Germans First? A Food Bank Bars Migrants, Setting Off a Storm
ESSEN, Germany — Jörg Sartor does not like to turn newcomers away from his food bank, especially single mothers like the young Syrian woman with her 5-year-old son who had waited outside since before dawn.
But rules are rules. And for the moment, it is Germans only.
“Come here,” said Mr. Sartor, waving the boy over. Mr. Sartor disappeared into a storage room and re-emerged with a wooden toy. Then the boy and his mother were shown the door, which for the past two weeks has had five letters scrawled across the outside: “Nazis.”
The decision of one food bank in the western city of Essen to stop signing up more foreigners after migrants gradually became the majority of its users has prompted a storm of reaction in Essen, a former coal town in Germany’s rust belt, and across the country. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel weighed in: “You shouldn’t categorize people like this.”
But the controversy has highlighted an uncomfortable reality: Three years after Germany welcomed more than a million refugees, much of the burden of integrating the newcomers has fallen on the poorest, whose neighborhoods have changed and who have to compete for subsidized apartments, school places and, in the case of the food bank, a free meal.
Ask any of the Germans lined up outside the former water tower that houses the food bank one recent morning and they will call Mr. Sartor a “people’s hero.”
“He stands up for us,” said Peggy Lohse, 36, a single mother of three.
Until recently, groups of young migrant men had sometimes elbowed their way to the front of the line, Ms. Lohse recalled. She went home empty-handed more than once. Some older women were so intimidated that they stopped coming altogether, she said.
“We have worked and paid taxes in this country; our parents built it up,” said Marianne Rymann, 62, also in line. “How can it be that we are turned away and those who just arrived get what they need?”
When some 1.2 million migrants arrived in Germany in 2015 and early 2016, they were distributed across the country with the aim of sharing the cost and optimizing the chances of integration. But many later left their designated homes, gravitating to areas that already had a high concentration of migrants.
Essen, a city of 600,000 people, has seen its Syrian community grow to nearly 11,000 from 1,300 in 2015, said Peter Renzel, who is in charge of social policy at City Hall. Most of them live in the working-class districts of the north.
“It is a challenge,” Mr. Renzel said. “Some districts carry a disproportionate burden.”
The image of a line in which some wait their turn and others unfairly push to the front is a familiar one for Karlheinz Endruschat, a local Social Democrat, who represents the northern district of Altenessen.
Apartments have become scarcer. Schools report that nine out of 10 of their students are non-German. Some German residents feel alienated by the number of newcomers.
“There are times when you walk down the street and you are in the minority,” Mr. Endruschat said.
Mr. Endruschat is no fan of Mr. Sartor’s decision to discriminate by passport. But he is even more critical of those who point a finger from a position of privilege.
“Those who shout the loudest are the farthest from the problem,” Mr. Endruschat said.
When Ms. Merkel opened the border, she famously said, “We will manage.” Now, some towns are saying they cannot.
Cottbus and Freiberg in the former East Germany, and Delmenhorst and Salzgitter in the former West, are among a number of cities that have taken steps to stop more refugees from settling there, saying they are at or beyond capacity.
Several food banks have sought to limit tensions by segregating immigrants and Germans by time or day. Some have banned young men from signing up — in theory not to target migrants, but in practice exactly that.
Sitting in his crammed office in Essen one recent morning, arms defiantly crossed over his substantial belly, Mr. Sartor scoffed. “They’re doing what I’m doing,” he said. “They’re just not saying it.”
A former coal worker who retired early when his mine shut down, Mr. Sartor has run the food bank for 12 years as a volunteer.
He has deliberately left the Nazi graffiti on the door and on the charity’s seven delivery vans, which have also been defaced. “It’s absurd,” he said.
Until three years ago, roughly one in three food bank users were foreigners, he said. By last November, it was three in four.
Food bank users normally sign up for a year’s pass, after demonstrating proof of need. It was Mr. Sartor’s idea to block any more non-Germans from signing up, at least temporarily. The food bank continues to serve those foreigners already on its lists.
When a message about the new policy went up on the food bank’s website on Dec. 8, no one complained. It was only when the local newspaper wrote about it last month that the decision suddenly exploded into the national news.
Given the controversy, representatives from the food bank, the city and migrant groups met over the weekend and agreed that the ban would be lifted “as soon as possible” — but only after the numbers of migrants and native Germans evened out.
For now, the share of foreigners among food bank users is still 60 percent, Mr. Sartor said.
One of his 120 fellow volunteers resigned in protest over the decision. But those handing out bread, fish, vegetables and fruit on a recent afternoon said that something had to be done.
One of them, Steffi Tamm, had just gotten off the phone with an older woman who was inquiring whether it was “safe” to come back to the food bank. “Have those young men gone?” she asked.
Some of the threat, said Ms. Tamm, is more perceived than real. But she recalled how last year, whenever she opened the door on distribution day, it was like being caught in a scrum.
“They came from both sides,” she said, pointing at the door. “I was practically overrun.”
A single mother, Ms. Tamm, now 39, first came to the food bank as a user herself. That was 10 years ago. She remembers lining up outside, on a busy street a stone’s throw from the main station, in plain sight of everyone.
“There is already an element of shame in standing out there,” she said. “The last thing you need is having to fight for your place.”
It is a question of “dignity,” she said.
It is for others, too. The Syrian mother who was sent away one recent morning, Habib Banavsch, said she hated having to line up for charity. “I would much rather be home in my country,” she said quietly.
But war is still raging in her city of Afrin, and she is alone looking after her son Yusef after his father left.
“We need help,” she said.
In addition to language and cultural barriers, some here spoke of an attitude barrier between vulnerable and often older Germans in need and young, often male, migrants who had been through a lot. The migrants had made it this far not by following rules but by rebelling against them.
“The willingness and ability of these young refugees to take their own fate into their hands feels threatening to people who have long given up on theirs,” said Britta Altenkamp, a local member of the state Parliament. “And now we are expecting these people to be the face of a tolerant and welcoming Germany.”
The controversy has split the network of more than 930 food banks across the country that, like the one in Essen, belong to a charity called the Tafel. The charity has grown to 60,000 volunteers and serves 1.5 million people across Germany. Many of them have experienced similar tensions.
Sabine Werth, who now runs the Berlin subsidiary, founded the network in 1993, when a wave of homelessness swept across her city. “One of our founding principles is that we serve according to need, not origin,” said Ms. Werth, 61.
What Mr. Sartor has done, she said, amounts to “Germany First.”
But Germany First is popular with many, as Ms. Werth has learned the hard way in recent days. “Cockroach,” “piece of dirt” and “foreigner’s slut” are some of the insults that have landed in her inbox. One longtime donor diverted his donation from Berlin to Essen, she said.
He is not the only one. Mr. Sartor proudly showed off his donation account: Over the past two weeks the food bank has received as much as it would normally raise in six months. Some try to earmark their donation to Germans only, but Mr. Sartor does not accept those.
His inbox is mostly full of praise: “Keep going” one message read. “God bless you,” said another. He has 2,340 unread emails.
The nationwide head of the charity, Jochen Brühl, said the debate currently animating the country was largely missing the point. Germany is Europe’s richest country and has a budget surplus of more than 40 billion euros ($55 billion), he pointed out.
“The whole country is up in arms about this one little food bank in Essen,” he said, “when the real scandal is that in this rich country we have this kind of poverty.”