Joanna Slater/The Globe and Mail
Joanna Slater/The Globe and Mail
Germans see a different side to Merkel
Joanna Slater in Berlin: The Chancellor took the lead in making her country a welcoming place for hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking a new life. And ordinary Germans are playing a key role in augmenting the humanitarian effort
The sun had already set behind the rolling fields of eastern Austria when the taxi dropped me off at the side of a highway. The driver and I peered over a small rise, beyond a row of police cars. "It's there," he said, pointing.
The place he meant was an expanse of concrete, whipped by wind and filled with hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who had just walked across the nearby border with Hungary. In the cold darkness, they began to form a line, supervised by soldiers in surgical masks.
I began talking with one Syrian family, Kurds from Qamishli. We waited for hours, inching forward until we reached the front of the line. After a short bus ride, we arrived at a local train station, where police officers directed us onto a double-decker train. " Almaniya! Almaniya!" they shouted – the Arabic word for Germany.
But where exactly in Germany? Once we pulled out of the station, I walked the length of the train several times, hoping to find a railway employee. Each car was packed with dishevelled, exhausted people, mostly relieved to be out of the cold and in motion. I briefly considered banging on the locked door at the front of the train, then thought better of it.
Most of the people I encountered told me they were simply seeking safety and a refuge from conflict. Others saw a window to improve their opportunities, gambling that Europe would provide such chances. Many were from Syria, but also Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and even Somalia.
The train ride continued for a few hours until, in the middle of the night, we stopped in the Austrian city of Linz. The asylum seekers slept a couple of hours in a converted parking garage while I found a small hotel nearby. Early the next morning, we boarded a special train filled with refugees that crossed the Inn river into Germany at the city of Passau. From there, they would board buses destined for every corner of the country.
I spoke with some of the federal police officers overseeing the operation. Brisk and gruff, they knew they were witnessing something historic. The distribution centre in Passau represented the end of a humanitarian corridor stretching all the way from Greece. Roughly a million people have sought refuge in Germany in 2015. For Chancellor Angela Merkel, it's an influx that will define her legacy and alter her country.
That train journey in late September was my third trip with refugees and migrants travelling through Europe.
I had arrived in Berlin a year earlier on a temporary assignment, looking forward to reporting on Germany's role in the region and the world. Little did I know that my final months here would be dominated by the odyssey of those crossing the Mediterranean.
Writing about that exodus – and Germany's response to it – has been unforgettable. Ms. Merkel, long mocked as hesitant, stepped forward. Ordinary Germans, for complex reasons, made extraordinary efforts to help. I met refugees beginning the bumpy transition to a new life and wrote about others whom I feared did not survive the journey – only to discover, thankfully, that they had.
As I prepare to leave, there are more questions than answers.
What will this historic movement of humanity mean for Europe? Will Germany eventually restrict asylum seekers from entering? What awaits the refugees in their sought-after destinations?
The first time I saw Ms. Merkel was in November, 2014, during an event to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. On a frigid, cloudy morning, Ms. Merkel arrived with a group of local officials to place flowers honouring those who were killed trying to cross to West Berlin. Bells rang out. She shook hands with some of those in the small crowd.
What struck me was how everything Ms. Merkel did was unfussy and without obvious pretense. It's a trait that endears her to Germans, who see in her down-to-earth ways a reassuring steadiness. At the time, Ms. Merkel projected a steadiness that bordered on boring. She had been in power nearly a decade, faced no serious rivals and navigated crises with an abundance of restraint and pragmatism.
The refugee crisis would introduce Germans to a different side of Ms. Merkel, one that is far less cautious. By early September, the flow of migrants and refugees to Europe had reached a turning point. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced that his country would complete its border fence. Meanwhile, he banned asylum seekers from Budapest's Keleti Station, stranding thousands of people and turning the area around the station into a squalid camp.
After days, the Hungarian government finally flung open the doors to the station but cancelled all international trains. I joined the scores of refugees who boarded the first train that departed the station, desperate to keep moving west. Half an hour later, I witnessed their panic when the Hungarian government halted the train and surrounded it with riot police. The trapped train galvanized the masses still gathered back at Keleti. The following day, they took their future into their own hands and decided to walk to the border with Austria, chanting "Germany! Germany!" and "Merkel! Merkel!"
The march presented Ms. Merkel with a conundrum, one she understood on a visceral level. A flow of humanity that large can only be stopped by a fence, guarded by people with guns. Either stand on a wall, or let them through. And for the woman who had spent the first 35 years of her life living behind just such a barrier, the former was unthinkable.
Bernd Ulrich, a German political commentator, noted that, as always, there was an element of calculation in Ms. Merkel's choice. "The Chancellor did not make history in early September, the refugees did," he wrote. "She only acknowledged history, which is nothing to sniff at."
Gordon Welters/for The Globe and Mail
Earlier this month, I went down a staircase in a massive complex on the Baltic Sea built by the Nazis to serve as a getaway for loyal German workers. My guide was Jan Seidler, who works at a centre documenting the history of the resort. The local government had renovated a section and turned it into a youth hostel. Now, in the winter, with visitors scarce, it was serving as a refugee shelter.
Mr. Seidler pointed to bicycle frames and parts piled up in the corridor. He and others had begun repairing and refitting donated bikes for the asylum seekers and their children. As we climbed back up the stairs, Mr. Seidler turned and smiled. "I sometimes laugh when I think what Hitler would make of all this," he said. He clearly relished the idea that this building, which was supposed to serve as a showpiece for the Third Reich, was now being used to help vulnerable refugees.
Small actions by ordinary people add up. On a sunny September morning, I met Martin Beitz, a 34-year-old paramedic, at the railway station in Passau, a major entry point for asylum seekers. Initially, he had been opposed to the influx of people into Germany, he said. But he had some time off work because of an injury, so he went down to the railway station out of curiosity. He ended up staying more than two weeks. He worked 12 hours a day handing out coffee, tea, fruit, chocolate and diapers to the arriving refugees, an initiative organized and staffed entirely by volunteers.
Over and over again, local communities transformed school gyms, unused public buildings, empty warehouses and dormitories into housing for asylum seekers – often with very little notice. It seems as though every neighbourhood and hamlet has some volunteer organization posting a Bedarfliste – a list of required items – to assist the newcomers.
It is no exaggeration to say that the efforts of average Germans have saved Ms. Merkel from disaster.
The official apparatus was in no way prepared for the arrival of one million asylum seekers. Volunteers have played – and continue to play – a critical role in filling the gap between the government's abilities and current needs.
There are many motivations behind the desire to help. Some commentators saw the response of a "Generation Merkel" – a younger cohort of Germans aware of how fortunate they are to live in a safe, prosperous country and eager to give back. Others saw a way to atone for historical crimes, or to dispel notions of Germans as harsh and stingy.
Gordon Welters/for The Globe and Mail
Sometimes, the motives were uniquely personal. In a tiny village near the Dutch border, I met Max Saschowa, who as a child had fled from Soviet-controlled German territory into the Allied-occupied zone.
That experience nearly 70 years ago led him to befriend a young Syrian refugee, Khaled Allak, housed in a nearby dormitory for farm workers.
When Mr. Allak was moved to different housing for asylum seekers a hundred kilometres away, Mr. Saschowa stayed in touch. When I last spoke to Mr. Saschowa, he was planning to offer Mr. Allak a bedroom upstairs in his home.
One of the most disturbing stories I wrote in recent months was about a Canadian man, Gordon Walker, who was sailing with his family in the Mediterranean Sea when they came across scores of life jackets and backpacks floating in the water. They hauled out a few of the bags and took them back to Turkey, where they were staying. In one, they found three Iranian passports belonging to a couple and a toddler; in another, they found a Turkish visa for a young Iraqi man from Baghdad.
What had happened to these people? Either their boat had capsized or they had thrown items overboard in a desperate effort to stay afloat. I tried without success to find relatives in Iran or Iraq who would know if the four had survived. We checked with the Turkish authorities, to whom Mr. Walker had turned over the passports. Nothing.
Finally, after weeks, I received word from a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. Authorities on the island have a record of the Iranian family arriving alive: They appear to have been detained on Aug. 30 and released on Sept. 5. I called Mr. Walker to let him know and his relief was palpable. It's unclear where they went or what happened during that fateful crossing, but knowing they arrived in Greece is a happy ending.
For Germany and for Ms. Merkel, the road ahead is full of pitfalls. The initial effusive welcome from everyday people has faded. Even the best-intentioned volunteers cannot be expected to continue their efforts indefinitely. Polls show that support for Germany's far-right party, Alternative for Germany, is creeping up. There has also been a series of arson attacks on refugee shelters.
Lately, Ms. Merkel has focused on persuading Germans that the refugee situation is controllable, or at least somewhat under control. The government adopted a measure to reject asylum seekers from Balkan countries it deemed safe and to speed up their repatriation.
Ms. Merkel was also the driving force behind a deal with Turkey to stem the flow of people into Greece via the Mediterranean.
She has not, however, agreed to any limit on the number of asylum seekers entering Germany, despite the strong urging of some in her party. The woman who spent much of her life behind a wall is not interested in building one. Whether she will be able to stick to that principle is the great question facing Germany in the coming months and years.
Courtesy Rasha Abolof
Meanwhile, the refugees I met on their journeys are slowly acclimatizing to their new lives. Earlier this month, my family travelled to Munich to meet three Syrian brothers whom I first encountered in Austria back in September. Osama Omran, the middle brother, had the lower part of his leg blown off when a Syrian government fighter plane dropped a bomb on his university. He travelled all the way from Turkey to Germany on crutches. In Munich, he received a modern prosthesis for the first time.
My two young sons were both shocked and impressed by his prosthetic leg. "That's cool!" exclaimed my six-year old, goggle-eyed, as Mr. Omran demonstrated how it worked. Watching my kids play soccer with the three Omran brothers and their friends, it was not a stretch to believe that perhaps, as Ms. Merkel keeps repeating, Germany can manage this. But that is far from certain.
Back in Berlin, I received an e-mail informing me that the gym where my older son played soccer on weekends was about to be turned into a refugee shelter. It made me feel the tiniest bit German – and so, just as many Germans have done in recent months, I turned to my computer and started tracking down items needed to assist the newcomers.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the city of Passau was on the Rhine. It is in fact located at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers.
Joanna Slater is a foreign correspondent for The Globe who has been on temporary assignment in Germany.