How realistic was Merkel’s “We can do it”?

Field report of a volunteer refugee helper

by Jürgen Siegenthaler*

With her “Wir schaffen das!” (We can do it) the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for a so-called welcome culture, which was initially readily implemented in Germany by many citizens. Many people volunteer to care for refugees and migrants. In the following report, one of these many helpers demonstrates what the care provided by a volunteer has looked like in practice from 2015 to the present and which concrete problems have arisen and still arise.
Among other things, I look after a Syrian family with three children. Their flight from Syria to Germany began at the beginning of June 2015 and lasted 28 days. Mr L.** is now 41 and Ms L. 35 years old. The wife was pregnant in 2015 (6th month – birth of the third child at the end of February 2016), the other children were 4 and 6 years old. Both parents went to school in their home country only up to the 6th grade. From then on, Mr L. worked for his parents as a farmer, and his wife worked as a sewer at the time.
They had fled because of bomb droppings and poison gas, used in the war. They were also unable to stay in their village. From the north of Syria they drove from their hometown by car to the border of Turkey, then by boat to Greece. From there they went to Northern Macedonia, 70% on foot, 30 % by bus. In Serbia they had to walk a lot at night so as not to be picked up by the police until they finally arrived in Hungary. Then they went six hours by taxi through Austria to Germany. On 18 July 2015 they arrived in Ellwangen, on 24 July 2015 they were transferred to an asylum centre in a medium-sized south-western German town. Since the end of January 2016 they have been living in a small southwest German town, now in a two-room apartment with bathroom and kitchen. Everyone sleeps in the “bedroom”, which is equipped with a bunk bed.
At the end of August 2015 I welcomed the family, which was still four-person at the time. A verbal communication was not possible over 1½ years, which would have been actually urgently necessary, so that the family can integrate itself. It is not possible to describe everything in detail, so I will only mention a few tasks and problems which made a daily exchange necessary and for which a translator was always needed: for example, when buying the furniture, registering with the municipality, re-registering from the job centre, requesting various forms (and these always only in German!), the application for child benefit, the school search for the father, for a kindergarten place, the registration at the special needs centre (the 6-year-old son is handicapped), the search for a doctor, paediatrician and gynaecologist, the opening of a bank account, the making of various photocopies, complex appointments with the eye and an ENT specialist for the handicapped child, the application to classify the care level of the handicapped child with the health insurance and the registration at the special school.
In the beginning, the parents did not agree with the latter because they did not consider their child handicapped, and this was eventually only possible thanks to the efforts of the translating compatriot. In the meantime, after thorough medical examination and questioning, care level 3 was approved by the health insurance company. In addition, speech therapy and occupational therapy are necessary. The child now wears hearing aids, right and left and glasses (for three quarters of a year he had to wear an eye patch to correct his strabismus). For all this it took many appointments, meetings, requests, telephone calls, arrangements, considerations …
All the help based entirely on my own initiative and was only possible with the help of a translator. Many necessary steps dragged on for hours and days, with many queries. Volunteering was only possible because I was not tied-down professionally, and I was able to help in a competent and committed way thanks to my previous professional experience.
The second son had school problems right from the start and are still apparent today (risk of promotion to the 2nd grade) and can only be solved – if at all – through clarification with a counselling centre. Both parents have meanwhile completed the A2 language exams with not particularly good grades, despite the fact that my wife, who was also a volunteer, gave two extra lessons a week.
In Syria, everything happened in the extended family (the father has 5, the mother 9 siblings). The communication of values takes place within this framework. However, in the new environment this family background is missing. The parents assert no influence on the behaviour of their children. If the children are frustrated or in a bad mood, sweets are handed out straight away. At home, when children cannot play on the street, they are only busy with their smartphones. They do not learn at home for school either, despite my epeated hints. Sure, each family has its own problems, but to associate themselves with us and to reflect on our suggestions they hardly consider at all. And they don’t understand this either.
The Migration Office for Refugees offers many training courses and workshops, which are often not possible to attend for families with children. All these offers are voluntary. The basic problem is that they will only take profit if a refugee is willing to advance his integration, especially his professional integration. Those who do not make use of the offers for various reasons retain their financial support from the job centre. At school, for example, they try to give the children an education. However, the framework conditions are difficult: in classes (of 20–25 pupils) with an average proportion of 80% foreigners, it is extremely difficult to facilitate integration. Many children come from different educational backgrounds, which makes integration even more difficult. It is somewhat easier for those who already have a certain level of education in their country (high school certificates, university students, university graduates …).
The knowledgeable reader can see from this how much – apart from human effort – must be spent financially, as Hannes Hofbauer has stated: “The German economist Konrad Schuler estimates that the German budget will be burdened with 47 billion euros annually in the next four or five years due to this migration in 2015/2016. That is 15 % of the German budget, and this is of course reflected in other places where expenditures will be cut as a result of this” (Current Concerns from 6 December 2018). These figures have certainly prompted Finance Minister Scholz to make cuts in refugee aid because the costs continue to rocket.
One more thing to mention is that voluntary helpers receive no financial support from any parts for their selfless commitment in all matters. Thus, it is not surprising that also committed volunteers have withdrew, not because of the financial strain, but rather from lacking public recognition and support.
Ms Merkel said in 2015: “We can do it!”
In view of the situation I have described, German politicians must finally stop supporting wars predominantly sparked off by the USA, producing the streams of refugees, but to do everything in their power to ensure that the people can return to their country and utilise the skills they have acquired so far to build up their own country.    •

*For reasons of data protection a pseudonym was chosen.
**The abbreviations of the names are changed.

(Translation Current Concerns)