Hospital of Hope: City Marred By Xenophobia Seeks to Reinvent Itself
Xenophobic riots in 1991 transformed the eastern German town of Hoyerswerda into a symbol of post-communist hate. Now, though, the community is courting foreign health workers and seeking to reinvent itself. Can it work?
By 11 a.m., as the fog slowly lifts and crows circle above the communist-era highrises, matters of life and death have begun to mark the day in the eastern German town of Hoyerswerda -- as they do so often. Chief Physician Robert Donoval, a 36-year-old from Prague, stands next to a patient he thinks is suffering from stomach cancer. He's about to perform an endoscopy. The syringe is ready and, in a comforting sing-song voice that puts elderly women at ease, he says: "You sleep nicely and I'll do the work for you."
In the pediatrics ward next door, 36-year-old Senior Physician Tarik Galil, from Sudan, listens to a child's bare belly using Günter, the talking stethoscope. Günter tickles and the doctor speaks in a Mickey Mouse voice. The child giggles.
Helping to deliver life and to delay death is the daily business at this hospital in Hoyerswerda, a city 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Berlin. The clinic is located in a remodeled, concrete box with six floors; it is surrounded by residential buildings, a small supermarket and a fitness club. The revolving door deposits people inside the hospital -- healthy ones carry flowers and chocolates, the ill or injured can be seen in dressing gowns, head bands, arm slings or with bandaged wounds. Quite a few are in wheelchairs.
A Dubious Honor
After the collapse of communism in 1989, there was less of everything here -- less coal mining and fewer people, with half moving away. With an exodus of youth, the city quickly grew old. One 2011 study found that Hoyerswerda had become home to the highest share of dementia patients of any city in Germany, with one-third of the local population aged 65 or older.
Built as a model socialist concept city by the Communist Party, Hoyerswerda was home to 70,000 residents during the East German days. That meant the construction of lots of drab, gray buildings, many of which are now tagged for demolition. The city now has a population of less than 35,000 and dandelions have begun taking over unused lots. The craters in the lunar landscape surrounding the city, left behind by years of strip mining, are now being flooded with water, part of plans to create one of Europe's largest lake districts.
Wolves have been sighted in the area, with 12 packs known to be living in in the surrounding Lausitz region. Nature, it seems, is reclaiming the area. These days, city planners and sociologists travel here to study the effects of population exodus and demographic transformation and to see if something can be learned from this shrinking city.
A Bold Experiment in a City with a Past
The hospital, though, has remained. It is the primary healthcare provider for the region, a mid-sized facility with 440 beds, 131 doctors, around 20,000 inpatients and 40,000 outpatients per year. It's also the city's largest employer. In order to prevent it from going under, administrators have launched an experiment -- that of hiring foreign doctors to fill vacant positions. Today, one out of three doctors in the facility is not German. Around 50 doctors from 16 different nations work here, not counting those who have already become naturalized citizens.
The region will continue to waste away and it is too late to turn things around. But medical workers and doctors from Eastern Europe, the Muslim world and Africa are at least helping this transformation take place with dignity -- and helping in the search for recipes to address the shortage of doctors and nurses experienced elsewhere in Germany as well.
As an added bonus, the experiment may even help curb the xenophobia that has plagued the region for decades. Hoyerswerda, after all, has a dark past -- one well known to most in Germany. In 1991, just two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, xenophobic riots in the city saw right-wing mobs attack hostels for foreign contract workers and asylum seekers. Dozens were injured and the city became a no-go area for foreigners.
A typical day of patient visits with pediatrician Galil shows that xenophobia is still present. "The hostility is latent, but it is there," says Galil, who adds that his European colleagues don't have a problem. "It's because of the color of my skin." Almost as if to prove it, he begins calling in his young patients. They aren't the problem, it's their parents.
Fabian, 5, a child wearing green rubber boots with a runny nose and a terrible cough, walks into the room with his mother, a heavy-set woman with lavender streaks running through her blonde hair. When she sees the doctor, she guffaws. Galil bears a slight resemblance to the younger Michael Jackson, back when his skin was still dark. He wears a white lab coat -- and wears his thick curls in an Afro. "Look Fabian," the mother says, "the man's hairdryer blew up in his face."
The father of little Max, the next patient, who appears to be suffering from a stomach ache after eating too many potato chips, is almost aggressive in his ironic tone. "You must have had to learn a lot from us -- the language, how to behave and now to become a nurse -- respect!"
Senior Physician Tarik Galil is familiar with all such reactions and sometimes he says he feels like a development aid worker. He once considered going to Africa with Doctors without Borders, but he instead landed at this hospital in the state of Saxony, which he says is comparable.
He had just arrived in Germany as a 12-year-old when he first heard of Hoyerswerda. The city was featured on the news on TV and his mother made him promise that he would never go there.
He had fled the civil war in Sudan with his parents and his four siblings and they were living at the time as asylum seekers in Germany near the Dutch border. Sure, he says, they heard racial epithets, but they generally grew up among tolerant, liberal people. At home, the family only spoke German and his dad even kept a dictionary at the dinner table in case they needed to look up words. Of the five, one is a law professor and several others are doctors. Tarik became a senior physician in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia and all of the siblings have since become German citizens.
The pediatrician wound up in Hoyerswerda despite his mother's warnings. Now the father of two small children and with a mortgage to pay, Galil came to check out the town by covering for other doctors on vacation. On the day of his arrival, he says he asked for directions to the hospital at the train station, only to have people turn away from him. He says he seldom left his hotel, where he still lives today. "The 30- to 60-year-olds are okay," he says. "Those who are younger are skinheads and the older ones are old Nazis. It's sad, but that's how I see it." He says racism in Germany was also one of the reasons he decided to specialize in pediatrics. "You can still help kids to change -- you're working towards life, not against death," he says.
The Prelude to a Bad Chapter in German History
The events that make Galil's mother so fearful back then -- and which continue to traumatize Hoyerswerda to this day -- took place on five autumn days 23 years ago. On Sept. 17, 1991, a pair of young German men began beating up Vietnamese workers. The immigrants barricaded themselves inside a hostel for East German-era contract workers from Vietnam and Mozambique at a local brown coal processing plant. Assailants threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, injuring 32 people at the contract worker hostel and a hostel for asylum seekers. The riots raged out of control for days, with hundreds of locals shouting hateful slogans in front of the hostels. Finally, authorities decided to transport the foreigners out of the city in buses. The mob on the street screamed epithets at the immigrants and cheered their departure. They declared Hoyerswerda to be "free of foreigners."
If you ask people today, whether in eastern or western Germany, about what happened back then in Hoyerswerda, they are often fuzzy on the facts. At the time, a politician said the riots were "about the worst" thing to happen in Germany since Kristallnacht, as the anti-Semitic pogroms of November 1938 are called.
Yet the hostels of Hoyerswerda were not burned and nobody was killed. That came later, mostly in the West.
It appeared that dark Germany had regained the upper hand, and there was considerable outrage worldwide. Just after the attacks, then-SPIEGEL reporter Matthias Matussek wrote extensively about Hoyerswerda. He said the city had become a synonym for neo-Nazi rot where "the ugly German has had his coming-out."
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