This German city had few foreigners. Then refugees changed it in some surprising ways.


Griff Witte, Luisa Beck

FRANKFURT AN DER ODER, Germany —“Don’t make me cry, too,” Shefaa Alfrag told a sobbing 3-year-old Zoey. It was the last day of Alfrag’s teaching internship at a concrete-block preschool on Germany’s eastern border, and the two lingered in the doorway as Alfrag patted Zoey’s back.

Not long ago, the idea that a headscarf-wearing Syrian who speaks German with a foreign accent could work in one of society’s most sensitive spaces — caring for its children — might have been unthinkable here in Frankfurt an der Oder.
For decades, just about the only foreigners that residents knew were the Poles living on the opposite bank of the muddy Oder River. Unlike the far better-known Frankfurt in western Germany — a hub of global finance, where a majority of residents are either immigrants or children of immigrants — the eastern Frankfurt was homogenously German. And for many, proudly so.

But since Chancellor Angela Merkel chose to keep the country’s borders open to a surge of refugees in 2015, newcomers began to settle — and unsettle — here. And Frankfurters have been grappling on an intimate level with changes that have polarized Europe.

To some locals, including the city’s leaders, the refugees offer salvation after decades of devastating population decline. The city has lost nearly a third of its residents since East Germany ceased to be in 1990. The remaining population is aging fast, with deaths outnumbering births.

“Without migrants, we’re not going to be able to revitalize Frankfurt,” said René Wilke, the city’s 35-year-old leftist mayor. “The 1,400 people who came [in recent years] have already helped revitalize it.”
To others, including the party that won the most votes here in May’s European Parliament election, the new arrivals could be the coup de grace for a city that was already struggling.

“It’ll reach a point where law and order will be gone,” said Wilko Möller, a 52-year-old police officer who leads the local chapter of the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD). “All of us are paying for the refugee crisis.”
“They said, ‘You can have the job, but you have to take off your headscarf,’ ” she said.

“I was so sad.”


Famous persons you did not know were refugees

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