A building in southeast Berlin once overcrowded and filled with trash is now seen as a shining example of how poor migrants can be successfully integrated. It's drawn heavy media attention, but many prejudices remain.
The social worker on the other end of the line sighs in resignation upon being asked for an interview. Journalists have been calling constantly for days at the outreach center for Southeast Europeans where he's employed in Berlin, he says, making it hard to work.
German media attention has zeroed in on Eastern European migrants and the centers that assist them, following a debate unleashed primarily by two factors. First, legal changes effective from January 1, 2014, allow Bulgarians and Romanians to live and work unrestrictedly in the European Union. Second, Bavaria's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) party has responded with stark warnings about Eastern European immigration to Germany and calls for countermeasures.
Seventy percent of Bulgarians and Romanians who have moved to Germany in recent years are employed, but there are also impoverished migrants from both states. They are often members of the Roma minority, discriminated against at home and lacking education. They're the people against whom the CSU is warning.
Courts all the way up to the European Court of Justice are currently wrangling with whether these migrants have a right to social welfare benefits.
Racism and prejudice
There's no question that poor immigrants come to Germany and make ends meet with temporary jobs and begging, says Bosiljka Schedlich, who leads the outreach center in Berlin. Called Südost Europa Kultur, the center helps Roma who have taken up residence in parking lots, cars or dilapidated houses by providing them with medical attention and practical advice, like how to validate a subway ticket.
At Südost Europa's office, a few teens are horsing around in the kitchen as conversations in Romani and German mix. They are participating in a tutoring and training program for young Roma. They may, Schedlich says with pride, be taken on as trainees somewhere or even be accepted to universities. They just need someone to give them a chance at integration, she adds.
If they succeed, Schedlich says they'll join the ranks of those left out in the current debate: educated Roma, who work as doctors, engineers and academics. Germany is also home to "perfectly integrated professional" Roma, Schedlich tells DW, who often came to Germany as the children of Roma guest workers or refugees during the Yugoslav Wars.
Many of them eschew attention. One friend of Schedlich's is a respected doctor in a chic Berlin suburb who conceals his Roma background. He fears losing patients in his office. Racism, Schedlich says, is unfortunately widespread in Germany, so she can understand her friend's decision, "even if it's unfortunate."
Trash to treasure
That may explain why journalists have also flocked to the Berlin office of Benjamin Marx, stacked high with empty coffee cups.
"If you only knew who all has sat where you are right now," he says, spreading his hands: Japanese journalists, English colleagues from Al-Jazeera and the BBC, even American diplomats and the heads of migration resource centers. Tabloid journalists have long since been banned from the premises in Berlin's southeast Neukölln district.
Marx manages a building he helped transform from a problem zone overcrowded with people sleeping on bunks amid mounds of trash into a prize-winning example of a successful integration project.
Journalists have come far and wide for a peek, hoping for what the property manager in his mid-50s, who often speaks with a touch of irony, calls, "A positive example that it can work."
He recounts the often-told story of working as a project manager in 2011 for a Catholic property management group in Germany that oversees many low-income housing developments. Marx' task at the time was to appraise a Neukölln property, which he discovered full of garbage, rats and children at play. He says it wasn't long before he bought the house and began renovating the first apartments inside.
The overcrowded bunks soon disappeared, as only Roma officially registered as Berlin residents were permitted to stay. The house was named after Arnold Fortuin, a pastor who saved Roma from concentration camps during the Second World War, and who was Benjamin Marx' religious studies teacher.
'Fight poverty, not the poor'
Renovating the Arnold Fortuin building's 137 apartments is a gradual process. Once a family moves out, their apartment is re-done. The waiting list is long for a spot. The last vacant apartment drew 100 applications, including from Germans, Turks, Tunisians - in part because the rental price is moderate.
Marx is not taking any more Roma, "in order to prevent this becoming a ghetto." Marx is convinced the problems associated with impoverished migrants can be solved if people are given shelter in a decentralized way.
"You have to fight against poverty, not the people," he says with resolve.
Social worker Ana-Maria Berger agrees. She moved to Germany several years ago from Romania and gives German courses to Roma at the Fortuin building and helps them with applications. Berger knows which companies they can forget entirely - places "where Roma don't have any chance anyway."
Twelve of the Roma residents have been given jobs by the property owner, such as keeping the interior courtyard clean. Others work on night cleaning crews in supermarkets and movie theaters or at construction sites.
Some of the younger Roma, Berger proudly relates, have gotten service jobs in stores within the last year - a small but important step up the social ladder.
For the strict opponents of poverty migration, like those leading the CSU's campaign on the topic, the Fortuin building represents a thorn in the side, Marx says. "For everyone else, it's a little bit of hope," he adds before quickly saying goodbye. His next interviewer is already waiting outside.
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