Amid the roar of distant train engines, refugees wait silently on a dusty platform. A man nearby wears green socks over dirty blue sneakers and a red backpack with a zipper down the middle. A young boy with large, dangling earrings holds a poster reading, “Alotta wabi…— Shaq!”
It’s not Las Vegas, but it’s a vibrant undergarment of life in Europe.
These refugees are not coming to the U.S. They are what economists like to call “vulnerable populations,” often expected to increase during periods of economic growth or development. And in recent years, that has meant largely coming to Europe. According to the United Nations, nearly four in ten people in Germany are refugees, and roughly the same amount in the United Kingdom. In France, just under half the population is foreign-born. During the recession, the world’s most powerful country slowed the number of newcomers it accepted, in part because of worries that many refugees were integrating poorly. It has been a different story in Europe than in the United States.
When the refugee crisis began, Germany was the big destination: It accepted the largest number of new arrivals, and the influx here continues unabated, now with 12 percent of the population a foreigner, or something that the Germans say is “migratory.”
“If you look at the suburbs around Berlin, they’re very densely populated with migrants,” says Marc Bush, the chief economist for Africa at Deloitte. “It’s very easy to get lost in the conversation that you have these big refugee camps and they’re too poor.”
Most of Berlin’s immigrants are legal, including many from Muslim-majority countries in North Africa and the Middle East, all seeking a better life in the established West. They speak German, and even Germans have learned Arabic or Farsi. But there are also three times as many foreign-born men as women in the German capital. And while the urban core is less diverse, “the poorest people in Berlin are these people who are left behind, the so-called ‘multifunctional’” workers, says Bush.
These include many from the suburbs, like the ones near Ali Shalek, where his family lives. (He is unable to say why they left their comfortable life in Saudi Arabia.) Over the years, he says, they have built up a small business in the landscaping business, an embroidery business and a general small-business organization, but they are one of the few families in the area left with children, even though they’ve always led “a good life” in Saudi Arabia. “There are 500 million people in the world, and it’s only 2 percent who work,” Shalek says. “And that’s the reason why I decided to come here.”
Like many of Berlin’s refugees, Shalek wants a good job and a good education. But he’s also glad to have something other than Arabic as his first language. “We don’t have the right to teach this country that’s our language,” he says. It’s a common sentiment across Germany.
The government has set a goal of bringing 800,000 refugees into Germany by 2025, and officials say it is possible to help them better integrate. Yet there are also massive pressures on Berlin’s sprawl and urbanization, as well as services. Many families on Ali Shalek’s block pay more than 10 euros a day for municipal apartments in the suburbs that they do not have to sign up for. “I can’t help myself,” he says. “I want a place where I can sleep at night.”
The apartment above him is the closest to that ideal — and it also happens to be less than a mile from where his family lives. But the average rent in Berlin is 15 euros a night for a studio, which costs not much more than one of the cramped apartments in the neighborhood, often in a building with three or four other families. And with the large population that has arrived in recent years, housing continues to be a challenge.
“We’re aware that things won’t be perfect — that we have to work together on this,” says Georg Pangelinan, the Berlin housing spokeswoman.
Read the full story on The Wall Street Journal.
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