Marshall Memorial Fellowship Reflections: Stanley Chang
The people of Hawaii are very proud of our “aloha spirit.” Originating in the Native Hawaiian culture, the generosity, hospitality, openness, and the willingness to give without expectation expecting anything in return has become famous around the world.
My father is a prime example of the aloha spirit. He was the only member of his family that managed to escape China during the civil war in 1949. After studying in Wisconsin, Florida, and Washington state, he came to Hawaii in the 1960s with a job offer from the University of Hawaii. Over the years he was able to buy a home, raise my brother and me, and gave us the means to pursue some of the best education in the world. The aloha with which Hawaii welcomed and nurtured us has made my current life and career possible, which in turn permitted my acceptance into the Marshall Memorial Fellowship, and this trip to the hills of upper Bavaria.
One of the first stops of our fellowship in Munich was a refugee camp operated by the Reichersbeuern village administration, which is only a couple of hours outside the city. This is Bavaria at its most traditional: rolling green hills, herds of cows, wooden architecture, a Catholic church dominating the village center. The lederhosen-clad mayor, Ernst Dieckmann, greeted us with gifts of beer from a 300-year-old local monastery. By the time we arrived, he had already begun to plan for the village’s 1,000-year anniversary celebration in 2021.
In 2015, the Syrian civil war forced millions of civilians to flee to Europe. When they stood on the threshold of Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed them with open arms. The national government required Bad Tolz county, where Reichersbeuern was located, to accept its share of the refugees. These refugees were Muslim, dark-skinned, poor, and understood practically none of the German language or culture. This stark difference between refugees and the local community made me wonder how these refugees would manage to integrate into a place like this?
When the refugees began to arrive in Reichersbeuern Mayor Dieckmann swung into action. He traveled to southern France to buy mobile homes, prepared the site of the former U.S. Army barracks just outside the village, and immediately faced waves of criticism. Effectively, these criticisms focused on the camp being too far from the village. At the time, some also said that these refugees would never integrate. Others said that if the camp was too close to the village that it would bring crime and violence to the community. It was also during this period that the German housing shortage was already so acute that local families had trouble finding homes—why should they devote any attention to these strangers from a distant shore, refugees of a conflict that had nothing to do with them?
“There were a lot of sleepless nights during that time,” Mayor Dieckmann told us. Initial attempts to house refugees in existing vacant apartments failed, because there was no support community to help the new arrivals transition to German society. But now, in the camp, local volunteers had a central place to help tutor the children, or donate needed items.
“Donald Trump has said refugees are rapists and criminals. What would you tell him?” I asked. “You may not believe it, but the truth is that refugees commit crimes at the same rate as the general population,” he replied.
Signs of the refugees’ progress were everywhere. We heard stories about refugees who had gotten jobs at the nearby frozen pizza factory or working at the camp itself. We saw the homes, which were compact but equipped with all the modern conveniences. The washing machines of the laundry center were busily spinning, and the school classrooms were hung with student art and maps of Germany.
After the requisite photos and plates of traditional pastries, it was time to leave. As we left the camp, a swarm of curious children gathered around our van. “Hallo burgermeister,” they sang out to their mayor. Our city host asked them some questions, and the children replied. “They spoke accent-less German,” he turned and said to us as we pulled away.
Will these children settle permanently in Reichersbeuern? Probably not, given the existing housing shortage. The camp itself is scheduled to close in a couple of years, and then the refugees will have to find their own jobs and homes.
Just days after our visit, we attended the election night celebration of the CSU, the ruling party that has governed Bavaria for virtually its entire postwar history. According to public opinion surveys, the voters’ top issue was migration, and the Merkel-allied CSU lost big. The AfD, a far-right party firmly opposed to the refugees, gained 10 percent of the vote. A few weeks later, the voters of the state of Hesse delivered another blow to Merkel’s own CDU party, and she announced her forthcoming retirement from politics.
In politics, pendulums swing back and forth. In 2015, Germany welcomed the Syrian refugees. Today, the anti-migration forces are on the rise. No one can say how Mayor Dieckmann will fare in his reelection bid in 2020. But, on that crisp autumn afternoon, I saw generosity, hospitality, openness, the willingness to give without expectation of return—the aloha spirit—in a medieval village in the foothills of the Alps.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.