HETTSTEDT, Germany (AP) — Nestled in the foothills of Germany’s Harz mountains, Hettstedt has many points of pride: idyllic surroundings, a history dating back nearly 1,000 years and a traditional copper industry that brought ages of prosperity and prestige.
What the town doesn’t have, if predictions prove true, is a future.
Hettstedt has been hemorrhaging residents since communism collapsed in East Germany 26 years ago, stoking economic competition and giving young people newfound freedom to travel in search of adventure and opportunity. Where once 20,000 people lived, only 15,000 remain today, with the loss of another 5,000 forecast in the coming decade.
The man who hopes to reverse this demographic decline is Hettstedt’s mayor, a jovial 38-year-old lawyer with a radical idea: Why not take advantage of the influx of migrants to Germany and settle some of them here?
“I see this as a huge chance, that through migration we can become more open-minded, but also fill the skills gaps,” Danny Kavalier said in an interview at his office overlooking the medieval town square.
But Kavalier’s idea is sensitive in a region with few foreigners and strong anti-immigrant sentiment. In March, a fledgling nationalist party called Alternative for Germany received more than 30 percent of votes in the region, reflecting hostility to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy that permitted almost 1.1 million asylum-seekers to arrive last year.
The 3-year-old party argues that the country can’t integrate hundreds of thousands of Muslims because their traditions and beliefs conflict with German values.
“I think it’s a bit narrow-minded to think you can preserve Hettstedt as a town solely with refugees,” said Jens Diederichs, a regional lawmaker for Alternative for Germany, who favors increasing state incentives for families to have children. “We should do more for our own children and youth.”
Kavalier, mayor since 2011, says the departure of thousands of young Hettstedters in the early 1990s caused lasting damage to the birth rate and workforce in a town where the average age today is approaching 50. Local employers already complain they can’t recruit enough apprentices, and bigger labor supply problems loom with much of the workforce poised for retirement within the coming decade.
The mayor says he’s realistic about the pace of social change that locals should be expected to accept. With 233 asylum-seekers currently resident, he says the arrival of 10 to 15 foreign families a year would best enliven the town’s prospects again.
One of those seeking acceptance is Rawad Younes, a 33-year-old electrician from the Syrian coastal city of Latakia. He came to Germany seven months ago and lives in a shelter for asylum-seekers on the edge of Hettstedt.
“First of all I want to learn perfect German,” he said shyly, displaying a passable command of the language already. “And then I want to find work in my profession.”
When asked about Syrians’ experiences in Germany, Younes switched to Arabic.
“We find it difficult here, difficult to make German friends,” he said. “There is a certain perception of refugees that’s kind of difficult to deal with. We don’t know what will become of us. Maybe things will get better for refugees. But the most difficult thing we face here is integrating with Germans.”
Younes noted that some Germans appeared unwelcoming to migrants “because they feel (they) already have enough problems.”
Anti-immigrant feeling in Hettstedt has swelled on social media, with some locals complaining of the costs of providing housing and food aid. Kavalier, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, is countering such criticism by making a case grounded in morality and economic necessity.
Kavalier listed amenities at risk of closure if Hettstedt cannot maintain its tax intake and young population: the library, swimming pool, museum and three out of four primary schools. Utility bills also would rise more quickly, he said.
“A sinking population means fewer people have to pay more money to maintain the structures,” he said.
He and council allies have sought to highlight the upsides of immigration in other ways. After one recent town hall meeting, they invited refugees to serve Middle Eastern food.
“Love goes through the stomach,” Kavalier suggested.
The greatest sense of appreciation may well be generated on Hettstedt’s soccer field, where the town team has just completed an undefeated season and won promotion to a higher league thanks to a squad that includes three Syrians.
“They’re absolutely key players,” said Michael Thiesler, manager of FC Hettstedt. “They’ve brought us forward a great deal and contributed a lot to our success.”
Thiesler, 36, noted that before the Syrian athletes arrived, he sometimes had to don a jersey himself to ensure they could field a full team. He said fellow players and fans have welcomed the immigrant talent.
“If people perform well, they’re accepted and then over time you get to know each other,” he said. “I’ve never heard anything negative from the fans.”
Even the nationalist lawmaker, Diederichs, said he wanted to see newcomers join sports and cultural clubs. “It’s important that they can develop a sense of belonging here,” he said.
But not every migrant can win local affections by scoring goals. For many, daily life offers physical challenge enough, partly because the main shelter is nowhere near Hettstedt’s center.
“It’s really good here, but the market is really far from where I live. I get tired,” said Abed Alsalam Lahafi, a father of three in his 50s who hopes to find a home closer to town.
Lahafi said his sons were hoping to finish high school in Hettstedt, while his 7-year-old daughter was enrolled in a local primary school and already speaking more German than her parents.
As his daughter cheerfully counted to 10 in German, Lahafi said in Arabic, “We too will learn, God willing.”
Kavalier faces re-election in two years. He says he’s concerned about growing support for the Alternative for Germany party — but even more concerned by the lack of enthusiasm for his pro-refugee stance among some in his own Christian Democratic Union.
“I’m a bit disappointed, to be honest, that there’s so little bravery to take advantage of this opportunity,” he said.
Associated Press reporters Hamza Hendawi in Cairo and Donogh McCabe in Berlin contributed to this story.
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