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Refugee Influx Leads to Tensions in Dresden

One Monday evening in January 2015, my wife and I went mattress shopping in downtown Dresden. After plying the salesman with questions, we left Karstadt, a department store, to catch the Nr. 9 tram home. As we exited the store we found ourselves blocked in by six police vans parked bumper to bumper just outside the store's door. As we tried to squeeze between the bumpers to cross the street to the tram stop, policemen in riot gear eyed us suspiciously.

Anti-Pegida demonstrators block Pegida march route.

Ever since Dresden had been making international headlines because of its burgeoning PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) marches, we were aware that PEGIDA had been holding its marches and demonstrations on Monday evenings—we just didn't figure they would march down the street in front of the department store we were shopping at. Bad timing on our part. – Who goes to PEGIDA rallies?

A group of 100 or so anti-PEGIDA demonstrators ran right in front of us and sat down in the middle of the street in an attempt to block the 25,000 PEGIDA marchers headed our way. As they chanted (in English), "Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here!" a large group of policemen ran toward them to keep them separated from the PEGIDA marchers. By then it was clear that the trams and buses were being re-routed; we decided to wait and see what would happen.

I'd said something to my wife, Anne, in English and a young German approached me and asked also in English: "Are you a visitor here?" Because we live in Dresden, I didn't understand the question and I told him this in German. He said: "Oh, I thought I heard you speaking English. Since you are not German, you really should leave now. Things might get violent around here."

Just then an M-80 (extremely large firecracker) exploded. A group of policemen took off after some anti-PEGIDA hoodlums, put one of them in a vise grip and began questioning him. Hundreds of PEGIDA marchers were filing by and the two groups began trading insults and yelling at each other. The atmosphere was tense, like a powder keg about to explode. At that point we decided to stop speaking English and start walking to another tram stop—away from the demonstration—so we could get home safely. – Watch a brief summary of the situation on this evening by a CNN reporter here.

We feel with you Khalid!

The next morning we learned that a refugee from Eritrea who lived just a 10-minute walk from our apartment had been stabbed to death. Anti-PEGIDA supporters assumed quickly that Khalid's murder was racially motivated and had probably been committed by a PEGIDA supporter. Before the police could even cordon off the crime scene, Dresden residents were placing candles and notes outside his apartment building. They even held a "Remember Khalid" march; thousands of Dresden residents participated. – Read about the murder and associated tensions here. (As it turned out, Khalid had been stabbed by one of his own roommates after fighting about the household budget, a sad reflection of the hard lives and violent homelands of these young refugees. The German govt. pays the refugees' rent and utilities and each refugee receives 299 Euros monthly to pay for food and incidental expenses).

There is a silver lining to this cloud of suspicion, misunderstanding, prejudice and fear in Dresden: The PEGIDA marches and Khalid's murder have thrust the heart-breaking plight of refugees into the public spotlight. As a result, many Dresden residents have become aware of the immigration issues, responded positively and have been offering to get involved helping refugees.

In the weeks prior to Khalid's murder, Anne had been walking through this neighborhood with its massive, communist-era block apartment buildings and praying, "Lord, how do we get to know the people in these buildings? Surely most belong to the 80% of Dreden residents with no religious affiliation. What could we do to reach some of these people for Christ?"

As we began to read the newspaper reports and learn about this issues, Anne and I sent inquiries to city officials asking how we and perhaps our new church too could get involved in helping refugees personally. Not long thereafter, Anne and Ilona, a woman on our church planting team, discovered the "SPIKE" youth center located in the neighborhood where Khalid was murdered. Anne hadn’t seen SPIKE on her prayer walk but the Lord had already set up an opportunity there. On her first visit at SPIKE she helped three young Eritrean men practice German who, unbeknownst to her, had been Khalid's roommates!

Spike – where the refugees and youth hang out

Two weeks later Anne and I were invited to an informational meeting by the Kurdish-German social worker responsible for the 200+ refugees in our area. As a result of that meeting, we were asked to “adopt” or sponsor three small groups of Eritreans—the same men Anne had helped with German that first evening at SPIKE! As we entered their apartment building for the first time to check out the stove that wasn't working properly, we thanked God for answering our prayer: He was opening a door in the very neighborhood where Anne had walked and prayed. Not only that: We're also providing a service to the city's understaffed social workers who are working with limited resources to help scared refugees integrate into a city that isn't sure it wants them.

– photos and story by Jeff Ingram

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