The lesson of Golzow

We saw it in the suburbs of Cologne, dark-skinned women, heads covered with hijabs, on street corners, in shops, shunned by the white people whose city had become their new home. Keeping to themselves. Unwanted. They came in large numbers to Germany, prompting alarm in many. Far-right new Nazis stirred, and their numbers continue to grow. Locals felt threatened by these different people with their strange religion, language and customs.

Traveling there as a member of a biracial choir showed me how much I needed to learn about people I was singing with, friends whose skin is darker than mine. Who me? Racist? Not a chance, I believed. Despite my upbringing in a racist white-household, I was convinced that I was not like that. Prolonged, intimate contact, however, has a way of teaching us what we all need to learn — that we are much more alike than we are different. We are.

The residents of a tiny German village of Golzow, Germany, know all about this. Golzow, a few kilometers east of Berlin, hugs the border with Poland. Anti-immigrant sentiment dominates among its 820 residents.

The village has shrunk since the Berlin wall fell. A New York Times article reports that about a third of its people left. The number of school-aged children had fallen to a new low, the Times reported. There wasn’t going to be a first grade in the village school, which had been considered the the center, the soul of Golzow.

Then the mayor, Frank Schütz, invited 16 Syrians to move in. Locals froze, alarmed. Some worried that the newcomers wouldn’t speak German or would be noisy or steal. But local residents tried their best to be hospitable. On the first day of school, some German parents greeted the Syrians with a cake, not realizing that the Syrians were fasting because it was Ramadan. But everyone laughed, and a Syrian woman cut the cake.

That was four years ago. Today, Golzow is alive again, the school is thriving, according to the Times report. Families now live happily in once-empty apartments. “At the annual sunflower fair, Arabic pastries sit next to German apple tarts,” the Times reported. What happened? Living together, Germans and Syrians learned about each other. One local tractor driver summed it up this way: “We lived, we loved, we celebrated,” he told the Times reporter. Fears have faded as each group has learned about the other. It has been a four-year  process, bumpy at times, but now they are one village, one family, as a Syrian woman expressed it.

This is what the people of Golzow have shown us.

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