Görlitz, Germany.
Fritz Schumann

On a Thursday night in March last year, roughly 900 people gathered in the town hall in Boxberg, a German town in Saxony’s Görlitz district close to the Czech and Polish borders. Not everyone found a place. Some hundred people were standing, pressed uncomfortably to the walls or lining up outside, trying to listen to the debate between the town council and members of the local government on the arrival of 200 Syrian refugees. The loudspeakers failed constantly.

The atmosphere was heated. Broad-chested men, looking 50 years or older, shouted their concerns about public security and how refugees would worsen the already poor medical care in the area. The majority remained silent. Werner Genau, magistrate of the local district, took the stage. “Human dignity is inviolable,” he said, quoting the first line of the German constitution. “The people are coming. There is no way around it. We have to take care of them.”

The crowd sneered at him, as they had done when he had spoken earlier, but this time more hesitantly. In the end, despite the sometimes raucous outbursts, the meeting was productive. It was a way not merely to announce the refugees’ arrival but to listen to some of the town’s concerns and to reach a compromise: it was decided only 150 refugees would be sheltered in Boxberg. Some residents even approached Genau after the meeting and asked how they could help.

In other parts of Germany, similar decisions were made by the local government, but often without including or asking for the public’s input. And a year since Germany agreed to accept a million refugees from Syria, the German public still remains divided on this policy. Right-wing attacks are on the rise, especially in the eastern parts of the country, such as in Saxony, a German state known for its violent, neo-Nazi groups and the success of its right-wing National Democratic Party and, more recently, the self-proclaimed Alternative for Germany, which received 9.7 percent of state legislature seats in the 2014 election. It is a nationalistic party that runs on a strong anti-immigrant platform and pushes neoliberal and conservative policies. As a result, tensions within the region remain high. Just one month ago, on September 15, a neo-Nazi group of 80 men and women attacked a group of 20 refugees in Bautzen, 31 miles west of Görlitz. They threw rocks and bottles and blocked an ambulance trying to transport an injured 18-year-old Moroccan to the hospital. Only after a force of 100 policemen took up guard in front of the refugee home did the attackers disperse. Other attacks in Saxony include arson at asylum homes, assault against foreigners, and attacks on people supporting refugees.

Görlitz, Germany.
Fritz Schumann

But a remarkable thing is happening in Genau’s district of Görlitz: there were only nine attacks in two years, compared with 161 incidents in the biggest city nearby, Dresden. What’s being called the “Görlitz model” is a unique approach to solving the refugee crisis.

Understanding how the model works requires a look at the man pulling the levers: Magistrate Werner Genau, an engineer-cum–civil servant, who was born in the 1960s as the youngest of six children in a Catholic family. Growing up, he wore his older brother’s hand-me-downs, food was always scarce, and sharing was not merely a nice thing to do but a necessity.

Now 55, he has been working as a civil servant for the Görlitz district for the last 25 years, overseeing infrastructure and construction. Currently, 95 percent of his work concerns the refugees. Under his guidance, the local government implemented a new system in August 2014 that is largely based on dialogue between locals and refugees. The first thing that Genau did was adjust the language that was used to talk about refugees. “The word ‘asylum seeker’ has been burned,” Genau said. “People connect it with overcrowded shelters and all the problems that follow.” He prefers to speak of just “people” or “new neighbors” when he introduces these new populations to local residents. The town hall meeting in Boxberg is but one example of how such dialogues take place. Another is Genau going door-to-door to explain to longtime residents what this new influx of people will mean for them.

This sort of dialogue is exactly how Genau got to the heart of people’s fear of refugees. “People were afraid of large refugee centers not because of the people living there,” said Genau. They were scared of both right-wing and left-wing supporters clashing over the refugees in their neighborhood. They were right to worry. As chronicled by the nongovernmental organization Mut Gegen Rechte Gewalt (“Courage Against Right-Wing Violence”), since January 2015, there have been 561 attacks against refugees in Saxony. That is more than in all the remaining German states combined. It is also disproportionate, given that Saxony holds only five percent of the country’s population, of which only 3.9 percent are foreigners.

After this groundwork has been laid, the so-called Görlitz model proceeds to the second step, which involves moving people from large shelters or homes to decentralized apartments. “You can’t go in like a lawn mower,” said Genau. “The people want stability.” He found that the best way to introduce refugees as new tenants was by having the district sign a one- or two-year-long contract with the landlord to use the property for housing refugees.

An empty and abandoned building in Görlitz, Germany.
Fritz Schumann

Over all, locals appear accepting of the refugees. “If they are quiet, I don't mind them,” explained one older resident, who lives nearby a larger shelter in Zittau.

A young man, who was unaware that the building he had just walked by was a refugee home, said, “There have been no big incidents, so you are not really conscious they are here.”

Werner Genau confirmed this sentiment. “People don’t ‘see’ Syrians because they just mind their own lives as do all the others,” he said.

It also isn’t necessarily xenophobia keeping locals from welcoming refugees into their communities. While some argue that the eastern German states are xenophobic because of their former communist nature, a recent study claims that there is no such connection. Comparing individual criteria such as wealth, education, and employment, the analysis by Peter Selb, a scholar at the University of Konstanz, shows that eastern Germans are just as likely to be xenophobic as their western counterparts. The difference is just that there is more poverty in the east: between 20 and 30 percent of the people here receive financial aid from the government, compared with a national average of 15 percent. Of all the districts in Saxony, Görlitz has the highest rate of unemployment. Every tenth person is without a job.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a rough cut for virtually everyone in East Germany. The western economy rolled over the area and crushed those who were unable to adjust. Factories closed, jobs left—and so did the people. The economy of the east is still weak, with wages 20 percent lower than those in the west.

But the problem with Saxony is not merely a lack of money. It’s the emptiness. A fourth of its population left after the unification. The streets and buildings that still carry people look very modern and clean, but those that are without just fall into disrepair.

Görlitz district has a population of 260,000 and, with a debt of eight million euros, has its own share of issues; but with its empty homes and ruins, the time seemed perfect for a new approach. Perhaps the success of the Görlitz model is that it has given locals firsthand proof that refugees do not drag communities down but can even lift them up. Since the arrival of the refugees, some of the empty, abandoned houses dotting the town are animated once more.

“It’s a good thing that these old, empty buildings are seeing some life again,” said a woman who was out foraging for mushrooms, which is a popular pastime in Germany.

Like most countries in Europe, Germany faces a huge demographic shift. It currently has the lowest birthrate in the world and to compensate for a diminishing work force has to rely on migration in the future. Saxony is no exception. Since the unification in 1990, the state has lost a quarter of its population owing to either low birthrates or young people moving to other states for work. Around 50 percent of those leaving Saxony are under the age of 25. That being said, the state saw the biggest increase in population since 1990 in 2015, with refugees contributing largely to that growth.

“About 75 percent of our asylum seekers are families,” Genau explained. “When they arrive, they are temporarily put in a larger home, but the aim is to resettle them after one or two months into the community, when they seem to have adjusted.” After the arrival of the refugees, the entire district, but the city of Zittau most prominently, reopened schools and kindergartens to accommodate the new crowd.

Currently, 1,950 asylum seekers from 32 countries live in the Görlitz area, the majority of whom live within the community rather than in a large refugee home. Genau estimates that only two to three percent are unwilling to integrate into society, meaning they refuse to accept German laws or culture. But he believes that there is this two to three percent within any society, not just refugees.

To Genau, these conversations are the reason why the people of Görlitz were less resistant and violent when the refugees first arrived. Genau is a member of the same political party as Chancellor Angela Merkel, but he strongly rejects a political office. He believes that keeping politics at arm’s length makes it easier for him, at a practical level, to work with both sides of the political spectrum. On a human level, so to speak.

  • FRITZ SCHUMANN is a visual journalist from Berlin who has worked in a number of different countries and spent an extended time as a freelance correspondent in Japan. This article was created as part of Journey 2016, a project of the Bakala Foundation.
  • More By Fritz Schumann