A German Town In Decline Sees Refugees As Path To Revival
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's pay a visit now to a European town that wants to make use of asylum seekers, especially those that could be called economic migrants. The mayor of Friedland in Germany is hoping the new arrivals can help replace the young and educated natives who've been leaving that small town. Esme Nicholson reports.
ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: Tucked away in the northeastern corner of Germany not far from the Baltic coast, Friedland is a peaceful, rural town of about 5,000 people. It wasn't always so quiet here. In former communist times, Friedland was an industrial hub. Like many others here, 58-year-old Wilfried Block used to work at the local potato starch factory. But when Germany became one country again in 1990, things changed.
WILFRIED BLOCK: (Through interpreter) The factories were shut down after reunification, and it hit us hard. We lost 2,000 jobs in Friedland alone.
NICHOLSON: Block was lucky and found a job. He's been the mayor here since 1992.
BLOCK: (Through interpreter) We've invested a lot in regeneration. Our once gray, industrial town is now green and pleasant. But we've failed to keep people from leaving.
NICHOLSON: Since reunification, over 3,000 people, most of them young, have upped and left the town in pursuit of job prospects in the West. But now the job market here is improving, and there are open positions. Mayor Block is eager to fill the gap left by the town's own economic migrants with migrants from elsewhere.
BLOCK: (Through interpreter) First of all, we want to do our part and help. But we also want to encourage asylum seekers to put down roots and build a life in Friedland and help rebuild the town's economy.
NICHOLSON: And while larger towns are having to cobble together makeshift shelters and tent cities, Block says he has plenty of space.
BLOCK: (Through interpreter) Here, there's no need to turn sports halls and schools into emergency accommodation. We've got empty apartments to offer.
NICHOLSON: But the mayor doesn't get to decide on how many asylum seekers come to Friedland. Numbers are determined by the government, based on population size and tax revenue. That means Friedland won't be able to fill all its empty apartments, but 170 migrants are already here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking German).
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking German).
NICHOLSON: This is the weekly clothes bank, where many of the town's recently-arrived asylum seekers come to kit out their fast-growing children. Elizabeth Amoah sifts through a pile of woolen sweaters. The 35-year-old mother of three is from Ghana.
ELIZABETH AMOAH: I want my children to be bright future, yeah, because my first child say he want to be a doctor, and the second one say he want to be a lawyer. Then, my prayer that their dream should come true.
NICHOLSON: She says she came to Germany for economic reasons and is waiting to hear about her visa status. Her children go to the local school, and she wants to settle in Friedland. The woman who runs the clothes bank, Kerstin Kreller, welcomes anyone, whether a refugee or economic migrant.
KERSTIN KRELLER: (Through interpreter) Quite honestly, it's simply the best thing that could've happened to us. It's a miracle. People are arriving here instead of leaving. Not only can we offer these young, willing and educated people shelter but also opportunities that will benefit everyone and rejuvenate the local economy. It's a gift.
NICHOLSON: Kreller says the newcomers need more than just handouts.
KRELLER: (Through interpreter) We want to be able to help them in their search for a job, offer language courses and help them cope with German bureaucracy.
NICHOLSON: There are obstacles to integration. Friedland is running a deficit, and two representatives from the neo-Nazi NPD party sit on the town council. But the mayor says the far-right are a minority, and nothing will deter him from rescuing his hometown and helping anyone who comes here seeking a better life. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Friedland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.