EUROPE

Why a small-town official in Germany and a busload of Syrian refugees hit the road to see Angela Merkel

As the bus rumbled toward Berlin, dozens of television crews began following it.

On board were 31 Syrian refugees who had been living in the Bavarian county of Landshut. Driving separately in a car was Peter Dreier, a local politician there who had arranged the 342-mile journey.

His plan: to drop them at the doorstep of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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By time the bus arrived at Merkel’s office, Dreier was well on his way to national fame as a symbol of the opposition against the policies that have forced small communities across Germany to take in many of the thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere arriving in the country each day.

“I wanted to send a signal that we can’t simply carry on with the same policies on refugees anymore,” Dreier, 49, said in an interview back in Landshut a week after the mid-January trip.

“Our national leaders have to do a better job coordinating all this and can’t just dump the problems on the counties and cities like they’ve been doing,” he said.

Germany took in 1.1 million refugees last year, more than any other country. More than 3,000 people a day have been arriving this month from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries in turmoil.

Merkel has refused to close the borders or — as every other country in the European Union has done — set limits on how many refugees will be admitted. She argues that turning people away is inhumane and would leave tens of thousands of people stranded on a treacherous route.

Last Friday, more than 40 people, including many children, died when two wooden smuggling boats capsized in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece.

Merkel has also said she fears that restricting the borders would snarl traffic and imperil trade.

Her stance has left her increasingly isolated in Europe and at home. One opinion poll last week found that 79% of Germans opposed her open-door policy and that 90% of voters in her own party, the Christian Democratic Union, wanted her to change course.

The vast majority of refugees have settled in big cities, and that is where the issue has been most explosive. Some refugee centers house hundreds of people.

In an incident that turned many Germans against Merkel’s policy, hundreds of women in Cologne reported being groped and robbed on New Year’s Eve by mobs of men. Among the 30 suspects detained, half were asylum-seekers from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

Landshut, in contrast, has been a peaceful place for refugees. The idyllic southern county of 152,000 people is one of Germany’s wealthiest, with two large BMW factories and unemployment hovering just above 1%.

It has taken in about 2,200 refugees so far, according to Dreier. Roughly 70 more have been arriving each week.

Groups of 10 to a maximum of 40 live in private houses or remodeled restaurants rented by the county.

“We’ve found it helps promote integration when the refugees are sheltered in smaller private houses,” said Jakob Fuchs, head of public security and foreigner issues in the county. “We’ve rented 69 separate facilities in 30 of the 35 towns in the county and for the most part it’s worked well. They’re taking German lessons and integration courses.”

The impact has been relatively minor, and officials want to keep it that way. Dreier said that if the refugee influx continues, it will eventually become impossible to house them all.

That was one message he intended to convey with the bus trip, he said.

When the bus arrived, it parked in front of Merkel’s office for 90 minutes amid uncertainty about the next move. Some of the refugees told reporters that they felt they were being exploited for political purposes and that they felt duped.

“They told us the situation in Berlin would be better and we could go there if we wanted to,” one man from Damascus told a television crew.

Dreier said he was disappointed that Merkel didn’t come out to greet the refugees.

When authorities in Berlin finally offered the refugees a place to stay, Dreier got an firsthand lesson in the difference between cities and the countryside when it comes to accommodating the newcomers.

“They were going to send us to an emergency shelter set up in abandoned factory building with some heating on and mattresses set up on the floor,” he said. “The place they offered wasn’t fit for human beings so I turned that down and we went to a hotel instead.”

He said he paid the $1,500 hotel bill with his own money and dined in the hotel restaurant with the refugees.

The next day, the refugees were told that they were welcome to stay in Berlin. All but two chose to take the bus back to Landshut.

Refugees interviewed there described the locals as generous and hospitable.

“It’s actually a nice place,” said Tamar Assafin, a 26-year-old who fled Syria and walked for weeks to Germany from Greece last summer. “I’d like to learn German so I can move on in society and start to look for a job. I worked as an accountant in a hotel in Syria, and on computers and as a translator.”

Assafin said he considered taking up Dreier’s offer to take the bus to Berlin but decided against it. “We asked where we would end up in Berlin, in a house or private apartment? But he said he didn’t know either. It’s a good situation here, and the chances for a job here are better.”

He said he could understand German angst over the influx. “You can’t blame the Germans for getting angry,” he said. “They’re afraid because there’s such a massive number of people coming into their country.”

Those fears have helped transform Dreier from a little-known county commissioner into a popular national figure.

He said he has received more than 1,000 supportive emails, letters and faxes. A poll last week by Radio Trausnitz, in Landshut, found that 94% of respondents agreed that the bus trip was “a courageous step,” and 6% thought “it was just a public relations gag.”

Gerti Simmet, one of more than 500 people in Landshut who have volunteered to tutor refugees in the German language and culture, said Dreier’s bus trip to Berlin had put a much needed spotlight on the problem.

“I think it woke a lot of people up about the things the refugees urgently need, like places to live,” said Simmet, 54, who is helping 11 Syrians.

But Johanna Triebs, a 17-year-old student in Landshut, said Dreier’s trip to Berlin was misguided: “These are refugees from a war zone, and you can’t just dump them off on someone else.”

“There aren’t even that many refugees here, and you hardly see them in town,” she said. “I think it’s great that Germany is helping so much. Why not? We’re a rich country and we can afford to help them.”

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.

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