Sahil Sadat fled Afghanistan last year to escape the Taliban, arriving in Germany only to discover a new kind of fear.
Placed in a newly opened refugee centre in Berlin’s predominantly white, working class Marzahn-Hellersdorf neighbourhood, Mr. Sadat and others watched from the dilapidated old school building as supporters of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) demonstrated noisily outside demanding the home’s closing.
“Someone came to me and a friend and said we should go back to our homeland,” said Mr. Sadat, 18. “They said if they saw us again, they would hurt us.”
But German neighbours, incensed at the threats, are rallying to the aid of asylum-seekers. They now keep a round-the-clock vigil outside the centre to protect the refugees. They remain there every day, escorting the refugees to buy groceries and other necessities nearby.
“It’s important for people to visibly work together against right-wing extremists,” said Ulf Buenermann, a member of the local Mobile Counselling Team against Right-Wing Extremism, a government-financed program that counsels communities how to fight extremism. “You can see that [the extremists] lose their confidence, influence and strength when civil society takes a stand and takes back public spaces.”
The first such counselling team was established in 1989, and similar community-based efforts have sprung up across the country. Right-wing extremist groups, according to numerous government studies, have flourished in many parts of eastern Germany, accompanied by violence against Germans they deem insufficiently patriotic and against foreigners who live, visit or apply for asylum.
The German parliament has debated a ban on the NPD several times over the last 12 years. But courts raised concerns over the constitutionality of a ban, and others have questioned whether a ban would have much effect on the ideology that supports the party. A recent parliamentary report said security forces have also failed to effectively deal with right-wing extremists. In the vacuum, local civic groups have banded together to take action to push extremist businesses and groups out of communities where they have gained a foothold.
“The asylum seekers don’t bother me. The right-wing extremists do,” said Janina Koch, a young mother in Marzahn-Hellersdorf who recently stopped by the refugee centre to ask how she could donate children’s clothes. “I’m also scared – it’s not nice having this around you and your child.”
In the Schoeneweide district of eastern Berlin, residents stage protests and pressured landlords to include clauses in rental contracts aimed at keeping out right-wing activities. One target has been the Hangman pub, which offers a “Himla” cocktail made of raspberry rum and lemonade and named for the infamous Nazi SS commander Heinrich Himmler. Recently, the landlord of the building housing the pub served the owner with an eviction notice.
“We don’t want to have any rental agreements with Nazis,” said Bernd Ital, a spokesman for the real estate company ZBI Group. “They rented with us for a few years but when we found out the bar’s right-wing extremist connections, we reconsidered the contract.”
Far-right groups have their strongest support is in the more impoverished areas of eastern Germany, such as the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The NPD holds five seats in its state parliament.
Here, too, though, local residents are fighting back. In the hamlet of Jamel, Mayor Uwe Wandel said he has been buying up plots of land to stop more far-right extremists from moving into the area.
“[We] have a small group here already, which is enough for me,” he said. “I don’t want them to get bigger or gain more influence.”