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Iraqi Refugees - Germany says YES

04 August 2009


Private citizens have banded together under the ‘save me’ banner to support refugees from all over the world.

Damian is beaming. Just a few days after the four-year-old Iraqi boy arrived in Munich, he was given what so many football fans dream of: a shirt from Germany’s most famous football club, FC Bayern Munich. A few minutes later, the little fellow was running around the huts at the refugees’ emergency shelter in the district of Englschalking, wearing his Bayern shirt and shorts, with red fan’s cap on his head.

Damian is one of a group of 28 Iraqi Christians who fled to Syria after being persecuted for their religion in Iraq. They are the first of 2,500 refugees that Germany has pledged to take in within the framework of a United Nations program for particularly vulnerable refugees: 375 of them will find a new home in Munich, thanks to the initiative ‘save me – eine Stadt sagt Ja!’ (a city says yes!).

The program was founded in the Bavarian state capital a little less than a year ago. In the summer of 2008, the Munich city council voted unanimously to back the call by the then-900 supporters and patrons – and pledged to take in refugees, thereby becoming the first city government to throw its weight behind the ‘save me’ program.

The city has called on the federal government to join the UN’s regular Resettlement Program, so that the most vulnerable – women, children, the elderly and those that are traumatized, sick – can make a new home in Germany.
European countries that currently support the UNHCR program are Norway (1,000 refugees), Finland (550), the Netherlands (500), the United Kingdom (380) and Ireland (200). The U.S. resettles more than 41,000 people every year and countries like Brazil and Chile take in a few dozen refugees. The UNHCR in Iraq decides who is especially vulnerable.

The UN refugee agency considers Germany an ideal participant in the program. After all, West Germany successfully took in and integrated 30,000 Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s and 1980s; in the following decade, 3,000 Albanians and 360,000 Bosnian and Kosovar refugees found at least temporary asylum in Germany. The UNHCR has also pointed to the huge drop in the number of asylum seekers here – quietly suggesting there is now room for more.

The ‘save me’ campaign, however, says it out loud, hoping that if whole communities follow Munich’s lead – and accept refugees – they want to increase political pressure from the bottom up. The organizers hope that with this groundswell, national politics will no longer be able to avoid a commitment to take in more refugees.  The ‘save me’ initiative has now spread to more than 30 German towns and cities, including Augsburg, Berlin, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Greifswald, Hanover and even Rostock – a city still battling the reputation for xenophobia it gained when an asylum-seekers’ shelter was torched there in 1992. Some city governments in Aachen and Kiel have already agreed to do as Munich has, pledging to take in refugees and passing on their appeal to Berlin.
People covered by a resettlement program do not have to go through the long, drawn-out procedure of applying for asylum. They get an immediate residency and work permit which is valid for three years, with the option of having it extended.

Many of the supporters of ‘Save me’ – who now number more than 10,000 – have promised to act as patrons, offering personal assistance. They pledge to support the new arrivals in various ways to help them get used to their new home, including giving advice and accompanying refugees to register and on other visits to government offices.

In Munich, the first patrons have had a lot to do since the arrival of the first small group. They took the 28 Iraqis on a tour of the city, visited the zoo and regularly visited the shelter in Englschalking. They have collected clothing and household goods. They have helped the Iraqis search for jobs and apartments. They even tracked down bicycles for them, which they fixed up in a joint effort with the new arrivals – an opportunity for the Iraqis to learn their first words of German. The Iraqis were also given a short list of the most important expressions for everyday life – in German and Arabic.

Some patrons go even further, like Sarah Hergenröther, 30, who is now working on the project semi-professionally. She has a part-time position at the Munich refugee council, which the city finances to support the initiative. Hergenröther is a particularly significant person to the Iraqis as she speaks fluent Arabic and can interpret for them. Hergenröther, who has a degree in Islamic Studies, lived in the Middle East for a number of years.

The various supporters of the ‘save me’ project have a broad spectrum of motives. Some are political, others are linked to family history – but all are deeply humanitarian. On the projects’ websites, hundreds of people have written about why they became involved – their statements sitting alongside their names and photos.  ‘I’m involved,’ one reads, ‘because my own parents were refugees.’ Others say they participate ‘because I hate apathy;’ ‘I’m ashamed of Germany’s refugee policy;’ and because ‘incredible amounts of money are made available in the financial crisis but there is no attention given to social policy.’

Other comments strike a different note: ‘I’m in the project because people should be welcome everywhere; because no-one flees their country voluntarily; because anyone can become a refugee;’ or, quite simply, ‘because it’s the right thing to do.’

Germany is taking in 2,500 Iraqi refugees as part of a special UN program. Since 2007, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been appealing to Germany to accept a set number of refugees annually as part of the regular UN Resettlement Program – without success. Now, a movement that started in Munich is placing pressure on politicians. Regional groups are working to host refugees under the motto ‘save me – a city says yes.’

Source:‘Because it is the right thing to do’, by Christine Schulz, The Asia Pacific Times, June 2009 Life