Refugees draw fear, anger and generosity from Berlin voters
Germany's massive influx of refugees has driven a sharp wedge through the electorate, and nowhere is the divide greater than in Berlin ahead of regional elections.
Fears and scepticism about the ability of Europe's top economic power to integrate hundreds of thousands of newcomers have boosted the new anti-migrant party, the AfD -- including in the cosmopolitan capital of 3.5 million people.
Yet, at the same time, the outpouring of generosity seen one year ago when Germany opened its borders to people fleeing war and persecution, with cheering crowds meeting them at the country's railway stations, has also endured. It has even grown in many quarters of Berlin.
But AfD is hoping in Sunday's election to make Berlin the 10th of Germany's 16 states in which it holds seats in the state legislature.
At a recent rally in the well-heeled Zehlendorf district, AfD candidate Georg Pazderski railed against the sacrifices demanded of voters due to Chancellor Angela Merkel's welcoming policy.
"Do you know how much a refugee costs Germany each month?" he asked. "3,500 euros ($3,900)! We are all taxpayers here, it's our money."
Applause echoed through the quaint town hall while a young man with blond curly hair trying to challenge the AfD members struggled to be heard.
Many in the audience were disappointed voters from Merkel's own Christian Democrats (CDU) who have felt alienated by her stance on migration.
"Why should we accept refugees who are already safe in Greece, Italy and Turkey to come to Berlin and stay at our expense?" demanded Bastian Behrens, 42, a public relations executive.
"Those who come from war zones can obviously live here for a while, but now millions are arriving and many are economic migrants," said the CDU member who now plans to vote for the AfD on Sunday.
"To leave the borders open and let anyone in without knowing who they are -- that is a threat to our country," added a 54-year-old teacher, Maja Boenisch, who has also defected from the CDU.
Both expressed strong doubts about the ability of most refugees to integrate. They pointed to the "parallel society" created by Germany's three-million-strong ethnic Turkish community, descended from "guest workers" who arrived in the 1960s and 1970s and never left.
- 'Welcoming culture' -
A recent poll by the independent opinion research institute Allensbach found that just 21 percent of respondents saw the chances of integrating refugees as "very good" or "good", while 50 percent saw them as "rather bad" or "very bad".
Yet despite the mounting pessimism, many Germans have taken Merkel's own "We can do it" mantra to heart, and backed it with their money and time.
Even a rash of sexual assaults in the western city of Cologne on New Year's Eve blamed mainly on Arab and North African men, as well as two bloody attacks in late July claimed by the Islamic State jihadists, have not dampened the willingness of German volunteers to help, a study by the Bertelsmann Foundation found last month.
"Around three to four million Germans are active in what's called 'Willkommenskultur' (welcoming culture) by making donations or offering practical help to refugees," said Wolfgang Kaschuba, director of Berlin's Institute for Integration and Migration Research.
Like 18-year-old Conrad Kuepper. For several months, he has distributed food to refugees lodged in a gymnasium in his neighbourhood.
They have recently been placed at another shelter but Kuepper and his mother are still helping out, mainly in assisting people to negotiate the complicated bureaucracy of seeking asylum.
- 'Saddened' by AfD's rise -
"I don't see how you can say we won't welcome refugees, or that we should only welcome those who are Christian," Kuepper said, referring to a call for preferential treatment for Christians by the CDU's Bavarian sister party.
"I am proud that Germany is the country that's helping."
But he added that he was "saddened" by the rise of the AfD.
"My Germany is the one you see in Berlin, where people are tolerant and work together."
Sophia Doering, a 32-year-old linguist who commits much of her free time to helping asylum seekers, said that encouraging contact with refugees was the only way to dismantle prejudice and build empathy.
"Most really want to learn German and many have already begun to do so on their own with books -- they want to work and live their lives," she said.
Kaschuba said the arrival of around one million migrants and refugees last year had laid bare a number of already festering tensions in German society.
"Not everyone wants to take the path of a diverse society -- mobile and multicultural," the researcher said.
"Among AfD voters, you are not only seeing a reaction against refugees but also against the part of society saying 'We can do it'."
© 2016 AFP