Worldview: Trudy Rubin in Germany: Working to integrate refugees

From left: Dara from Syria, Anna Hube, Katya Pfiffer, Ammar from Iraq (in front) and Michael Krueger.

BERLIN - Whatever happened to all those refugees?

Last summer, TV screens were filled with horrific stories of Syrian (and Iraqi and Afghan) refugees risking their lives on sea and land to reach Germany.

Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed them as a matter of principle, but her decision angered other European nations. It also helped fuel a wave of European hostility toward immigrants and the European Union's policy of open borders.

That hostility in turn fueled Britain's Brexit vote. It boosted the appeal of right-wing populist parties across the continent that warned of Muslim no-go zones and the imposition of sharia law.

So I was curious to learn how Germany was making out with its roughly one million newcomers. After talking with federal and local officials in several cities, along with refugees in Berlin and Dresden, I'd say they're doing surprisingly well.

"The level of fear is disproportionate to what is being implemented," said Jessica Bither, who works on refugee integration issues at the German Marshall Fund's Berlin office.

These fears were inflamed by the infamous attacks on women during New Year's Eve celebrations in Cologne by gangs of young, mostly Arab men. An exhaustive study by Die Zeit newspaper, though, found that most of the perpetrators were not war refugees but petty criminals who had no chance of getting asylum.

Moreover, the closing of borders by countries in the western Balkans and an EU deal with Turkey to halt the unchecked flow have drastically cut the numbers reaching Germany. And many migrants who did not come from active war zones will be refused asylum.

This has given federal, state, and local officials (who bear the brunt of handling refugees) a chance to move many of them out of mass shelters and into vacant apartments or repurposed office buildings.

German officials are intent on drawing lessons from the past, when large inflows of Turkish guest workers failed to integrate for two or three generations. Numerous conferences are focused on the mechanics of "integration": how to sequence language and job training so immigrants can rent apartments and build new lives.

One clear goal is to prevent the formation of inward-looking Arab immigrant ghettos. Benedict Goebel of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation told me: "The government wants to avoid a Molenbeek [the Moroccan-Belgian district of Brussels that produced ISIS terrorists] or the French banlieues [North African slums outside Paris] or the development of no-go zones in terms of law enforcement."

Toward that end, the German parliament is preparing a new integration law that will speed up job placement and language training, which, right now, is often lagging. The law may also permit local governments to decide where asylum seekers should live, although this provision is controversial and many believe it won't work.

However, in many locales, proactive officials and nongovernmental organizations, along with legions of German volunteers, are doing impressive work helping refugees. I will be writing more about some of these efforts at Philly.com/trudyrubin, but here are a couple of snapshots.

In Dresden, where the anti-immigrant Pegida group demonstrates weekly, Domenic Heyn, personal assistant to the mayor for social affairs, has been working on settling around 5,700 refugees, mostly single men, one-quarter of them from Syria. "Our focus is on teaching them German," he said, with many volunteers doing the teaching. Job searches come next.

But to brainstorm new ideas on integrating immigrants, he visited Boise, Idaho, on an exchange program called Welcoming America. He was joined by Michael Krueger, who heads a committee established by the city to promote tolerance. There they attended job workshops where Afghan and Iraqi immigrants did "speed dating" with local employers. Heyn said he was impressed with the "Yes, let's do it" spirit in the room and wants to hold a similar event in Dresden by September.

Krueger took me to a children's camp where Iraqi and Syrian refugees volunteered to entertain the children. "I want to work, no matter what, even for no pay," Iraqi refugee Ammar said in broken German. His entire family had been wiped out by ISIS and his ear half shot off. The German volunteers have also set up a refugee theater troupe and a choir in which the immigrants sing songs from their home countries.

"These guys are wonderful, really wonderful," volunteer Anna Huber said, nearly crying. The scene totally contradicted the image of single, male Arab refugees as predatory.

None of this is to say that there aren't problems integrating several hundred thousand newcomers. No one underestimates the security problems that could be caused by a few bad apples. German officials are discussing questions like who will fund new Arab mosques and how to prevent the financing of radical imams with Saudi or Arab Gulf money. And, of course, one terrorist episode involving asylum seekers could undercut all the positive efforts.

But the volunteer energy I saw displayed in Dresden and Berlin, and the many determined refugees I met, were an impressive sign of what is possible. Despite the rise of anti-immigrant populism, mainstream Germany seems intent on proving that integration can succeed.

trubin@phillynews.com