Refugees in Würzburg: Commitment to people in need - chances for our society
Lord Mayor of Würzburg
Excellencies, Respectabile Sánchez Sorondo, dear Mayors Colleagues from Europe,
First of all I want to thank the Academy for organizing this summit. I want to thank all my Colleagues that spoke today up to now and those that will speak after me. We all see that we are not alone with our opinion and attitude. And attitude is asked.
When I was elected Lord Mayor of Würzburg in 2014 the refugee topic was not yet a major topic on the local agenda in our region. I have learned during the last two years that the word of us as mayors is important. When a colleague announces in the radio that in this or that quarter of his town there is due to the existing social problems no further room for giving shelter to refugees in a gym-hall, it is no wonder that a fire is set to that gym hall the following night. Words can set fire. I have learned that we mayors are responsible for the peace in our towns. Our word has weight and importance.
What worries us is the mood in our local societies. In the last elections in the federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern the extreme nationalist parties have been extremely successful. There are only 6000 refugees in that area. On the other hand in those cities of Lower Saxonia with the highest proportion of immigrants the success of these parties was very poor. Conclusion: people who live in a multiethnical environment have less prejudices and less fear. Therefore we have to think about the ability and the will of our people to integrate.
The will depends on the personal perception. I think of school classes with only 1 or 2 original German pupils. That’s difficult for parents and a challenge for kids. And I do not want that parents who can afford it sent their children to private schools. There are quarters in our towns in Germany where people say they do feel like strangers in their own country. That's a problem.
Würzburg is the town in Germany with the youngest population due to its universities with 37thsd students. We have 125 thousand inhabitants, without suburbia. I quote myself in front of my city council: if not in Würzburg where shall we be successful with integration? We have an unemployment rate of 3%. But people are scared when in a peaceful midsummer night a 17yr old boy runs through a train in our town armed with an axe and hurts severely tourists from Asia and even a female employee of my administration working for refugees. What an irony of fate. The terrorist underage boy was looked after well, kept in a German host family, not in a tent, not in a mass accommodation. I was on the ground where he died that very night. I felt sad and full of sorrow.
125 thousand people, three thousand refugees and about two thousand volunteers, giving language classes, cooking with the refugees, doing all kinds of social work. The people say: being a refugee helper gives a new meaning to their life, to a life of no real worries. E.g. Care Packages for children, called Love Boxes. Thousands of them are packed in Würzburg for children with toys and brought to Greece by German volunteers. Helping personally and not only donating money. The church, our bishop Friedhelm, the monasteries help. After 15 month many of the refugees have learned good German, go to school or are in promising work programs.
But on the other hand people are also scared. We know as politicians what is right in and for our towns. I, myself, am a descendent of a refugee family. My parents escaped from Königsberg, East Prussia in 1945. My mother was ‘interniert’, interned in Denmark between her tenth and fourteenth year of live until 1949. But even she, now in her mid-eighties, with a personal experience in her CV says there is a difference between integrating twelve million people from eastern parts of Germany after WW II and two millions nowadays, that’s the language and the cultural heritage. If we want to help more refugees today - which is even from the economic point of view very reasonable due to low birth rates and in a situation in which the enterprises search for labour force - we must ensure prove that we integrate them successfully. We are good in that, but interference by terrorists with axes or driving trucks through a crowd of people undermine our efforts. No mayor in Germany calls for refugees, but we have to cope with the situation and its consequences. And there is no alternative: we have to be successful!
Germany has made its experience in the in the middle of the twentieth century. The home town of my parents was erased on the 29th of August 1944. Würzburg was wiped out within twenty minutes on the 16th of March 1945. More than 90% of its buildings were destroyed. Countless victims. I know why we give shelter to people from Syria, from Aleppo. But people in Germany with a remembrance of this time after World War II die out. Many people do not know nowadays that the Europe of de Gaulle and Adenauer was primary a peace project. Adenauer was a former mayor of the city of Cologne.
Perhaps we, the mayors of Europe, have to offer a new life, a new spirit to the people: The spirit of an open-minded progressive urban society and not of backward-looking nationalistic odour. The spirit of the people living in our young European cities. The spirit of tolerant humanity in freedom. I want to work on that, it’s worth it. Let’s raise our voice. Words can set fire, indirectly, but they can also set peace, directly.