PEGIDA marches.

“Sometimes I’m having cafe at the same place where they are demonstrating,” Mohamed says. “I just stare at him and watching them. They just pass by me not doing anything."

Mohamed sees mostly older men marching with PEGIDA. He says he where he lives in Neustadt, it’s a younger, open-minded part of the city. He’s made some friends there, but he says it’s still hard to get close to people.

“The problem which I face, personally, is not with those PEGIDA guys. The problem is that it’s a different culture. You know the Germans are really nice and friendly, but they're not open easily to a stranger,” Mohamed says. “Even among themselves, the Germans cannot take you as a friend from the first day or from the first week. For us, we can be friends from one day and open and go hang out together.”

Mohamed wants to meet people at the workplace. He and Michael Kobel want to get him into hospitality apprenticeship program sponsored by the German government. It’s a new way that Germany is trying to help asylum-seekers build a life in the country.

Michael Kobel has a different challenge helping Bassel, who taught grade school in Syria for nearly 15 years. When they met at a dinner in a temporary shelter for migrants, Kobel promised to help Bassel learn enough German to get certified to teach again. 

“This is indescribable,” Bassel says of the help Kobel has offered. “This is like dream for me.” 

Credit Cassandra Basler / AP
Bassel listens during his class at Dresden Evangelische Hochschule. The school is similar to a community college.

Becoming a teacher in Germany won’t be easy. Migrants asking for asylum can’t get jobs because they have to be in their country of origin when they apply for German work permits. Temporary residency cards offer migrants a stipend for housing, food, and basic German lessons. Kobel says the government bureaucracy makes it hard for newcomers like Bassel to start professions, even though many want to earn a paycheck.

“I had no idea how to become a teacher if you already have been a teacher in Syria,” Kobel says. “I had billions of phone calls. How do you do that? It’s nowhere described, so how should Bassel have been able to find out? It’s hopeless.”

Kobel says the regulations around refugees are new and programs pop up all the time. It has taken two years to learn how to find the right offices, or documents or other resources Bassel and others need.

Kobel has finally figured out the process. He helps Bassel pay for an advanced German language test required to apply to a university. Kobel even covers Bassel’s tuition for a pre-requisite class.

Bassel’s early childhood development class meets three times a week at the Dresden Evangelische Hochschule, a kind of local community college.

One morning, Bassel and a dozen other international students sit around a table covered with a stack of photographs. The professor, Irene Sperfeld, asks them to pick out two photos that describe what it’s like to speak more than one language. 

Credit Cassandra Basler / WSHU
Professor Irene Sperfeld listens as her students discuss photos they chose to represent the languages that they speak.

Speaking in German, Bassel says he chose a lightning bolt to show how fast words come to him in Arabic. A tall staircase shows what he has to overcome to speak German.

“It takes a lot of strength to learn a new language and to climb those stairs,” Sperfeld says in German.

Bassel and his classmates agree.

Now, Bassel has passed his early childhood education class and he plans to take his German fluency exam this month.

His mentor, Michael Kobel, says Bassel has a chance to teach school. Kobel says that could help change PEGIDA supporters’ minds about immigration.

“My hope is if we bring people just to work in the society, and each of the PEGIDA persons will have a person at work next to him or her, which comes from Libya and Syria, and they will experience that they are human beings like we and they have values like we are having.”

As more newcomers get apprenticeship placements, Kobel’s vision may slowly become a reality. In the meantime, the far-right, anti-immigrant party, “Alternative fur Deutschland” has become the third largest party in German Parliament. 

Kobel says the election results shocked him. But, they’ve inspired his group to do more to make Dresden a welcoming city. He says with support from the mayor, volunteer organizations have started a network of 30 groups that are helping refugees build careers in Dresden. 

Cassandra Basler, a former senior editor at WSHU, came to the station by way of Columbia Journalism School in New York City. When she's not reporting on wealth and poverty, she's writing about food and family.