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Letter From Dresden, Germany: What It's Like to Be a Refugee in Germany's Conservative Stronghold

"There is a TV crew here from Texas called Infowars. They are the good ones—they are for Trump. Be nice to them."
A policeman walks past the Higher Regional Court in Dresden, Germany.

A policeman walks past the Higher Regional Court in Dresden, Germany.

One afternoon, in a plaza in the center of Dresden, a tall man with a fatherly face and glasses insists that our interview be videotaped. Tourists and natives sit on patios eating sandwiches and ice cream as the man's colleague tries to get the video camera working. An old man in a straw hat approaches me to admire my interview subject. "Just so you know—in anti-Islamic dialogue, he is the No. 1 in Germany! That's why they call him a Nazi. And he is definitely not a Nazi."

With the camera finally ready, the man begins his speech, gesticulating as though to a live television audience, even though only a couple curious onlookers are watching. He warns of a surge of radical Islam in Germany. It's the result, he says, of the masses of Muslim refugees—men in particular—who have arrived here in recent years on the pretense of seeking asylum.

"Islam is used as a legitimization of rape and the willingness to achieve power through terrorism," he tells me in German through an interpreter. "They have a totally different culture and a totally different attitude toward women and violence."

A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.

The man's name is Michael Stürzenberger, and he's one of the better-known figures in a movement called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA. PEGIDA rose primarily in opposition to Germany's open-door refugee policy. In a calm, matter-of-fact tone, Stürzenberger tells his imaginary audience that the Muslims want to build 100 mosques in Munich. "They want to eliminate Judaism and Christianity," he says. "They are friendly to the outside. But that is all part of their agenda."

Within an hour, Stürzenberger's audience is no longer make-believe: He's on a stage in the center of the plaza, speaking before a crowd of some 2,500 PEGIDA enthusiasts. They've assembled to air their grievances against Islam, liberalism, and the media. They use terms like Lügenpresse ("lying press"), a rallying cry used by the Nazis that recently found its way from Germany to America, in the form of social media posts from certain Donald Trump supporters. "There is a TV crew here from Texas called Infowars," Stürzenberger tells the crowd. "They are the good ones—they are for Trump. Be nice to them."

Dresden has long elected conservative and right-wing politicians. It is a stronghold for the National Democratic Party, which Germany's Parliament has twice attempted to ban on the grounds that its prejudicial stances violate the constitution. Many Dresdeners' discomfort with foreigners may come from the fact that they barely know any. According to the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration, only 7 percent of Dresden residents have a foreign background. By contrast, 43 percent of Frankfurt residents do.

When the speeches end, the protesters begin their weekly procession—a march around Dresden's city center. Police cars block off the roads and confine a small group of counter-demonstrators to a side street.

As they march, the PEGIDA demonstrators wave German flags—a display that, until recently, was uncommon in a country wary of the evil that nationalism wrought in its past—as well as banners bearing a Christian cross in German colors. Chants of "Deport them" and "Merkel must go" echo through the streets. They also carry signs:

No Islam in Saxony.

Today we are tolerant. Tomorrow we are foreigners in our own country.

The latter slogan appears in lyrics from a 2010 album by a neo-Nazi punk band. The album is titled Adolf Hitler Lives!

A few days before the protest, I arranged to meet a young asylum seeker from Ghana named Romeo (a nickname, for security reasons) outside Dresden's main train station. Before I could introduce myself, he interrupted me and said, "They're watching us."

He was right. Romeo's black skin makes him noticeable, and people walking past us couldn't help but look. We walked over to a nearby restaurant's patio and picked a table far from other customers.

Romeo was born in Accra, but he says that, as a teenager, he was enslaved by human traffickers who lured him to Turkey on the promise of promoting him as a soccer player. Instead, his passport was taken from him, and he was set to work six and a half days a week as a farmhand, growing vegetables. Two years passed before he managed to escape and make his way to Bulgaria and then Serbia, working through Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic before reaching the border of Germany, where he was arrested. It was March of 2014.

"Someone told me that, in Germany, it's very safe for people who are underage," Romeo says. But Germany turned out to be no utopia for an African refugee. "Here, if you take a train and you are black, all the seats will be full, but nobody will come and sit beside you. Same on the bus," he tells me. On the streets of Freital, a town southwest of Dresden, Romeo says: "They call, 'Hey, nigger.' You are living in fear."

For Romeo, that fear stems partly from an incident that befell some of his friends—a group of Eritrean asylum seekers—a few months earlier. "One night they were sleeping," explains Romeo, when "somebody came to throw a bottle with fire into the windows."

"They went to the kitchen, and they saw the place was on fire and the window being broken. They tried to put water on it to put it out." Nobody was hurt, but the Molotov cocktail ruined the kitchen and destroyed some of their belongings. Federal refugee authorities resettled the Eritreans to a different apartment in the same city, but Romeo says the shock of that night moved with them: "They are really, really scared."

The perpetrators of the attack are alleged to be members of a small group of xenophobic Germans who became known as the Freital Group. Some were later arrested and charged with terrorism. Their trial began earlier this year.

Since 2014, hundreds of migrants in Germany have fallen victim to arson, Molotov cocktails, and firework attacks. Most of the crimes remain unsolved, and local authorities often decline to label these attacks as political or racist in origin.

Stürzenberger and other PEGIDA members dissociate themselves from such violence. It is not their anti-immigrant rhetoric, they say, but the refugees who are spreading terror across the country.

Romeo is careful to avoid downtown Dresden on Monday nights, fearful he might become a target of the PEGIDA demonstrators. He's a Christian, but he says it doesn't matter: "Here in Dresden every Monday—if you are here, you'll be attacked."

German law disperses asylum seekers to different cities across the country while they await their asylum decisions, and usually forbids them from moving away from the place to which they're assigned—meaning that, for many months, Romeo was trapped here. Due to a recent revision in the law, he has since been permitted to move out of the city for job training.

"If you go to some place like Dortmund, Hamburg, it's kind of different. I've been to Münster, and the people are really welcoming. The problem is this city," he says, gesturing across the plaza where we were sitting on a rainy day last year. "They view us as a punching bag."

A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Reporting for this story was made possible by the American Council on Germany.