The tiny southern German village of Schöllnstein is a microcosm of what happens when two worlds collide. Outnumbered by an influx of asylum seekers, locals are struggling to cope. And although the foreigners may live in the center of town, they still remain at the margins of society.
Hossein goes into the jungle when he's bored. The young Afghan takes his bike with its broken brakes and rides along the village's main street towards the municipality of Entweg. His path takes him past front yards with picket fences and wooden balconies with inscriptions. One reads: "First work, then pleasure."
Hossein is often bored. For the past eight months, the 19-year-old has been living in the southern German village at the edge of the Bavarian Forest. The community is called Schöllnstein, but Hossein calls its outlying green fields, hills and trees the "jungle."
The young man, who has scars on his temples and wrists, is awaiting a formal decision on his asylum application. Until then, he will continue living in a home for asylum seekers in the "village," which has neither a pub, doctor or supermarket. There is, however, a butcher shop on wheels that stops in front of the crucifix in the village center on Tuesdays. And there is a cigarette machine near the war memorial.
But Hossein doesn't care about these things, anyway, because he doesn't have money. In the state of Bavaria, refugees like Hossein are provided with lodging, food parcels and clothing vouchers worth €184 ($226) as well as €41 in pocket money each month.
This week, the Federal Constitutional Court will decide whether asylum seekers are entitled to more. The verdict will be important for both refugees and German society, determining the minimum of what asylum seekers in the country need to live. Currently the benefits they receive are some 40 percent less than what welfare recipients get, but observers expect a judgement that will soon lead to legal reforms and higher payments.
Like anyone, Hossein would be pleased with more money. But regardless of the outcome of the verdict at Germany's highest court in Karlsruhe, important questions will remain. Will more money be nice, but not crucial? Does German society take responsibility for the people who have fled here? Or will higher monthly benefits simply free it from the responsibility of helping asylum seekers?
Outnumbering the Locals
The search for answers to these questions in Schöllnstein is a fascinating one. Here asylum seekers don't live on the outskirts of village, but right in the center. And they aren't the minority -- they comprise the majority of residents. There are 76 asylum seekers and 61 locals. The newcomers get only brief mention on the community's Internet homepage, and authorities and residents alike seem overwhelmed by the task offering the foreigners a better outlook than mere access to the bucolic village's green meadows and trees.
As things stand now, there is little contact between the locals and the asylum seekers. On Ascension Day, a bouncy castle was set up in front of the fire station. A shift change took place every half hour, with the foreign children and the Bavarian children taking turns when it came to jumping.
There are simply too many refugees, Schöllnstein residents say. They feel overrun. In response to questions about refugees in his community, local priest Anton Pius Vollath says: "No comment." But the asylum seekers say there are simply too few people. They feel alienated. "This is no life here," says one. Schöllnstein is "like prison."
The shared accommodations for asylum seekers are located at a former hotel on a hill in the village. Placement in collective housing facilities is meant to "promote a willingness to return to the home country," according to Bavarian asylum regulations. When the asylum seekers moved to Schöllnstein in July 2010, the head of the Lower Bavaria regional government with jurisdiction over the village, Heinz Grunwald, called it an "absolute emergency measure." The number of asylum seekers in the district has doubled over the last three years, putting authorities under increasing pressure.
"It's the same everywhere," Grunwald laments. "People only think the basic right to asylum is a good thing until someone has the idea to put it in their front yard." Still, in his view Schöllnstein residents are obligated to help. The state's duty is to properly house and feed the asylum seekers. "The rest is the responsibility of volunteers on site," he says.
No Educational Opportunities
In 2011, some 45,741 people applied for asylum across Germany, an increase of 11 percent over the previous year. Most come from Afghanistan, a country from which last year only 11.1 percent of refugees located in Germany were accorded asylum status according to Geneva Convention standards. Instead, most are granted a "Duldung," or "temporary stay of deportation." In most cases, single people are only allowed to leave the communal lodgings after four years. They are also only allowed to work in jobs for which no Germans can be found. In Schöllnstein, that's tantamount to a ban on refugee employment.
The state hasn't planned any educational offerings for its new residents either. The fact that Schöllnstein still offers a free German course has only Anna Wollinger to thank. The German teacher drives over from a neighboring village twice a week to teach her Afghan students.
"I have no watch," she tells the class during a lesson on indefinite article declension. Then it's the students' turn. The asylum seekers say they have "no passport," "no girlfriend," and "no laptop," though not all of their statements are grammatically correct. One says he has "no hair."
"But you do have the proper grammar," Wollinger says, offering a laugh.
No Interest in Friendship
From a tidy ground-floor office of the former hotel where the asylum seekers live, hostel director Dieter Brunnmeier also manages the deadlock in Schöllnstein. He takes complaints from locals mainly over the phone. Last week, for example, Afghan boys played in part of a stream located on a woman's private property.
Locals rejected a welcome party that the head of the local government wanted to throw. They have no interest in new friendships. "Today you say hello, and tomorrow they're gone again," says Hermann Zankl, the head of the village's volunteer fire department.
The jovial Bavarian likes living "in the middle of nowhere," he says. He doesn't understand why it should be his responsibility to relieve the asylum seekers of their boredom, particularly when his new neighbors tend to make his family's daily life more difficult.
Zankl lives in one of Schöllnstein's finely renovated old farmhouses near the asylum seekers' hostel. His garden fence is broken. The parents of the children who live there don't have liability insurance, so the damages won't be repaired for now, he says.
On top of that, it's loud. Not only can music playing from the Afghan boys' mobile phones be heard, but in the summer they play football until sundown.
The Public Good
Other villagers also have complaints, reporting that children come to their doors begging for money or ice cream. Pens and notebooks have been stolen at the elementary school. There was also reportedly a brawl over the best bicycle in the living quarters.
One experience that couple Winfried and Ingrid Bergmann had also shows the problems that can arise from trying to be neighbourly. The pensioners invited two refugees and their children to help out on their farm in the nearby community of Vilshofen. "We must simply learn to share again, and take suffering in the world seriously," they say. But instead of just two asylum seekers, 15 showed up at their door.
When there wasn't enough food to go around, the Afghans plucked the unripe fruit from the trees instead of helping shear the sheep as planned. The pensioners felt their hospitality had been taken advantage of, while the asylum seekers felt they had been exploited as workers.
Hostel director Brunnmeier has meanwhile found 9 of the 76 asylum seekers employment that serves the public good. For €1.05 ($1.29) an hour, they mow grass, whitewash walls or work at the municipal construction yard.
"They are happy, and I have my peace," says Brunnmeier. "That's how it should be."