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Declining German city sees hope, threat in arrival of refugees

Lutheran Pastor Joerg Michel insists on optimism. When the first foreign refugees arrive at Hoyerswerda’s new refugee center in the next couple of weeks, they’ll be welcomed warmly, he says. They’ll find a comforting place to start a new life. He’s certain.

In spite of recent history.

It won’t be anything like September 1991, when an estimated 500 neo-Nazis stormed the last international refugee center here, smashing windows, firing off tracer rounds and tossing Molotov cocktails. The riot was so intense that when police arrived they decided the best course of action was to close the center – and relocate the refugees.

And it won’t be anything like 2012, when eight young men chased home a young couple who’d been tearing neo-Nazi stickers off light poles and bus stops in Hoyerswerda. After the attackers staked out the couple’s apartment that night, police arrived and said the best course of action was for the couple to move. Again, the situation was impossible to control.

“It’s important to believe this will go well,” Michel said. “It will take a lot of civilian courage, and it will take a public commitment, but it will work this time. The people here are committed. We have to believe that.”

Yet even if the first of an expected 120 foreign refugees aren’t met by neo-Nazi hatred or they find that the town and the police stand up to protect them this time, it’s uncertain whether they’ll be arriving to start new lives or to watch what was once the socialist future finally die.

As the 25th anniversary year of the fall of the Berlin Wall begins, this city is a prime example that the transition from socialism to capitalism, and division to unification, didn’t improve all lives, all places. Hoyerswerda once was considered an East German symbol of what was possible when everyone pulls together, blossoming from a sleepy backwater of 7,000 to an industrial dynamo of 73,000 when the communists ran East Germany.

Then came the collapse of the East German regime, followed by unification and mounting joblessness – and growing anger, which boiled over in 1991 in anti-immigrant violence that symbolized what can happen when things fall apart.

In the firebombs of Hoyerswerda, many heard the terrifying echoes of German xenophobia. And those concerns linger. The European Union recently insisted that Germany take EU immigration rights more seriously. Germany, apparently in response, has committed to take in more than 10,000 Syrian refugees, more than the rest of Europe combined.

Many hope that the opening of the new refugee center will be a second – some say a last – chance for Hoyerswerda, a place that many say has been left for dead. The current population is 35,000.

Anja Heeger, born here in 1970, is one of the few who’ve remained behind. She could have left after the riots. She was just 21 in 1991.

“My family is here,” she explained. “There really is a lot to love.”

Until the 1950s, Hoyerswerda was one of many quaint villages in Saxony, with a nicely cobbled square, a 1,000-year-old church and a towering, ancient palace. But to the industrial-minded East German government, it offered more. The surrounding land was filled with coal, near enough to the Oder River to ease transportation worries.

East Germany needed spots such as this. When the Allied powers divided the nation after World War II, the German Ruhr River valley – the traditional industrial center of the nation – was left deep in the West, under American and British oversight.

East Germany needed a new industrial zone, and the small cities of the Lusatia region were turned into a workers’ paradise. Eisenhuettenstadt, along the Oder, made the steel. Schwedt processed the oil. Hoyerswerda strip-mined for the brown coal and heating gas used to heat East German homes.

Few places had higher standing than Hoyerswerda. The socialist government proclaimed it “The Second Socialist City,” a community built to meet a worker’s every need: heroic monuments, wide parade streets and plentiful modern housing, schools and day care facilities. It was a vision of the future.

It produced three-quarters of the heating gas for East Germany, an industry that provided more than 30,000 jobs. There was so much work to be done that the East Germans brought in workers from Mozambique and Vietnam, fraternal socialist nations. The East German goal was energy independence. The future of Hoyerswerda was warm and bright.

Until 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. The collapse of East Germany – officially in 1990 – saw the arrival of capitalism. The coal mines had been abysmally managed. The 30,000 coal-related jobs quickly dwindled to 360.

Helga, 47, who’s afraid of being targeted for attack if she allows her last name to be published, remembers the change. One day, everyone was singing together at Young Pioneer gatherings. The next, she started hearing mutterings about the problems with “auslanders,” foreigners, who were stealing jobs from Germans.

“The lid wasn’t tightly enough on the pot,” she said. “I never would have thought this was possible a year before, but the city boiled over.”

It began when neo-Nazis, many from out of town, kicked off a riot against the former guest workers, then moved on to attack newly arrived international refugees. But the image that stuck for years in the minds of many Germans wasn’t of the violence of the rioting neo-Nazis, but of the occasional cheers from the large crowd of residents who spent the day watching the spectacle.

The immediate result was that the refugees left. The lingering impact was that Hoyerswerda became an embarrassment to Germany. The old jobs were gone. New jobs never arrived. Anja Heeger notes that 22 out of 25 high school classmates moved elsewhere. More recent high school classes have continued that trend, with 9 of 10 leaving town.

Recent projections predict that Hoyerswerda’s population will fall to 23,000 by 2030. The average age in the place is now 49.

Hoyerswerda has many positives. It’s surrounded by lakes. The air is pure and fresh. Unlike crowded Berlin, it’s open and airy.

But even such positives have negatives. The lakes used to be strip mines. The trees planted around them have yet to grow tall enough to provide shade for those who visit. When the city was working, the air was foul. Clean air is a reminder to many that unemployment remains high, between 17 and 26 percent, depending on who’s counting.

And the open spaces? They’re the result of depopulation. To get rid of block after block of empty and decaying Soviet-style prefab-concrete apartment buildings, the city tore down dozens.

Almost everyone here today – from the oberburgermeister (lord mayor) to cabbies – agrees that opening a new refugee center in Hoyerswerda, and operating it peacefully, might lift the curse of decline. Pastor Michel organized a citizens group in the wake of a 2006 neo-Nazi rally in the town, and his group is growing and getting more active, he says.

Rainer Berg, a lifelong resident and former coal mine mechanic, said the risk of rioting had decreased simply because the population had aged so much. He admitted that the social media evidence was worrying: An anti-refugee Hoyerswerda Facebook page has twice the number of likes as a pro-refugee page. But he said he had to keep faith in his home.

“I’m not so sure that people can see that a refugee center means there’s a future here,” he said. “But there certainly won’t be one if we chase it out again.”

Privately, many fear that if the center is threatened, the police will step out of the way once again and the center will be forced to close. Publicly, all say that cannot be allowed to happen again.

“We are better prepared than last time,” said Stefan Skora, the lord mayor. “Still, I have some residual fear. Some people in Hoyerswerda oppose putting up refugees. But we don’t believe they can win over the majority.”