For several long months in late 2015, as The New York Times’s bureau chief in Eastern Europe, I reported from amid the tide of refugees and migrants making their way through the Balkans, suddenly the preferred choice for those fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa.
I watched them bounce ashore on the choppy waves separating Turkey from Greece, their inflatable boats crammed to overcapacity. Along every border they crowded, in wretched encampments of pup tents and debris. Razor-wire fences suddenly sprouted along borders that had only recently been proudly opened after more than a half-century of Nazism and communism.
To the question ”What do you want?” they all had the same answer: to get to a country in the prosperous West, usually Germany. To hear them say the word — “Germany” — was like listening to a prayer. As they disappeared through cracks in a border fence, I wonder how many of them would make it and what they would find when they got there.
So when I was asked to undertake a project to answer that very question, I jumped at the opportunity to be paired with Melissa Eddy, a veteran correspondent in The Times’s Berlin bureau. She had watched as Germans packed train stations and refugee arrival centers, waving welcome signs and working through the night to feed and assist the thousands of newcomers. “It was a rare outpouring of generosity and emotion,” she recalled, “and I was curious to find out whether it could last, if the Germans could maintain that level of acceptance and enthusiasm for nearly one million mostly Muslim migrants.”
Rather than looking at integration programs across Germany, we decided to pick one community and study it in depth, to watch how the first year or so of integration went for the asylum seekers who ended up there.
Are they adapting to the new ways of life, the new foods, the new liberal atmosphere? How easily have they traversed the difficult German bureaucracy, absorbed the alien German language, taken the first steps toward finding a job and a place in German society?
But we were also interested in the other side of that cultural divide. How were the Germans reacting to their new neighbors? No country, even a prosperous one of 80 million, can deal with one million new migrants without being somehow altered.
We settled on Weimar, a city of 65,000 in the rolling fields of Thuringia that is a bit like the Zelig of German history, turning up at every key crossroads and often leading the way.
Beginning in the late spring of 2016, Melissa and I made more than a dozen trips there — sometimes staying for a few days, sometimes for a couple of weeks. We met many of the 900 or so refugees who ended up in the city, as well as the local officials and volunteers trying to ease their integration and many of the original residents who were trying to adjust to the influx.
In hundreds of conversations stretching into the New Year, only a fraction of which we were able to include in the final, five-chapter project — accompanied by a package of 360 videos showing the migrants in their new homes — we followed the refugees’ progress and their struggles. And we watched as the city absorbed and adapted to its new neighbors.
“I think our society is changing,” said Ulrike Hertel, who runs a popular pizza parlor in the old city center on the ground floor of the townhouse in which her family has lived for five generations. “We can scream all we want, but there are more foreigners coming here. Even before the big group came in 2015, Germany was already starting to change.”
What we found in Weimar, in microcosm, was a Germany wary of change but forced to deal with it, both proud of the way its society has become a magnet for refugees and worried that Europe’s most prosperous nation has bitten off a bit too much.
For a young refugee named Bashar al-Sulaiman — who has learned German, found local roommates and assimilated at a blazing clip — integration is both a challenge and an adventure, leavened with homesickness and permeated with a sense of constant dislocation.
“Integration is all about how you deal with it,” he said. “I am very interested in how cultures can be so very different, and don’t see why I cannot take the best from both.”
Over the course of a long, hot summer, into a chilly autumn and a bitingly cold winter, we went on canoe trips with unaccompanied Afghan teenagers, walked the gravel yards of Buchenwald, attended arts festivals and music festivals and a festival of lights in sprawling Goethe Park, helped refugees move out of their first dormitory-like dwelling into their first Weimar apartment, attended neo-fascist rallies against the refugees and counterprotests in their favor, took cooking lessons from a Syrian chef and watched outdoor movies on a makeshift screen with a mixed group of German university students and recently arrived refugees in the gardens of a peeling palace.
It turned out to be an alternately uplifting and troubling experience to find out what happened to at least one small clutch of the refugees I saw spilling across the Balkans in 2015. For many, it was a gamble that they feel has paid off, or soon will. For others, the obstacles — whether the German language or the more liberal society in which they find themselves —remain too daunting.
“When will I feel integrated?” asked Anas Alkarri, one of the refugees we followed, whose son was born in Germany just a few weeks after he and his wife arrived. “What does this word even mean? I guess, first, when I have the language and, second, when I have a job. Right now, you feel like you are a liability to Germany, not an asset. You will be integrated when you feel like an asset.”