Huddled Masses

by Jim Willis, Ph.D.,

“Welcome to the new Middle East,” said a native Palestinian engineer, now driving a taxi in Berlin. I had just entered his cab in the German capital upon arriving to cover a major story for newsok.com and The Oklahoman newspaper. His greeting may have summed up the feelings, fears, and even hopes of the German people who are hosting up to 1 million refugees—mostly Syrians—who are running for their lives and have come to Germany to find peace. For those displaced by violence and turmoil, Chancellor Angela Merkel is affectionately known as “Mama Merkel.” Like orphans, they have come seeking a forever home in her country.

In the wake of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, Germany’s open-door asylum plan for Syrian refugees sounds compassionate to many, dangerous to others, and insane to still others. Nevertheless, this country’s constitution mandates offering asylum to persons from other lands fleeing life-threatening conditions. As a result, Germany welcomes throngs of refugees that other countries—including the United States—are reluctant to accept at all.

To take in these refugees, Germany receives assistance from thousands of everyday volunteers and relief organizations like Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, and churches across the country. In so doing, many Germans seem intent on putting into practice the words of poet Emma Lazarus found on America’s Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

The fact is that one in three of these refugees are children, many of whom perish making the Mediterranean crossing in rickety boats. Germans seem aligned with Jesus when He said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them” (Matthew 19:14, NIV).

Robin Shulz-Algie, assistant manager of domestic programs at Save the Children Deutschland, underscored the emphasis on the safety of the young. “The biggest challenge at the moment is safeguarding the children,” he said. “That is the major task we take on. The biggest program for Save the Children at the moment is creating child-friendly spaces.”

“We want to try and make sure these children are not retraumatized,” said Diane Nakschbandi, communications officer with Save the Children. “They have already been through so much trauma in their home countries and in their journeys to Germany.”

Many nationals applaud Chancellor Merkel’s efforts. They know she grew up on the dark side of the Berlin Wall in the former East Germany and that she understands what it is like to fear for her life and the lives of family members.

However, other Germans expressed serious concerns after the Paris attacks that killed more than 100 innocents. German newspaper headlines trumpet the danger of Muslim extremism. On the Sunday following those attacks, the popular Bild streamed a one-word headline, all in capital letters. It read simply, KRIEG, the German word for war. And, the next day, the Allgemeine Zeitung blacked out much of its front page and simply stated: Paris, 13.11.

Attacks like those that transpired in Paris always resonate strongly in Germany, but one carried more local impact because some of the blasts went off right outside Stade de France, where Germany was playing France in soccer. “Like 1989 (when the Berlin Wall fell), these days are politically very important ones again,” said Karl Renner, Ph.D., professor of journalism at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. “Now it’s not about the German reunification, but the future of our political culture and the future of Europe. We are witnessing very climactic events.”

Keeping things in perspective, this is a country roughly the land size of Michigan but with eight times its population. The million refugees would amount to just a little more than 1 percent of the country’s 80 million people. According to Pew Foundation research, Germany has a Muslim population of only 5 percent, with projections of 7.1 percent by 2030.

Clearly, the German people are wrestling with a clash of two competing emotions: empathy and fear.

Perhaps the owner of a 500-year-old inn said it best. “Here we are like a social family. We look out for each other,” said Trudel Weiler, who operates a quaint inn in the town of Oberwesel nestled along the Rhine River with her husband, Klaus. “People who live along the Rhine are usually a happy people, and we welcome visitors. But it is troubling when you cannot see the face of a stranger because much of that face is covered.”

Weiler’s community now includes 50 Muslim refugees, and 50 more are expected soon. Despite their concern—and yes, fear—of terrorists sneaking in with the refugees, the people of Oberwesel try to make the Muslims feel welcome.

The town of Oberwesel can be viewed as a metaphor for countries like Germany and America as they try to balance the often-competing emotions of fear and compassion. It’s a balancing act that individuals must address for themselves.

Jim Willis, Ph.D., a veteran news reporter and editor, is a communication professor at Azusa Pacific University, author/coauthor of 14 books on the media, frequent overseas lecturer, and special correspondent who has covered the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 10th, 20,th, and 25th anniversaries of the fall of the Berlin Wall. jwillis@apu.edu