But like other Germans in a country that has rolled out the welcome mat for Europe’s largest wave of asylum seekers since World War II, residents here are having second thoughts.
That is especially true after the riot. In this quaint municipality of 3,000 inhabitants, the chaos started at lunchtime Sunday when a 19-year-old Albanian cut in the food line at the town’s new tent city, prompting a reprimand from a 43-year-old Pakistani. Pushes degenerated into punches. Soon, 300 migrants wielding pepper spray and metal pipes were attacking each other in rival mobs.
A caravan of ambulances and SWAT team vans careened down streets lined with gawking residents. More than 50 police officers struggled for hours to restore order, with three hospitalized with injuries, according to witnesses and local officials.
“You know, when the refugees started coming, I was one of those who saw people needing help and I thought we have to help,” said Harry Kloska, 46, a shaggy-haired instructor in the skydiving club based at the airport. He and his stunned clients huddled inside his office as the violence flared, Kloska said.
“But it’s been weeks [since the refugee camp opened], and I have a different opinion now,” he said. “I am not sure that we’re going to be able to do this, to help so many people from so many different countries.”
Germany is the single largest destination for the asylum seekers pouring into Europe, taking in more than half a million so far this year.
But as tensions start to bubble up in towns like Calden, Germany is undergoing a national reality check.
Without a doubt, millions of Germans are still welcoming the newcomers, many of them fleeing war in Syria. Classes are being organized to teach the newcomers German. The mega-conglomerate Siemens is offering internships.
But new fears are percolating, perhaps best expressed in the flagging poll numbers for Chancellor Angela Merkel, the European leader seen as most generous toward the asylum seekers. Her approval rating has slipped by three to five percentage points in recent polls, with Stern/RTL showing her at 49 percent – the lowest level this year.
On Wednesday night and early Thursday, violence broke out at two refugee centers in the northern city of Hamburg, including one incident involving 100 migrants wielding wooden planks as weapons, according to Hamburg police.
In Calden, 242 miles southwest of Berlin, the tent-camp riot over the weekend followed another incident in August in which Syrian and Albanian asylum seekers clashed.
Local police say there has been no noticeable increase in overall crime. Nevertheless, nervous residents say they have started locking their doors at night. In town, one mother angrily complained that the newcomers sexually harassed her 17-year old daughter at a bus stop. “Of course we are afraid,” she said.
Mayor Maik Mackewitz said “several young women” have stopped jogging in the nearby woods “because they are afraid of all these groups of men walking around.”
The local Edeka grocery store, meanwhile, has hired security guards for the first time because of concerns that refugees open packages of food without paying, the mayor said. On a recent afternoon, the store’s new guards were unsuccessfully trying to eject six beer-drinking Albanian migrants from a bench in the parking lot as two elderly German women tut-tutted nearby.
“It’s chaos,” Mackewitz, 38, a former officer in the German army, said at the entrance to the refugee camp.
Some in Germany also worry that they are importing ethnic and religious tensions from the refugees’ homelands. German police unions, for instance, are calling for separate housing for asylum seekers along religious or ethnic lines after what officials described as an “attempted lynching” of a 25-year-old Afghan Christian in the central city of Suhl in August. A group of Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian men, officials say, chased the Christian man after he tried to flush pages of the Koran down the toilet at a refugee center. Six police officers were wounded trying to stop the mob.
“This has been a big shock,” said Fred Jaeger, the Suhl police spokesman. “Never before have our police been physically attacked like this.”
Such acts are playing into the hands of the German far right, including neo-Nazi groups and the extreme National Democratic Party. As the number of newcomers has surged, so too has the frequency of xenophobic incidents targeting refugees, ranging from verbal abuse to arson. Last year, there were 198 such incidents; this year there were 437 as of Sept. 21. They have been most prevalent in the poorer, former communist east.
In and around the eastern city of Greiz, for instance, the far right has organized at least 10 protests recently.
In July, four Syrian men were brutally beaten in the town square by a group of Germans. The refugees said they had merely asked for the number of a local taxi company.
“After what happened to us, I feel that we are not wanted here, or welcome here,” said Alaa Odi, a 24-year-old Syrian interior designer and one of the four men attacked. Two of them required hospitalization.
Steffen Arlt, who runs the refugee center where the beaten men live, echoed the fears of residents who insist that the newcomers will never find jobs or adapt to German society. He also claimed that some of the men in his care were Islamist radicals, although he offered no proof.
“I do not have any skilled workers living here,” Arlt complained. “When I hear Merkel talk about this, it makes me sick. I know the labor market in this region; it is not so simple to find work here.”
Towns farther west in Germany generally have been more accepting, but even that is beginning to change.
Frank Himmelmann, 50, pastor at the Johannes church in Calden, said the townspeople didn’t really have time to prepare for the refugees’ arrival. Authorities announced in July that the asylum seekers were coming; two days later, state officials arrived to set up the tent city.
Even before the riot this week, he added, concern was rising that out-of-town shoppers were no longer coming to the historic town center or its grocery store because of the tent city.
At the camp – a complex of large white tents and aluminum structures packed with asylum seekers from 20 nations – residents blamed poor conditions, overcrowding and a lack of security for the tensions that allowed a small incident in the food line to ignite a full-fledged riot. There are, for instance, only 40 showers in a camp initially designed for 1,000 people but housing far more. There is not enough hot water for everyone.
“There is no security, no safety here; nobody knows what’s happening or who to ask for what,” complained Salim Firas Shafeeq al Omari, a 40-year-old Iraqi who said he sheltered two Pakistani youths in his tent during the riot to save them from gangs of Albanians going tent to tent. “Of course there are going to be problems.”
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Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.