Here to Stay: City Embraces Eastern European Immigrants

By Andreas Ulrich

In the past, Germany's guest workers were left to fend for themselves. Determined not to repeat this mistake, the city of Dortmund has beefed up integration assistance for immigrants, particularly those from Bulgaria and Romania.

The front door of the apartment building in the western German city of Dortmund is open, as are the doors to some of the apartments. Nameplates are missing from the mailboxes, and the paint is peeling from the walls in the stairwell. Stefan Burcea steps out into the third-floor hallway outside his apartment. The 49-year-old quickly buttons up his dark shirt and straightens his hair before inviting us into his sparsely furnished living room.

Two sofas are arranged at right angles to each other, and a pewter plate with the crests of the German states and the words "Unity, Justice, Freedom" is hanging on the wall. "We came here to work and to live," Burcea says.

Burcea emigrated from Transylvania to Germany two-and-a-half years ago. When German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich talks about immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria, he is usually referring to those who are working illegally or allegedly trying to exploit the country's generous system of social benefits. They are the so-called "poverty immigrants" that Friedrich, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), wants to deport, and also wants to bar from entering the country, so that "they can be thrown out again without further ado," as Friedrich said at a meeting of European Union interior ministers in June.

About 3,500 immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria are registered with the authorities in Dortmund. This is six times as many as when the two countries were accepted into the European Union in 2007. In the city's Nordstadt district, where Burcea lives, the numbers have jumped by a factor of 20. The deeply traditional blue-collar neighborhood behind the city's main train station is viewed as a social hot spot with a high percentage of immigrant residents -- and with unemployment at 26 percent.

Many of the Romanian and Bulgarian new arrivals -- most of whom are Roma -- present the city with additional problems. "Almost none of the immigrants has any professional qualifications, and the illiteracy rate is very high," says Birgit Zoerner, head of the city's social services department. They have few prospects on the job market. Likewise, Zoerner says, only 13 percent of these immigrants in Dortmund have jobs that provide social security benefits.

City officials already see it as a success when immigrant parents send their children to school. "People who are dealing with questions of survival all day long don't give much thought to the future," Zoerner says.

Rescuing a Neigborhood

There are an estimated 6 million Roma living in the European Union. In 2011, the European Commission called upon EU member states to improve the living conditions of their Roma residents. But since the latter still face substantial problems in their native countries, Zoerner says that there is "no alternative to integration." The city of Dortmund doesn't want to repeat the mistakes of the past, when hundreds of thousands of guest workers flocked to the country and were left to their own devices.

Stefan Burcea is from Targu Mures, a town in the heart of Transylvania, in north-central Romania. He applied for asylum in Germany in 1993 and was rejected. But after Romania joined the EU, there were no longer any obstacles to his dream of living in Germany. He returned to the country, where he collected scrap metal to support his family.

Jürgen Walter's job has brought him into contact with Burcea. The head of Dortmund's department of safety and regulatory affairs is sitting in a very tidy corner office on the fourth floor of the city's main administration building. He can see Nordstadt in the distance.

The situation escalated three years ago, says Walther, when the fragile social structure in Nordstadt began to unravel. Scrap dealers were taking apart refrigerators on street corners, and hundreds of prostitutes were crowded along Ravensberger Strasse. "Some had signs around their necks that read: 'Fucking: 5 euros'," Walther says.

Burglaries were on the rise, illegal gambling dens were popping up, and bars stayed open around the clock. Several apartment buildings were hopelessly overcrowded. Some immigrants were relieving themselves in basement areas and burning doorframes for heat, while garbage was piling up in the courtyards.

When residents originally from various countries protested and some even moved away, the city stepped in. In May 2011, the city administration outlawed street prostitution in Nordstadt and set up a task force to monitor the area.

Since then, employees with the office of public order have been going on patrol with police officers to check the condition of buildings. "Only recently," says Walther, "we had to tell a building owner to bring in an exterminator because of the cockroaches and to reconnect the electricity and water, which had been shut off."

Walther had buildings closed or required the owners to renovate. The youth welfare office took charge of children when it was found that their health was in serious danger. The city began helping the immigrants in various ways, such as by setting up counseling centers. The Dortmund public health office now offers walk-in clinics for children and women without health insurance.

"It's alarming to see how little people know when they come here," says Annette Düsterhaus, the head of the city's public health office. It's difficult, she says, to explain to the immigrants that birth control pills have to be taken daily and that some medications still have to be taken after symptoms have subsided. "It's like talking to a wall," she says. She has had to threaten some tuberculosis patients with compulsory hospitalization unless they submitted to regular checkups.

Neighborhood managers also help Nordstadt residents. David Grade offers weekly educational sessions for Roma children at a playground on Düppelstrasse. He recently built a garden with the children on the playground. For Grade, the children are often his only hope of connecting with the parents. When he tried to move his activities into the community center in the winter, no one came. Grade learned that the people he wants to help are leery of formal structures.

'Give Our Children a Chance'

Confronting such poverty is sometimes hard to take, says Grade, but it feels even worse when you are powerless to help. With funding tight, Dortmund can't really afford social work, preparatory classes and walk-in clinics.

"The federal government was involved in approving Romania and Bulgaria's accession to the EU, but we have to pay for the consequences," says Zoerner, the social services manager, who also runs a task force on the issue in the German Association of Cities. She has written a letter to the federal government, asking for support, but she has yet to receive a response that moves things forward.

"The first year was difficult," says Stefan Burcea. It took him that long to gather all the documents he needed: a freedom of movement certificate, a business registration, a tax ID number and official proof of residence. Now he is a freelance construction worker, working together with his son. Burcea has no health insurance. "I would have had to pay several months of premiums retroactively, which I can't do," he says.

"We're good gypsies," Burcea stresses, noting that he doesn't drink alcohol, smoke, steal or beat anyone. "But we are always blamed for everything."

Burcea lives with his wife, three children and five grandchildren in the multifamily building with the open doors. Relatives live in all six apartments. His oldest granddaughter is eight and is about to start school. Before that, she spent a year in a preparatory class offered by the city.

"Give our children a chance," Burcea says. "What can a young man do when he is responsible for his family but has no work?"

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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1. optional
peskyvera 07/19/2013
Bravo Dortmund!!! The Roma people have suffered enough discrimination all over Europe.
2. Josephus
Josephus 07/20/2013
These East Europeans are willing to work. They are loving people although mostly illiterate. Give them lodging and a piece of land to raise some crops and you will see miracles happen. They will bless you and make you feel good. But help those who curse you and want to blow you up and you will be cursed and blown up.
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