Blurred lines in the german province

Katharina Tjart
April 27, 2016
Amtul Naseer, 44, lives in a refugee shelter in Hoevelhof. She shares her room with a Chinese lady, and has been fighting for the relocation of her son, whose accommodation is 250km away. Courtesy: Katharina Tjart.

Twenty years ago, hundreds of thousands of Russo-German repatriates  left the former Soviet Union in search of a more prosperous life in  Germany. Ethnically German, the government provided them with  accommodation, education, and other basics to start their new lives.

In the German town of Hoevelhof, refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and  other crisis countries now find themselves in the same situations the  repatriates once were in: the lifestyle is simple, the environment is  unknown and the German citizens are reserved and judgmental.

Meeting the new arrivals in their former homes, many repatriates are  reminded of their own struggles as Germans in Russia, and Russians in  Germany. As a result, they lash out against the refugees and government  policies, looking for acknowledgment and gains of distinction.

Two houses stood outside Hoevelhof, near Paderborn in West Germany.  Surrounded by fields and a forest, they were sat next to a long,  straight road, with cars occasionally passing by. There were a few other  houses nearby, but no inhabitants in sight.

These two houses – constructed without love, but built solidly –  looked identical, standing wall to wall with a two-metre passage in  between them. They shared a front and a back yard, with a waist-high  metal fence around the perimeter. A patch of grass at the back, at the  front mostly concrete.

Each house had two entrance doors and three stories. Gable roofs, red  bricks, white window frames. Very simplistic, but not ugly. There were  some bikes leaning against the walls, kids playing in front, adults  socializing or doing things here and there; the colloquial tongue was  far from German.

There were short corridors in those two houses, tiled and painted  white, with white doors, leading to small rooms. One room per family; in  the case of many children, sometimes two rooms; in the case of single  adults, a few per room. Shared kitchens were on the third floor and  shared bathrooms on the ground floor.

The days were one and the same: Men smoked cigarettes, drank beer,  and fixed cars even if they were not broken. Women cooked, looked after  the children, and cooked some more. Once in a while, someone moved out  when they were lucky enough to have found a job, and someone else moved  in, into the same old routine. Boredom, frustration and self-doubt  densely hung in the air, almost tangible.


That was in the nineties, twenty years ago, in Hoevelhof’s  Muehlenweg. The conservative town of 15,000 became host to a few hundred  Russo-German repatriates: ethnic Germans that came from Russia after  the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Having lived in diaspora in Russia and other Soviet states for  roughly 200 years, the repatriates maintained a semi-German national  consciousness. A piece of the 1953 legislation  granted them the right to “return home” based on just that  consciousness. So many of them did. In total around 3.2 million  returned; 400,000 came in 1990 alone.

The repatriates came from Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and other  former Soviet states. Most of them lived in the remote countryside in  their own communities, where an ancient form of German was the first  language. Russian was taught as a foreign language only in secondary  school, and a strong sense of belonging was fostered over generations  throughout those German minorities.

Unforgiving of WWII, many Russians considered the German-descended  groups as invaders, traitors or otherwise inferior. Official figures  describing those groups are scarce, as officials tended to ignore their  communities or classified them as “Other” in reports and statistics.

When the Soviet Union was shaking and eventually collapsed, life in  communist collective farms in the Siberian plains was not very  rewarding: no job opportunities, no social infrastructures, and no  prospects for the young generations. So when president Gorbachev opened  the borders, and the ancient German legislation paved the way to a  promising new start, large parts of the German communities sold  everything they had for a one-way ticket westwards.

They came with families and a few utensils for household and  day-to-day life. Unable to communicate, overwhelmed by administration,  they were lost in overcrowded transit camps, some for days, others for  weeks or even months. Eventually, all repatriates were moved into  accommodation like those in Hoevelhof Muehlenweg.

Those two houses – unloving, but solid  – are still standing. Very  rudimentary, and a little sparser than they used to be, they are now  inhabited by people from Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, and other  crisis-stricken countries.

The new residents of the Muehlenweg came as refugees to the EU, made  their way to Germany, and were distributed to the conservative town near  Paderborn. Each of Germany’s 16 federal states is obliged to  accommodate a certain percentage of the refugees arriving in the  republic. A central agency keeps track of new arrivals and sends them to  the provinces that need to fulfil their quotas. There, the refugees are  placed in municipalities and cities, by numbers rather than by case.

Some of the refugees came with families, but many of those in  Muehlenweg seem to be alone. Boredom, frustration and self-doubt inhabit  those two houses still, and probably have done throughout the last  twenty years.

The conditions are similar, today and twenty years ago. Not only have  refugees inherited the housing of the Russo-German repatriates, but the  two migrant groups also share the same experience of exclusion and of  having to start over.

Comparing and complaining

Most of the repatriates that were first assigned to Hoevelhof settled  down in the area permanently, after having lived in Muehlenweg and  other emergency accommodation for some time.

The assumption would be that those repatriates, in the current  climate of intolerant anti-migration sentiment across Europe, would be  the ones with empathy for the new refugees in Hoevelhof and other German  communities. After all, were not those repatriates in a very similar  situations two decades ago?

Yet, instead of empathy, very critical voices and some kind of  jealousy seem to be the prevailing sentiment on the part of many  repatriated Germans towards the new immigrants in Hoevelhof: “Look at  them! They are all criminals, all lazy, all dirty”, say some  repatriates. “Not like us!”

While nationalist and populist voices argue in a very similar way,  the atmosphere in debates around that topic with repatriates feels  charged and tense. They find some kind of legitimacy in those  accusations that they apparently retrieve from their own experience.

“When we lived in those places, we had to adapt every single aspect  of our lives to German standards” explained Oxana Scheiermann, a banking  assistant that moved to Hoevelhof in 1992, when she was seven. She, her  parents and brother lived in the Muehlenweg facilities for about a  year. “Even small things, like separating the garbage: we had never  heard of anything like that back in Russia; but here [in Germany], we  had to do it from the first day. And when we dumped the plastic in the  paper bin, we were in trouble! And now? They [officials] have put a huge  container in the back yard, so the refugees can dump it all in there!”

The separation of garbage sounds like a petty thing, but those  memories upset Oxana. In bewilderment, she compared her family’s  livelihood with what she had heard or seen of the refugees’ living  conditions nowadays, stunned about what seemed to her unfair, regal and  unnecessary.

German  communities have lived in Russia for 200 years. After the Soviet  collapse, around 3,2 million moved to Germany on the 1951 Right to  Return.

The repatriate community offers a pool full of such stories, drawing a  picture of unequal treatment from officials towards the two different  migrant groups. Housing in cellars without daylight, mice in the  overpopulated family rooms and welfare payments that have never been  made are some of the reports from the repatriate generation; whereas  today, refugees can make claims for a cleaner, can protest for more  privacy, and can get legal support to help make their cases.

“Protest and make additional claims – in our wildest dreams we would  not have thought of that! We were thankful for the bit that we got!”,  recalled Elisabeth, a 52-year-old mother from Siberia. “If you didn’t  like it, you were free to go back where you came from!”, her husband  Johann added. The couple and their two daughters moved from Russia in  1990, and lived in the basement of a primary school outside Hoevelhof  for about a year. If something was broken, they fixed it; if something  was missing, they replaced it; if something was uncomfortable, they got  used to it. “Because we did not know any better, anyway”, explained  Elisabeth. Johann, throwing his hands up in the air, became angry on  that comment. “Those people don’t know any better from where ever they  come from! They claim to be coming from war!”, he argued with a loud  voice. “Then they should be happy to be alive – like we were!”

Bad and worse

Bernd Mesovic, deputy manager of the German advocacy group Pro Asyl,  said in an interview that it is in fact common to find this type of  competition among different migrant groups. “Time after time, groups of  immigrants that have managed to establish themselves [in the host  society] tend to stigmatize the newcomers, or believe the newcomers are  more privileged than they were when they just arrived.” People come up  with such “dubious comparisons”, according to Mesovic, at the end of  long and difficult processes of integration, looking for some kind of  “gains of distinction” (German: Distinktionsgewinn).

That term was coined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his 1979 work “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste”.  It describes the attempt by the hegemonic social class to create  aesthetic and behavioural differences, in order to set itself apart from  the lower regarded social groups. The seemingly superior class then  reproduces along those new distinctions, seeking to strengthen its own  prevailing position in society. On the same note, Mesovic recalled an  experience he made as a German teacher for immigrants, Russo-German  repatriates as well as refugees from Afghanistan. He witnessed “- to put  it mildly – surprise” among the repatriates, having come to Germany to  “finally be among Germans, just to find themselves among foreigners”.

“In the Soviet Union, the Russo-Germans suffered from being maligned  as ‘The Germans’. Now in Germany, they are striving not to be perceived  as ‘The Russians’ – as foreign yet again,” explained Dr Heinrich  Siemens, chairman of Plautdietsche Freunde, a collective that aims to preserve Russo-German repatriate culture and language.

Siemens described the thoughts within the repatriate community  towards refugees as no different than in the rest of Germany:  diversified, featuring both unconditional welcoming as well as  nationalist rejection. In the Plautdietsche Freunde community, Siemens  does not recognize a particular need to show more solidarity with the  refugees, nor a particular discontent with any apparently preferable  government measures the refugees are subject to now.

Rather, the opposite is true: “Russo-German immigrants luckily never  experienced many of the restrictions that refugees suffer from,” claimed  Siemens. The repatriates’ citizenship and immediate work permit, for  example, helped them to settle in Germany and to feel at home, said  Siemens. “The Russo-German repatriates were a privileged group of  immigrants, that managed to integrate in Germany much faster than most  of the other groups,” he concluded.

Also Bernd Mesovic believed the impression that refugees would be  treated in any way more preferably than the repatriates twenty years ago  is an illusion. “Mostly, refugees and asylum seekers have been living  in much harder conditions than their Russo-German counterparts” he said.

The most striking difference, apart from the legal status, might be  the family policy that was applied to the repatriates in the Nineties,  when compared to the refugees nowadays. While repatriate families were  administered together and could ask to be moved near previously migrated  relatives, refugee families might easily end up separated, with  individual family members being relocated or even deported.

Between compassion and distinction  

“How fortunate were they!” said Amtul Naseer, when she heard of how  the repatriates came to Germany. The 44-year-old fled from her native  Pakistan four years ago and now lives in another refugee shelter in  Hoevelhof. Six months ago, her 19-year-old son came to Germany seeking  asylum, and since then, Amtul has been struggling to get him relocated  anywhere near her, as he now lives 250 kilometres away near Aachen. “He  stays in a container six kilometres from the nearest supermarket. People  attack him and he gets no support at all,” Amtul described.

Elisabeth, the mother from Siberia, feels for Amtul and others with a  similar fate. “Whatever demands we could or could not make, at least we  were with our families,” Elisabeth said, reminiscing about her family’s  migration and settling-in period melancholically.

So where does all the anger, about garbage separation policies that  have changed, come from? About accommodation that is no longer  underground? About protests that concern no-one but the refugees and  politicians looking for a new election campaign theme?

Those two unloving, unloved houses outside of Hoevelhof – repatriates  have moved from there a long time ago. They have jobs, degrees,  families. They live in houses without a metal fence around the yard. So  why compare what might have been worse back then, if the situation for  them is so much better now?

“Sometimes, I see myself in them [the refugees]. How the other people  look at them with disgust, how the people turn away when they cross  paths, how the people get in the longer queue just to not stand behind  one of ‘those foreigners.’” That was what Elisabeth came up with,  reminiscing about her family’s migration and settling-in period. She  told this story: “Yesterday, I saw a woman my age walking across the  street. Her features were obviously foreign, and she was dressed in a  different – if not to say funny – way. Other pedestrians avoided her,  talked behind her back, giggled, shook their heads. She looked so  insecure; obviously, she noticed, but she just didn’t know any better!  What could she do? She had to go to that supermarket, or wherever she  went, whether she liked it or not. That was just me, twenty years ago.”

For many repatriates, the lines seem to blur between the past and the  present when they see another group of migrants going through all that  they had left behind. This time, the repatriates are on the other side:  they are integrated, they are part of the ‘in-group’, they are not  intruders anymore. It took time, effort, will, and sacrifice to get to  this point in the first place. Now the call is to maintain, or even  strengthen, that spot in the hegemonic class.

Heinrich Siemens attested a lack of acceptance by the local  population that could not be compensated for by favourable policies.  “[The repatriates] often have the impression that the majority of German  society still rejects them as fellow Germans,” he said. “Compared to  refugees, we were privileged, yes. But we were just as unwelcome,”  recalled Johann, Elisabeth’s husband. “To the local Germans [opposing  Russo-Germans], it never mattered that we had citizenship, work permits  and whatnot. We came from Russia – so we were Russians. Foreigners: all  one and the same.”

That striving of the Russo-German communities to be acknowledged as  ‘Germans among Germans’ continues to this day. Repatriates call their  children Niklas, Michael or Stefanie, giving Russian-like names a wide  berth; they send the kids to confirmation classes, even though the  family might not be religious; and they avoid and prevent Russian  language at least in public, if not at home, too – aiming to blend in  with the local Germans as much as possible.

Now, what can be done, if there is a new outsider group, and the  similarities are so strikingly clear, as is the case with repatriates  and refugees?

Russo-German  repatriates migrated with families and could demand organized family  reunions. The community largely acknowledges those family-friendly  policies as privileged compared to modern refugees. Courtesy: Katharina  Tjart.

For foreigners who successfully integrated themselves in the host  society, the creation of aesthetic and behavioural differences seems to  be the obvious solution, in order to close up with their former pressure  group, to process painful memories, and to increase confidence in  oneself to keep up the struggle. The points that in fact were  different now seem to matter the more – be it petty things like garbage  separation. The message is clear: ‘Those are foreigners – but we belong  here’.

Empathy, yes, the repatriates seem to feel that for the refugees in  Muehlenweg and probably for those in other accommodation across Germany.  But empathy seems to be overruled by the desire to gain distinction, to  finally be acknowledged as a vital part of the German society.

Rather than going through artificial competition and additional  distinction, different migrant groups could inspire each other and share  valuable insights for difficult transition phases. Host societies could  learn from previous experiences with large-scale immigration, adapt  procedures and policies where necessary. If only the labels ‘insider’  and ‘outsider’ were not distributed so rigorously – often, more by the  population than by official administration.


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Katharina Tjart