102 villagers, 750 refugees, one grand experiment

Ben Mauk writes: There is no cinema in Sumte. There are no general stores, no pubs, gyms, cafes, markets, schools, doctors, florists, auto shops or libraries. There are no playgrounds. Some roads are paved, but others scarcely distinguish themselves from the scrub grass and swampy tractor trails surrounding each house – modest plots that grade into the farmland and medieval forests of Lower Saxony. There is no meeting hall. All is private and premodern.

One day in October, after a thousand years of evening gloom, a work crew arrives and lines the main avenue with LED street lamps. The lights are a concession to the villagers – all 102 of them – from their political masters in the nearby town of Amt Neuhaus, who manage Sumte’s affairs and must report to their own masters in Hanover, the state capital of Lower Saxony, who in turn must report to their masters in Berlin, who send emissaries to Brussels, which might as well be Bolivia, so impossibly distant do the villagers find that black hole of tax euros and goodwill.

It’s this vague chain of command that most alienates the people of Sumte. They are pensioners and housepainters. They are farmers, subsistence and commercial. They are carpenters, clerks and commuters who cross the River Elbe by ferry every morning, driving to jobs in Lüneberg or Hamburg, 90 minutes away. More than a few are out of work. Nobody tells them anything.

Which is not to suggest anyone here is unaware of what’s going on in the world in 2015. The people of Sumte are not hicks (or hinterwälder, as the Germans say). Word has reached Dirk Hammer, the bicycle repairman, and Walter Luck, the apiarist, about the capsizing trawlers, the panic in Lampedusa. They watch the nightly news. They’ve heard of this crisis. And they wonder where these people – more than a million of them – are headed. The streetlights, a long-standing request now mysteriously granted, make them suspicious.

Only Reinhard Schlemmer watches the workmen and knows for sure. A grizzled figure with a wild nest of silver hair, Schlemmer was once an officer in the East German army. These days he sells painting supplies out of the detached shed behind his house, a nominal business that mostly serves as an excuse to chat with neighbours. He may have lately fallen into the role of odd old man on the margins – the unreformed communist with his cans of primer – but he was Sumte’s mayor when the border came down, a decorated party member, and his bearing still suggests something of the phrase “pillar of the community”.

After reunification, as farming collectives dissolved and unemployment rose, Schlemmer came up with a shrewd plan to save Sumte from extinction. He convinced a rich businessman in Hanover to invest in the construction of a huge complex on its outskirts, a private village-within-the-village where East German women would train to become caseworkers for a debt-collection agency.

The plan worked. The office opened in 1994 and for almost 20 years, the agency provided jobs for 250 women from Sumte and neighbouring towns in Lower Saxony and Mecklenburg, becoming the area’s largest employer. But the 2008 financial crisis razed the debt market, and in 2012 the agency, now called Apontas, decided to consolidate its operations in Hanover. A few women moved with them. The rest lost their jobs. The complex has stood empty ever since.

Now Schlemmer thinks back to the moonless night a month ago when he was out in his yard, looking across the weedy lot at the blackness where the darkened Apontas buildings eclipsed a wedge of stars. He thought of that pitiful infant body lying in the Turkish surf. “All the children out in the dirt,” he remembers thinking. “And all of our halls standing empty.” He asked himself: what is to be done?

It’s an oddly warm October morning when Grit Richter, sitting in her modest mayoral office in Amt Neuhaus, gets a phone call from the interior ministry in Hanover. An administrator explains to her that Sumte will receive 1,000 asylum seekers starting at the end of the month, to be housed in the Apontas office complex. Richter isn’t sure she’s heard correctly. Yes, the administrator says, they know that Sumte is small. They also know that the complex is empty and disused. But the village has something that no other town in the area can boast: 21,000 square feet of dry shelter. Her options, she’s told, are to say “yes” or “yes”.

She hangs up. Like a lot of Germans, Richter is sceptical, pragmatic, stolid. Not much escapes her when it comes to the 4,700 constituents living in border hamlets from Stiepelse to Wehnigen, but she can’t keep track of everything. She doesn’t yet know that Reinhard Schlemmer has been busy making phone calls of his own, offering up the Apontas complex and setting this new idea in motion. [Continue reading…]

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