Refugee crisis: How Germany rose to the occasion

Story highlights

  • Germany has set $6 billion aside to care for 800,000 refugees this year
  • The government says it may take in another 500,000 for years to come
  • Many Germans have opened their homes to refugees -- but some aren't so sure

Berlin (CNN)One morning, as we set up to broadcast live in front of the Munich train station, we watched as a group of new arrivals stepped off the train from Budapest to register as refugees.

There were several families from Syria, a clutch of young men from Pakistan and a couple from Afghanistan. They passed through the medical tents, looking dazed from their long journey.
A few meters away, a crowd of local residents gathered to watch the new arrivals, spontaneously applauding as one refugee after another came through the medical screening. A young man held up a cardboard sign, decorated with sunflowers, that said "Welcome to Germany." A middle-aged woman came with a bag of toys and candy, offering them to every refugee child that came through.
    But not everyone was so welcoming.
    "Soon, it will be millions coming in!" grumbled one retiree as he watched the refugees trickling in. "Millions! And how will we pay for all of them?" he asked rhetorically to the young couple who waited patiently beside him.
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    German Chancellor Angela Merkel had an answer for him that day: More than 6 billion euros ($6.8 billion) will now be set aside to house and care for 800,000 new refugee applicants this year. And Germany may even take in another 500,000 for several years to come.
    It's a staggering number for any nation to take. For Germany, it represents 1% of the population.
    "This crisis will change our nation," Merkel said in a national address. "But I think we are up for the challenge."

    The benefits

    Germany needs more people. It has the lowest birthrate in the world, 8.2 births for every 1,000 people, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.
    At the same, time life expectancy is soaring -- 84 for women and 88 for men -- and Germany is desperate for workers to boost its aging and shrinking population.
    Which explains why Assad Baloch, a former human rights activist from Pakistan, is busy learning how to build a deadbolt lock from scratch.
    We met him at a metal workshop in Berlin, part of a city government project to match refugees with employers desperate to find work. Their motto: "'Refugee' is not a career."
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    "Electricians -- everyone needs electricians and plumbers and roofers," says project manager Anton Schunemann.
    The idea is to give refugees a jump-start in the job market. There are German language lessons and also a crash course in German work culture. Every two weeks, participants sign up to learn a new skill, anything from baking to roofing.
    "They have to work here every day for eight hours," explains Schunemann. "They have to be here at 8 o'clock. In some countries it's different. You work for two or three days for 20 hours and then you have three weeks off. They have to know about a lot of the rules. You have to know about job interviews. In a lot of countries, they don't have that."

    The costs

    Still, programs like this cost money. Merkel has promised that she will not raise taxes to cover the 6 billion-euro cost expected as a result of the refugee crisis. But her political allies aren't happy with her decision to lay out the welcome mat.
    "We cannot take in all the refugees coming from all the different countries of the world," said Horst Seehofer, president of the Christian Social Union, the sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats. "No society can withstand this permanently -- we can help, but we need to be fair."
    Despite the overwhelmingly warm welcome to refugees from many Germans, there is also an undeniable segment of society that is fearful and angry about the influx.
    On the day that Merkel announced her plan to tackle the crisis, a fire burned down a shelter housing 80 refugees near Stuttgart. The blaze started at around 2 a.m. and took more than 100 firefighters to get under control. Five refugees were brought to the hospital for smoke inhalation, and the entire building is now uninhabitable.
    Police believe the fire was probably started by right-wing extremists. The number of anti-immigrant attacks has more than doubled this year. Police have recorded more than 340 hate crime incidents since January, from anti-refugee graffiti on shelters to arson attacks.
    At one shelter we visited, the German manager was happy to talk to news media but did not want his full name used for fear of violent attacks by extremists.

    A warm welcome

    That specter of violence casts a shadow over what is otherwise a national outpouring of support for refugees.
    Hundreds have donated money, clothing and blankets. Aid groups are inundated with volunteers wanting to help, and private citizens are now offering their homes to refugees.
    One woman we spoke to decided to volunteer a room in her home to a Syrian refugee through a local church group.
    "I just decided: Why not a refugee?" she said. "I prefer to give a room to a responsible adult who is working hard to make a new life there than, for an example, an American student who's here to learn German."
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    Over a cup of freshly brewed coffee, she happily chatted with her new housemate Hazem, a 30-year old from Homs, Syria, about the basics of life here -- from the complexities of Germany's recycling laws and transportation systems to which German sausages contain pork.
    But while Hazem was happy to be quoted, the woman hosting him did not want her name published or her home identified for fear of attacks by right-wing extremists.
    Hazem seems unfazed by this, however. He paid people-smugglers more than $7,000, trying multiple times to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, before finally rowing a boat from Turkey to Greece and swimming across a river to Macedonia. He hopes to bring his wife and two children to Germany, if his request for asylum is granted.
    Learning a new language, he says, is the most difficult part of adjusting to his new life.
    "All I could hear was 'ich, ich, ich,'" he said. "Everyone sounded so angry. But now I can understand a little, I think the language is really beautiful. I am happy here -- very happy."