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NEUHARDENBERG, Germany – In the past few years, Germany received more asylum applications than any other Western country, by far.
Still, despite this comparatively welcoming enviroment, where 202,815 new asylum seekers registered in 2014 - with another 400,000 applications anticipated this year, there's been an uptick in anti-immigrant attacks in the country.
The dramatic rise of asylum seekers – most of which come from Middle East and Africa – has been followed by growing trend of xenophobic attacks targeting non-European migrants. In 2014, there were 150 attacks by right wing extremists in Germany on accommodations of asylum seekers – triple the number of such incidents in the previous year, and more than six times the total attacks in 2012.
The trend has continued in 2015, most notably with an arson attack against an accommodation dormitory for asylum-seekers in Troglitz, and the torching of a meeting point for refugees in Berlin. There have been 25 attacks cases of assault and physical injury against refugees in the first four months of the year, according to the Amadeu Antonio Foundation and Pro Asyl, two NGOs that collaborate to keep track of violent displays of right wing extremists in Germany.
In May, following a community soccer tournament in the rural town of Neuhardenberg, a group of local young men targeted the team of asylum seekers who had also taken part in the competition.
"When we went out of the field, they shouted at us and threw bananas at us," recalled Rashid Ahmed, an asylum seeker from Somalia, who lives in Neuhardenberg – population 3000, located 60 miles east of Berlin – and was part of the asylum-seekers’ soccer team.
Throwing of bananas at people is a form racist expression that could be seen in soccer stadiums throughout Europe, often directed at black players. And the Neuhardenberg attack did not end there. One of Ahmed’s teammates was kicked in the back, and the attackers threatened to come to the asylum-seekers’ dormitories to continue the fight. Police investigation later confirmed the xenophobic background of the incident, and suspects were detected.
The 26-year old Ahmed, who lives with his wife in state-provided dormitory housing on the outskirts of Neuhardenberg, fled to Europe in 2013 because of the civil war in his native country. Ahmed is one of tens of thousands of people who entered the European Union via the dangerous and often deadly sea journey from Libya to Italy, on board smuggling boats.
"I felt very angry and disappointed," Ahmed told Al Jazeera America. “I decided not to go play football again because maybe it will happen again.”
"Being a black man or a"refugee in Brandenburg is like being a Jew or a homosexual in the 1930’s in Germany,” said Chu Eben, who fled Cameroon in 1998 and has been living in Germany ever since.
After several years as an asylum seeker in Germany, Eben was granted permanent residency and he founded a group called Refugee Emancipation, which aims to improve the lives of people that are in the asylum process. Eben regularly travels throughout Germany to meet with asylum seekers, particularly those being accommodated in small, rural towns – like Neuhardenberg. He finds many of them suffer physical and mental isolation, and are "socially quarantined."
Eben, who is based in Brandenburg – the federal state where Neuhardenberg is located, was never physically attacked, but he was yelled at on the street to “go back to Africa!”
German authorities have responded to the wave of xenophobic attacks by increasing protection of the state-provided accommodations of asylum seekers.
In Brandenburg, police have been working closely with federal migration authorities to ease the integration of asylum-seekers in local municipalities and "are on high alert to identify, assess and deal with racist crimes," according to Wolfgang Brandt, spokesperson of Brandenburg’s Ministry of Interior. On May 5, the German police conducted raids across the country and arrested four men who were allegedly planning attacks against mosques and refugees accommodations.
Anti-immigration ideology has become more visible in the German public discourse as a result of the efforts of political parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the National Democratic Party (NPD), and of grassroots initiatives like Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident (PEGIDA) – which drew thousands of Germans to a series of protests earlier this year.
"The German government must make a policy that nobody comes in," said Stefan Lux, deputy regional chairman of the NPD’s Berlin branch. "The European Union must make a policy that nobody comes in."
Lux emphasized that the NPD rejects any form of violence or crimes as a means of political struggle. At the same time, he feels mass arrival of migrants is very bad for the German society because welfare funds are diverted to foreigners at the expense of local population’s needs, and because those coming are mostly from the Middle East and Africa and have no knowledge of European culture.
The NPD is against multiculturalism in Germany because it leads to inner conflicts between ethnic groups that do not belong together and do not want to belong together, according to the party’s website.
"In big cities - like here in Berlin, or in Hamburg, Cologne, Frankfurt, Duisburg, Düsseldorf - you have parallel societies. The foreigners they are doing their own thing; they are not integrated, they are not assimilated," said Lux.
"They live like in their own countries. If they want to live like in their own country, we think it is better they go to their own countries. But not in Germany."
Anti-immigration voices like NPD’s Lux are on the rise in other European countries as well – like Marie Le Pan’s party in France or UKIP in the United Kingdom. Throughout the continent, it has become common for political actors to stigmatize migrant communities, according to Joël Le Déroff, Policy Officer at the European Network Against Racism, an umbrella organization that connects anti-racisms NGOs from 26 EU Member States.
Le Déroff said indications from NGOs working with migrants and ethnic minorities show that there has been an increase of xenophobic attacks in many countries, across Europe. He added that to Germany’s credit, its political leadership has responded, more than other European governments have.
"When there were demonstration of the PEGIDA movement, some important political actors including the Chancellor Angela Merkel did react strongly to say that things like (PEGIDA) is not acceptable and not part of German values," Le Déroff explained.
"That is something quite positive that we don't see in all countries happening in the same strength."
Atill, a positive vibe towards asylum seekers can also be seen in Neuhardenberg, the town in which the asylum seekers’ soccer team was attacked.
The "Welcoming Circle" is a group of locals who are assisting asylum seekers that reside in the state-provided dormitory in Neuhardenberg, which has a capacity of 180 and has been full for months.
Welcoming Circle members are locals like Mandy Dieda, a social worker by profession, who volunteer their time to assist the asylum seekers in everyday tasks that can be complicated for a non-German speaker, from handling bureaucracy to shopping for food. Dieda said she is happy the foreigners came to Neuhardenberg.
"It is an enrichment of the environment and the community here," she said.
"It widens the horizons of local people. Living together in an intercultural community is exciting."
Dieda explained the town is divided about the arrival of asylum seekers, but most people just don’t care. She is worried because in the past two months a small group of locals who oppose having asylum seekers in town have been verbally attacking foreigners on the street, and she fears the situation might deteriorate.
The tension created by the arrival of asylum seekers to Neuhardenberg is felt in dozens of other German towns and cities where accommodation facilities have popped up in recent years.
Ariig Mohedin Abdullah, a 31-year old asylum seeker from Somalia who lives in Neuhardenberg with his wife and two children, has felt that tension first-hand, twice. Abdullah, a member of the asylum seekers soccer team that was attacked, said he experienced a second xenophobic attack, when a clerk at a local store, where he wanted to buy cigarettes, shouted at him to go away and never come back.
But despite being twice a victim of racially motivated aggression, Abdullah hopes to stay in Neuhardenberg. He said he is thankful to the German government for the support they gave him, and that he has made good friends with members of the Welcoming Circle, and feels like the small town is a safe and good place for his family. He’s just worried the people who attacked him and his teammates in the community tournament, will act again.
"I think they don't believe we are humans," Abdullahi said.
"They feel we are monkeys because our skin is black."