COVER

LOOKING FOR A BETTER LIFE

REFUGEES FIND NEW HOPE IN THE WEST

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 16 1989
COVER

LOOKING FOR A BETTER LIFE

REFUGEES FIND NEW HOPE IN THE WEST

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 16 1989

LOOKING FOR A BETTER LIFE

COVER

REFUGEES FIND NEW HOPE IN THE WEST

The symbol of Thomas and Lorita Mayer’s new life is in the corner of their well-appointed living room. A 30-inch Sony color TV, complete with remote control, stands out among an array of new furnishings—all of them bought since the Mayers legally left East Germany for the West just over a year ago. When the couple, both 30, and their 11-year-old daughter left their old home in the East German town of Spremberg on Sept. 30, 1988, everything they took with them was squeezed into four suitcases. Now, the Mayers have a comfortable five-room apartment in the West German village of Ettingshausen, about 70 km north of Frankfurt, secure jobs and an apparently bright future. Last week, as he contemplated his prospects, Thomas Mayer, a construction worker, exuded quiet self-satisfaction. “It’s all bought and paid for,” he said with a wave around the room. “Here in the West you can build something solid.”

Escape: The prospect of a better life in the West is what has led tens of thousands of East Germans to flee their repressively governed Communist country in the past five months. As about 15,000 more escaped to the West last week aboard special trains from Czechoslovakia and Poland, most could look forward with confidence. The great majority, experts in refugee resettlement say, could expect to find jobs quickly and adapt to West German society. But amid the joyous welcomes at border railway stations and crowded refugee camps last week, there was a growing realization that, for a significant minority, forging new lives will be more difficult. And there was evidence that some West Germans are increasingly skeptical about the benefits of so large an influx.

For most East Germans, as for other immigrants to booming West Germany, finding a place to live is by far the biggest problem.

Richard Albrecht, a 32-year-old landscaper and divorced father of two from Magdeburg, East Germany, who fled through Hungary with his children, has had more than 10 job offers since his arrival on Sept. 11. But Albrecht, in his temporary quarters furnished by the German Red Cross in the town of Lieh, said that none of his potential employers has been able to guarantee housing. He added: “You can get jobs, no

problem. But with two children to worry about, I can’t just take anything. So I’m still looking.” Concern over housing has even fuelled some resentment among different groups of refugees. In the past month, at least 40,000 East Germans have fled their country through Hungary or Czechoslovakia. At the same time, hundreds of others have arrived in the West legally after receiving official permission to leave following waits of up to several years. Some who applied officially to leave—often losing their jobs as a result—voiced concern about the competition for apartments and jobs

represented by last week’s dramatic influx.

At one of West Germany’s biggest permanent refugee camps in Giessen, 70 km north of Frankfurt, a woman from Leipzig who would identify herself only as Gerta said that her family was still waiting to find a place to live, while many of those who arrived on the special trains from Prague had already left the camp. “We waited for two years to get out and they just jumped the line,” she said resentfully. “Now, we’ve been here for more than a week and they’re grabbing the apartments.”

Overcrowding: Indeed, worries about overcrowding in some West German cities have become so acute that authorities have discouraged other arriving East Germans from settling there. The situation is worst in West Berlin, a magnet for East Germans who want to settle as close as possible to their old homes. There, officials have ordered an emergency program to build 70,000 new housing units. But they acknowledge that, even then, the city will be 30,000 units short.

Some newcomers also face psychological problems in adjusting to life in the capitalist,

competitive West. A recent study by two West German sociologists found that East German immigrants get jobs more easily than they acquire new friends and that they often miss the closer personal relationships they enjoyed in the East. Sociologist Kristina Pratsch said that women suffer more than men and that East Germans in the West experience an above-average rate of marriage breakdowns. And social workers in Hamburg and Frankfurt report that about 40 per cent of homeless people there are from the East.

Adapting to a new society can lead to a type of

disorientation. Knut Schmid, a 28-year-old East German mechanic who arrived in a village near Bonn in late September, quickly found temporary work and a one-room apartment. But he is frightened that he will not be able to cope with the daily fight for survival. “This is the first time in my life that I am free, free to decide for myself, and that can be overwhelming,” said Schmid. ‘Tm not sure what I should be doing and how. I just hope things will get better.” Overall, the influx from East Germany

strengthens West Germany’s economy. The majority of the newcomers are young and possess the kind of skills that the West most needs in fields such as construction, engineering and technical trades. Officially, about two million West Germans are unemployed, but employers say that they cannot find workers to fill many positions. The influx is also lowering the average age of the population, easing concerns about the future funding of West Germany’s pension system.

As well, East Germans, tempted for years by television images of Western consumer goods, arrive eager to spend their wages. Last month, the German Economics Institute, a government think-tank, estimated that new immigrants will increase demand for goods and services by up to $60 billion over the next decade. Still, a recent opinion poll found that, while two-thirds of West Germans welcomed the mass influx from the East, half of them were concerned that competition from the newcomers might threaten their jobs.

Enthusiasm: Amid the enthusiasm surrounding their arrival in the West, however, few East Germans find time to dwell on potential problems in their new homeland. Richard Albrecht said that he had no concerns. “We knew the situation here,” he said. “We knew we would have to make our own way. We worry about what’s happening in East Germany, not about here.” Said Manfred Gersten, a senior official at the Giessen refugee camp: “The amazing thing really is that the vast majority adapt so well, not that some have problems.”

Last week, many former East Germans expressed their joy about having decided to leave their native country. Thomas Mayer, the construction worker, said that he was glad not to have anything to do with the East German 40thanniversary celebrations. “I’m just happy to be quit of the whole thing,” he said with a smile. “Aside from relatives, I don’t miss a thing. Frankly, it’s a bit horrible how little I’m homesick.” Emotions inevitably varied, but West Germany’s new citizens shared one common cause for celebration: their quest for freedom had ended in success.

ANDREW PHILLIPS

PEGGY TRAUTMAN