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‘Model’ Migrant Town Claims Success Integrating Refugees in Germany

  • Henry Ridgwell

Bells ring out across the snowbound, forested hills surrounding the 14th century church in picturesque Schwabisch Gmund.

Perhaps an unlikely setting for an experiment in international migrant integration, this prosperous town is hosting more than half of its 800 government-assigned migrants in private homes or apartments, rather than large shelters.

Germany has been debating how to integrate the more than 1.1 million refugees who arrived in the country over the past 12 months. The hundreds of attacks on women and girls on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, apparently by groups of migrants, have intensified the debate.

The actions of this one tow, however, has given rise to a new phrase: the "Gmund" way of integration, an approach pioneered by Mayor Richard Arnold.

“Integration goes faster if the refugees move outside the central buildings in little groups, even into the villages surrounding Schwabisch Gmund," he said. "So decentralized housing has become one of the essential aspects of the ‘Gmunder way.”

For Samuel Teklezghi, who is being hosted by a local family in one of those hilltop villages deep in the countryside, it is a long way from where he grew up in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. He was at first very reluctant, but soon changed his mind.

“Our neighboring families, so sweet; I cannot explain, because it is not enough words to explain about them," he said. "Almost I get a family. I lost a family in Eritrea, in my land, and I get a family in Deutschland [Germany]. They are my family now. If you would give me a big house in the city, I do not need it.”

Schwabisch Gmund has initiated its own German language degree for migrants. They are also encouraged to take on volunteer work.

Arnold says integration is an emotional response, not just a function of local government.

“But it asks for quite an input, not only of the city administration, of the town hall, and the mayor," Arnold said. "And it of course asks the people, the citizens, to also bring an input and to also be open.”

Schwabisch Gmund is preparing to double its intake of refugees. But Mayor Arnold says there is a limit to the numbers his town can take in, and Europe should share both the burden and the opportunities the refugees can offer.

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