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The new kids from Golzow: A Syrian fairytale in Brandenburg

Kids from Syria rescue a famous Ossi school, winning over locals' acceptance and affection deep in reputedly refugee-adverse Brandenburg. A Merkel refugee integration dream come true? Ruth Schneider drove up to Golzow and checked the reality of it.

Image for The new kids from Golzow: A Syrian fairytale in Brandenburg
“Wir Kinder von Golzow” / Photo by Ruth Schneider

In supposedly xenophobic Brandenburg, near the Polish border, a few Syrian kids save a famous village school from imminent closure, winning over locals’ acceptance and affection. Are the new “Kinder von Golzow” a Merkel refugee integration dream come true? We checked the reality of it.

Picture this: it’s a dark, chilly evening in October 2015. In a small village in eastern Brandenburg, concerned citizens are heatedly arguing against their beloved recreational centre being converted into an emergency refugee shelter. Amidst the angry crowd fearing for their “women and children”, some uttering clearly disparaging comments such as “Muslims have no respect for women” (including a particularly vehement NPD member), one person stands out: a young Muslim woman wrapped in a long coat, her headscarf closely tied around her neck. She came to the meeting to show her solidarity with the villagers, voicing in shaky German her own concerns for her children. Her name is Halima Taha. She’s a refugee from Syria, turned proud Golzower.

Welcome to Golzow

A mere five kilometres from Poland in the flat, wind-beaten borderlands of Oderbruch, Golzow looks rather unspectacular. Sedate rows of suburban houses and Plattenbauten line both sides of the main street, Hauptstraße. Like most villages in the area, the combination of war, 45 years of socialist East German prefab housing policy and cheap post-reunification makeovers has left the seven-century-old settlement a little defaced. In April 1945, the Soviet army reduced the town nearly to rubble on their final onslaught towards the Reich’s capital; what still stood was later removed by the East German planners to make room for three- or four-storey residential blocks. Gone are the old manor estate and the beautiful church tower designed by Schinkel (the latter was actually blown up by the Germans, who sought to systematically remove buildings that the Soviets could use as visual landmarks).

Today, old houses are either in ruins or hidden under a thick layer of plaster. There’s an ice cream parlour that serves goulash in the evenings, a traditional Gaststätte where locals celebrate weddings and even a tiny döner and pizza bistro patronised by chain-smoking lads hanging out under a noisy TV set. Venture off Hauptstraße and you might discover some hidden gems, like a deer farm. But the town’s main claim to fame is its school – or rather, the pupils and teachers who inaugurated it in 1961 – as immortalised in Die Kinder von Golzow, a 42-hour, five-decade-spanning East German documentary film once feted as the world’s longest and known to cinephiles from Rome to Beijing. Its memory is enshrined in a small nondescript house with a sign that reads: “Die Kinder von Golzow Museum”.

Die Kinder von Golzow’s glorious socialist past

Here, since 2000, tourists in the know can peruse a display of photos, bios, props and original film equipment. There’s even a small screening room where you can watch any of the documentary’s 19 episodes surrounded by film posters signed by the protagonists. A world map on the wall is crowded with colourful pins marking the cities where the film was shown – from Atlanta to Damascus, Cape Town to Tokyo. “On every continent – we couldn’t keep up!” says Rainer Hartinger, a proud Golzower who seems to know everything about the film and has two grandchildren at the local school. In the guestbook, comments in Italian, English and Korean account for Golzow’s reputation far beyond Brandenburg’s borders. The place has even become a pilgrimage site for North Koreans since Kim Il Sung accidentally visited the school in the 1980s, on what was supposed to be a tour of a collective farm.

Conceived to sing the praises of a pilot village school at the vanguard of socialist education, Die Kinder von Golzow ended up as an amazing testimony of four decades of German history from GDR to post-reunification as it followed the destinies of 18 children from 1961 to 2007 – when  filming stopped for lack of funding. Ever since, the museum has been organising an annual film night. Filmmakers Barbara and Winfried Junge, today in their nineties, usually make the trip from Berlin to attend.

Golzowers have always been known to put their foot down,” he says. “We’re not a village that gives up easily.

Mayor Frank Schütz, a Golzower of many generations in his mid-forties, likes to reminisce how once, as he was on an Italian holiday, a mere mention of his hometown was met with an enthusiastic “Do you mean the Golzow?” A proud mayor, Schütz, who has run the village since 2014, is never short of an anecdote about the distinctiveness of his constituency – a people who from medieval times to their 2012 and 2015 demonstrations against wind turbines (as an impediment to agriculture) have always been at the forefront of local resistance. “Golzowers have always been known to put their foot down,” he says. “We’re not a village that gives up easily.”

Times have changed, though, and the once thriving socialist village has seen its population dwindle to just 840 (from as as many as 2000 in the 19th century, and about 1200 in the 1960s). Fewer families, more pensioners and, as Schütz once joked, “more wind turbines than children”. Another sign of recent times: asylum and refugee centres have cropped up around the region, like in neighbouring Seelow, Gusow and Neuhardenberg. At the end of August 2016, there were a total of 29,744 asylum seekers in Brandenburg, some 1800 in the Märkisch-Oderland county.

School in peril, Syrians to the rescue

In March 2015, Golzowers were faced with inconceivable news: the impending closure of their world-famous school, the Die Kinder von Golzow Schule. Having failed to meet the 15 pupil-minimum to keep an establishment going as per Brandenburg law, the establishment would close its doors for good, its children and teachers dispatched around other schools in neighbouring villages. Headmistress Gabriela Thomas still remembers how incensed locals organised a demonstration overnight. “The Schulrat didn’t get a very friendly welcome – parents couldn’t believe that their children would have to go elsewhere. It was a real shock. We tried everything we could to reach the minimum. We did have 15 including a disabled child, but he didn’t fall into the same category – the authorities have their own arcane way of calculating. We needed able kids from the village, and we only had 14.”

That’s when Mayor Schütz resorted to two decisive phone calls, one to the Ausländerbehörde, the other to the initial registration facility at Brandenburg’s central refugee camp in Eisenhüttenstadt, and asked, “Do you have families with school-age kids? Would they want to move to Golzow?” The idea of housing a few refugees in vacant flats was already there, but “we needed to move faster because we needed the kids pretty much now,” continues Schütz. The village offered two flats to be immediately put to the disposal of two refugee families. “We had seven days to turn them into family homes, make them look nice, repaint the walls with nice, friendly colours…”

Following a complicated but miraculously successful back-and-forth between the Ausländerbehörde, the county of Brandenburg and the refugee reception centre, two Syrian families were relocated from Eisenhüttenstadt to Golzow. The local population suddenly increased by 10, including six children, three of whom were immediately enrolled in a full-fledged class of 17 first-graders. On August 31 of last year, Golzowers celebrated the first day of school, almost as they had in 1961 – complete with Schultüten, the traditional cones filled with sweets and small gifts. This time around, it was just a little special: Nour Hamaash and Bourhan and Kamala Sayed Ahmad, three children from Syria, were among the new pupils. Back then they didn’t understand much German, and even less that they had saved the famous GDR school. But these new Kinder von Golzow quickly became local heroes and the subjects of a reportage on RBB TV, as well as a flurry of articles and radio programmes in the local and even national media. Since February, a third Syrian family from Holms has moved to Golzow, and the current school year boasts 10 Syrian pupils (including kindergarten). Thanks to Germany’s “refugee crisis”, the Die Kinder von Golzow Schule is out of danger for a while. And three families have found a decent home.

From Latakia to Brandenburg

“They helped us, and we helped them. It’s the perfect situation,” says a good-humoured Halima Taha, mother of Kamala and Bourhan – and a 16-month Golzower. Her youngest, Hamza, started pre-school this year. “It’s such a good school. We got so lucky!” For the 30-year old and her husband Fadi Sayed Ahmad, 40, Golzow was a happy landing after an odyssey that took them from Latakia to Germany through Turkey, Cyprus and Italy, including two near-fatal Mediterranean crossings and a roundtrip to Brazil.

A trained assistant pharmacist who ran her own business in Latakia, Halima is a lively and energetic woman who wears bright-coloured headscarves wrapped tightly around her head and chin, exposing a friendly face and continually smiling eyes. She and Fadi met 12 years ago and it was love at first sight. “I was visiting his aunt, who was a friend of my grandmother – he opened the door and that was that,” she explains in effortless German, which she describes as “fluent without articles!” Fadi was a real estate agent in Latakia. “We used to have a good life back then in Syria, you know?” she says, obviously used to people who do not know. “People here tend to think that all refugees are poor people.” She recalls how 10-year-old Kamala came back home distraught after a classmate had pointed to a photo of children begging in a third-world shanty town and asked, “Oh look, Kamala, was it like that for you Syria?” “We had a comfortable flat and also a weekend house at the sea. We had money for private schools and nice holidays and, yes, it’s hard to remember but we once enjoyed life.” At least until 2011, when the first anti-Assad demonstrations brought fierce repression closer and closer to their home. Both are Sunni and lived in a neighbourhood known to be a stronghold of the opposition. “Everyone knew our home was open – and many people sought our help.” When a man they rescued and helped with his wounds got arrested and killed by the Assad police, they didn’t feel safe any longer. In the winter of 2013, they crossed the border into Turkey.

Everyone was warning us against eastern Germany. ‘They are all racist there. They don’t like refugees. They are Nazis.’ But at that point, I couldn’t care less.

“Our plan was to stay for a year and come back, but we soon understood it was no option,” says Fadi. Their journey would last three and a half years, including three months in San Paolo. “Brazil offered us visas, but it was bad there for us there – the prostitution and the drugs…” As the war worsened in Syria, they started to consider Europe. “We never thought we would go through all that,” she says, recounting the unsanitary refugee camps in Cyprus, the dead bodies on the Sicilian shore, or when an infant Hamza had to be hospitalised for dehydration. “It was awful – the squalor, the despair…” remembers Halima, who got a viral infection in her left eye and lost her hair on their Mediterranean crossing out of stress. “That was the worst,” concurs Fadi, showing a snapshot of a boat on his mobile. “Twenty-five metres, 345 people on board…” A picture that would be shocking if it weren’t such a media cliché by now. Their journey ended with a eight-hour, €1000 minivan ride from Milan to Munich. “The guy took €2400 in total for us, another family and a single guy – it was easy, all mafia business.” They reached Germany on May 1, 2015 and were moved into Brandenburg’s central refugee camp in Eisenhüttenstadt a week later.

When they were offered a small flat in Golzow, they didn’t think twice. “At that point all I wanted was a bed to sleep and a school for my children,” says Halima. “Everyone was warning us against eastern Germany. ‘They are all racist there. They don’t like refugees. They are Nazis.’ But at that point, I couldn’t care less.”

At home with the Sayed Ahmads

On May 26, 2015, the Sayed Ahmad family were greeted in their new home, a three-room flat on the second floor of a Hauptstraße Plattenbau. “There was everything we needed, not much furniture, but three rooms, beds for us and the children, a kitchen. I was so happy! Yet I couldn’t even say a word of gratitude. All I did is cry. I cried and cried,” Halima says, laughing at the silliness of the situation. Schütz remembers: “We didn’t have much experience. Communication was not easy. But here they were, a five-person family with almost no luggage but a huge sports bag. It reminded me of my own family, when they arrived here with only a 20kg bag for all their possessions.” Schütz’s grandparents on his mother’s side were Sudeten Germans, forced to leave their homes after WWII. “I spontaneously appealed to all the villagers to gather everything useful they could donate.”

Golzowers answered Schütz’s call en masse. “We barely bought anything. All gifts,” says Halima. showing off the small flat. Nearly all the furniture was donated by friends or neighbours, or sponsored by ASB, the German aid and welfare organisation in Voßberg. One exception is the huge couch that fills half of the tiny living room, where Bourhan sleeps at night, and where the Sayed Ahmads readily seat visitors for a cup of cardamom coffee and homemade pastries, and maybe a cigarette. Although they don’t drink, both Halima and Fedi smoke, “a habit we brought back from Sao Paulo!” If she happens to have a meal ready, she’ll drag you to the tiny kitchen and pile your plate with amazing dishes from Syria – lentil soup and tabbouleh, aubergine maklouba or kibbeh, the children’s favourite. Some ingredients come from the small garden plot Fedi tends just outside the village, others are bought from Sonnenallee’s Arab groceries on the family’s once-a-month train rides into Berlin. Asked if she likes the capital, Kamala says, “Yes, but it’s nice to be back home, it’s quiet here.”

The whole family seems to enjoy peaceful village life. “Of course we wouldn’t mind an extra bedroom for the children, but it would have to be here, we want to stay here” says Halima.Fedi fishes and gardens, helping at the Golzow school garden as well. As for Halima’s baking, like her pistachio-cashew baklava, it’s proven a hit at school potlucks and community get- togethers. Her repertoire has since extended to German Käsekuchen, pumpkin soup and recipes including red cabbage and venison.

The family’s consummate sense of hospitality, openness and generosity would seem an anomaly here in east Germany, if it weren’t for Halima’s protest of the contrary. “People here have been so incredibly good to us – even when we offered to pay something, they wouldn’t let us!” According to her, Brandenburgers, often portrayed in the media as inveterate Pegida-style Islamophobes (In the last state elections in 2014, before the arrival of the Syrian families, nine percent of villagers voted for the refugee-adverse AfD, one percent cast their ballot for the radical rightwing NPD), have been the best neighbours ever. A local friend even paid for Halima’s trip to visit her mum in Saudi Arabia earlier this year. “I didn’t want to accept, but she said that if I didn’t, I might as well stop calling her my friend.”

Integration, Golzow-style

There were of course some awkward moments – like when locals cooked for them on Ramadan. Or the day Halima went out with a bright white headscarf on and a concerned neighbour called to ask about her health: “He mistook my scarf for a bandage!” she explains with a forgiving laugh. Also, it’s not been easy to explain to Golzowers that a Muslim woman is not supposed to shake men’s hands. “Frank Schütz doesn’t give me his hand any longer. He’s been trying to spread the word…!” she says, obviously more amused than shocked. The Sayeds pray five times a day – four for the children – and observe religious holidays. Has Halima ever been confronted by racism, or even just dismissive comments? “Not once,” she assures. According to Schütz and Thomas, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. “There’s no ‘Golzow Miracle’. It is totally normal that when people look for a new home, they should be accepted and supported. What’s surprising are reactions like in Rödlitz or Bautzen,” Schütz says, referring to aggressive attacks on refugee shelters in other east German towns.

Thomas chimes in: “Of course you could say it was not a totally disinterested move. But we did the right thing, and everyone went along with it without any second thoughts. The parents knew it’d be the chance for their children to keep on learning to read and write here in their school – and at no point did they think that refugee children would slow them down.” As for schoolyard feuds: “Of course whereas a German kid will be called a ‘stupid idiot’, they might say ‘stupid foreigner’ – it’s a bit of a test and they see how we react. And our Syrian children will come to the Beschwerdezentrale (“complaint centre”) when someone grabs a ball from them. They’re kids, it’s part of the game.” According to Schütz, teh media is to be balmed:  “Children don’t live in a bubble – they take the stuff they hear on TV and express it to the schoolyard.” But maybe the best test is that all of Kamala’s best friends are Germans. “She has so many!” says her mum. Now in third grade, she’s among the brightest pupils in her class, and can’t wait for the holidays to end and to get back to what she refers to as “my school”.

As for Bourhan, he has befriended Mohammad, one of the newest Kinder von Golzow. “We sometimes meet up and drink coffee with Rasha and Achmed,” says Halima, referring to the Haimouds, the six-member family from Holms that arrived last February. But the Sayed Ahmads’ closest friends are all Germans, some of whom Halima refers to as “family” – like Schütz and his wife and headmistress “Gaby” Thomas, but also their upstairs and downstairs neighbours and many more, like Sabine Ben Larbi, a sprightly seventy-something Bavarian who lived over 20 years in Tunisia before settling in neighbouring Friedrichsaue. “She is like a real Mutti!”

By now, the Sayed Ahmads have been granted a three-year visa to live and work in Germany. Six months ago, Halima got her first job in Germany. Twice a week, she works as a translator at the Voßberg ASB refugee centre, a €450 mini-job, something not only she, but also Schütz is proud of: “She helps fellow refugees, but also Germans.” For now a colleague drives her there, but Fedi is currently working on his German driving license exam.

The ultimate integration test? Halima joining Golzowers’ call to arms against the new asylum plans in October of last year. Golzow’s Oderbruchhalle – a boxy prefab structure used as a recreational centre and evocatively situated on the village’s own Karl-Marx-Allee – was set to be drafted for Willkommen purposes until that meeting in October 2015, when villagers vehemently blocked the plan. Another instance when Golzowers resorted to their legendary “solidarity in resistance”.

That’s something we didn’t want, 100 refugee men in our Oderbruchhalle who don’t know what to do with their evenings, let alone their days. It would have been a bad idea, for them and for us.

“That’s something we didn’t want, 100-150 men in our Oderbruchhalle,” says Schütz with laconic conviction. “A hundred men who don’t know what to do with their evenings, let alone their days. It would have been a bad idea, for them and for us. Our village has many older inhabitants who want peace and quiet – they wouldn’t have coped with it.” Children’s dance companies from neighbouring villages (such as Fürstenwalde’s ‘famous’ 120-strong kids’ dance group) use the building to rehearse and perform. “Where would have they gone instead?” asks Schütz. “And of course local children need it for sports activities…. It’s about village life, something we need to protect and support. We couldn’t let it happen.” And so the villagers took action, Halima among them. “Of course, 100 young idle men in that building was a bad idea,” she shrugs as if to say: Why wouldn’t she be concerned for her children too?

But although the Sayed Ahmads call Golzow their new home, their real Heimat remains Syria. And Halima’s main integration concern for her children is how they’ll adjust back to Syria. “They are so used to German life already. Will it be difficult for them after all these years?” Fadi interjects. “If we ever get to go back,” he says. “I don’t see this war ending soon. Syria has become a toy in the hands of everyone – Assad, America, Russia, ISIS. I’m not hopeful.” But both agree that if the war ended tomorrow, they’d leave immediately.

The moral: stop bashing east Germans?

“I don’t believe that what we’ve succeeded in doing here can be copied and pasted elsewhere. All we can do is tell our story. And it’s been a positive experience,” says Schütz in his usual matter-of-fact way.

All the same: today, Herr Bürgermeister can pride himself in more than the fading cinematic glory of a village once at the vanguard of socialist education. With its new Kinder, Golzow has become a model of successful refugee integration in the poor, reputedly xenophobic rural former East. Golzowers are living proof that Brandenburgers are not the refugee-hating, inveterate racists portrayed at length in the “progressive” media. They might have opposed the confiscation of their sport and recreational centres – a policy so unsustainable that authorities decided to suspend it in November of last year. They might fear the parachuting in of hundreds of young foreign men in one small community without being asked – but who can blame them? Give east German villagers the opportunity to show hospitality and generosity, and they’ll go above and beyond mere Willkommenskultur. A lesson to be learned? 

Visit Golzow yourself on November 5 at 6pm, when Filmmuseum Golzow will be celebrating 55 years since the first instalment of Die Kinder von Golzow with a screening of the 42-hour documentary’s first two episodes, as well as filmmaker Winfried Junge’s Grüß aus Libyen (1988) and the 28-minute RBB report “Die Neue Kinder von Golzow”.