Germany's treatment of its immigrants has long been a subject of acute controversy. Despite having taken great strides to improve the chances for asylum-seekers, there is no minimum standard for the living quarters provided by the state for displaced persons.
The result is that the vast majority of asylum-seekers are housed in compounds that look like barracks, often surrounded by barbed wire, a virtual internment camp cut off from the German society and without opportunities for integration.
The city of Münster, in the heart of Westphalia in western Germany, has taken the initiative to improve the standards for integrating asylum seekers through new concepts in housing. Two housing units have already been built which are located within a neighborhood, easing the opportunities for contact with the locals. A third one is in the works.
The new housing complexes offer immigrants professional and volunteer social workers for advice on everything from legal issues to finding work. The special care allows immigrants like Suljo Berisha, who escaped with three generations of his family from war-torn Kosovo in the late 1990s, to feel at home in Germany for the first time.
Home Sweet Albachten
Until recently Berisha lived with his family in a container-style housing project on the edge of town. Now Berisha has moved into the new apartments in the south-western suburb of Albachten. The new housing fits in with the surrounding architecture, and offers the look, at least, of integration. Berisha is enthusiastic.
"Here in Albachten things are better," Berisha said. "We must be thankful for the care received by my children. The rooms are larger in Albachten, too. Everything has gotten better since we moved here."
The four new single-family row houses offer 50 asylum-seekers a place to call home. Their high quality attracted the attention of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who praised the Münster model. The city of Münster's Department for Resettled Ethnic Germans (Aussiedler), Refugees and Asylum-seekers' Jochen Köhnke welcomed the social benefits of the new housing project.
"In contrast to the large-scale, institutionalized housing, we notice that the new apartments allow for a sense of civil society to develop," he said. "We have volunteers from within the immigrant community supporting the social work of our office, and quite a number of immigrants have been adopted by the local community."
The positive results also carried over to the children of the refugees, he added.
"We are seeing promising developments in the schools, too," Köhnke said. "The children are not just going more regularly to school, they are also able to enter the class appropriate for their age and thrive there. Our office is pleased."
A return to normalcy
In the Albachten housing units, the immigrants' children help one another with homework. The mothers have the opportunity to take German classes while their babies are in day care. The high demand for German classes encourages volunteer teachers such as Gisela Wedig to carry on with their work.
"We have seen that five days after giving birth, the women come back to our classes. This inspires us to keep on with it," Wedig said. "We accompany parents to school open house because the parents often have trouble understanding teachers, and vice versa," she said.
It was not always this way. The eased integration offered by the volunteer teachers is not merely a service. Strong bonds have been formed and even friendships flourish between the Münster natives and the newcomers. The new housing units together with gradually improving initiatives for social integration are allowing for an improvement in the quality of life enjoyed by the immigrant community.
Not all peaches and cream
Though the Münster model has received accolades from human rights activists, there are naturally detractors of the system as well. The high quality of the housing and social care offered to refugees in Münster cut deeply into the city's public funds. After receiving excellent care, learning the German language and starting on the long road to integration, their applications for a residency permit often fail. Some contend that the public investment is therefore an inefficient expenditure.
Köhnke disagreed: Knowledge of German and German culture can never be taken away from the asylum-seekers, he said. Even if their bid for amnesty is not accepted and the families must return to their homeland, the immigrants will have profited from their time in Germany.
At least for the time being, many residents of the new immigrant housing seem to be content. Living in a neighborly environment fosters neighborly interactions. Suljo Berisha is happy with the overall friendliness of his daily interactions.
"We never meet a neighbor without saying 'hello', or 'good evening'," he said.