Demonstration in Hamburg - lots of people with pink balloons.

A warm welcome for refugees makes Hamburg more pleasant for us all.

This blog is about people who choose to come to Hamburg, and most people whom I have spoken to so far have been young professionals, often from within the startup scene. While some people I speak to have difficulty acquiring permission to live within Europe, many others are lucky enough – as I am – to enjoy freedom of movement within the European Economic Area.

In recent months, an increasing number of people have sought to gain access to fortress Europe. Many are fleeing civil wars, such as in Syria, and are seeking sanctuary within our borders.

Now is the time to remember that, however ill-defined the group of “internationals” we talk about is, anyone who comes from a different country is in. This has to be said because it is all to easy to think of the creative class as the designers, developers and creatives who have gone to western universities and cross borders in the priority lane.

For me, a place like Hamburg is more attractive if it is open and welcoming to other cultures and nationalities. My interviews with international people, no matter where they are from, shows that I’m not alone.

Germany’s changing identity

Germany is a great magnet for many of those seeking shelter. By and large, Germany has been very welcoming to the refugees, both on a political and personal level. Even before this crisis, there were plenty of examples of brave people breaking the mould – even the law – to make life easier for newcomers.

Yes, there have been instances of far-right attacks on asylum seekers’ residences, mostly in eastern Germany. This and the recent PEGIDA demonstrations – both unwelcome reminders of Germany’s past – were likely an additional spur for ordinary citizens to take to the streets, make donations and generally offer help. Germany is keen that the fanatics don’t determine its image.

And they seem to be succeeding.

Practical help from all quarters

Seemingly unafraid of attracting more than the predicted 800,000 people who will arrive in Germany by the end of this year, the level of practical help is something I wouldn’t have expected. Aside from the generally welcoming atmosphere on social media (where I could be a victim of the filter-bubble effect), the statistics show that people are not fazed by the influx. A few weeks ago, there was a poll showing 60% of Germans thought their country would be able to deal with the predicted 800,000 refugees. Even the stables where my wife has riding lessons were collecting in-kind donations. (I’m going to use this as an excuse for a selfie with a red-headed Iceland Pony.)

Selfie with red-headed pony
Any excuse for a selfie with a horse.

For years now, it has been fashionable to be anti-Nazi – which always seemed a bit quaint to me, as it kind of goes without saying and is even a legal obligation. Now, Germany has the chance to do something active and is stepping up to the plate.

A generally favourable atmosphere for refugees

At a demonstration in the city centre on 12th September the mayor, Olaf Scholz, spoke to a crowd of people showing their support. I didn’t hear a lot of what he said, but he did at one point say that Germans can’t help being flattered when newcomers chant “Germany! Germany!” at the main station.

Demonstration in Hamburg - lots of people with pink balloons.

Whilst tempered by the reality of what integrating so many people means, his message was generally positive.

Recent examples of Hamburg being open to newcomers

Even before this all started, people have gone out of their way to help refugees in Hamburg.

A prime example is the director of the Kampnagel cultural centre – you may remember it from my article about Maria and Lucas – who used an art project to house some refugees, for which she risked breaking the law, and losing her job. In fact, the “Alternative für Deutschland” party tried to prosecute her. Shame on them. When people say Germany is a risk-averse nation, I use this as an example of civil courage.

Outside Kampnagel.

Another example is the group called the “Lampedusa” refugees, who found refuge in a Hamburg church near to the famous Reeperbahn. They are named after the island off Italy that many refugees use as a way of setting foot in Europe. They certainly haven’t had an easy ride, but they were supported by some civil society campaign groups and were a symbol for the dilemma Europe faces regarding the thousands of people dying on the Mediterranean.

I’m not sure what their current status is, but there is a group fighting their corner and they did a brilliant campaign a while ago comparing them to the Beatles, who famously played their first gigs in Hamburg. You can images of the see the poster campaign here: Poster campaign for the Lampedusa refugees.

The Lessing Festival

The Thalia Theater holds the Lessing Festival annually, which is a celebration of Hamburg’s openness to other cultures. In 2013 they had Auma Obama as a speaker and featured performances from the Lampedusa group (see above).

I know that Germany is often said to be somewhere behind other countries in terms of its attitudes to people of ethnic minorities, and being genetically white Anglo-Saxon, it would be wrong for me to dismiss this.

I have had experiences where I felt that people’s distinction between German and non-German was too much along racial lines (e.g. referring to someone as a Turk because they are a German of Turkish origin) – so everything is not completely rosy – but I get the impression that Germans are willing to question themselves and consistently make progress. During the discussions at events like The Lessing Festival, you can almost hear the cogs whirring in people’s brains as they deal with issues like race, nationality and what that means for the future.

Auma Obama at the Lessing Festival
Auma Obama speaking at the Lessing Festival in 2013

Germany: a bastion of hope?

Der Spiegel, a German weekly, led with the issue of refugees a few weeks ago. It printed the same edition with two covers: one bright Germany (buntes Deutschland) and the other dark Germany (dunkles Deutschland).

This era is very much central to the future German identity. It could yet go either way – but I’m optimistic that Germany will find a new place in the world as a bastion of hope and openness. A true Einwanderungsland.

Hamburg, the self-styled “gateway to the world”, will be at the forefront and this makes me even happier to call the city my home.

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