Germany offers asylum-seekers safety from violence at former US Army post in Heidelberg
By MATT MILLHAM | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 27, 2014
HEIDELBERG, Germany — Hundreds of refugees are taking temporary shelter in a former U.S. Army post here as Germany scrambles to handle a flood of asylum-seekers from wars in the Middle East and Africa.
A little more than a year ago, Patton Barracks was the neatly groomed headquarters of U.S. Army Garrison Baden-Württemburg. As the U.S. military bombs Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, the old base’s fences are now festooned with the drying laundry of people who have fled the violence.
It is not as comfortable as a regular home, said Benjamin Majer, who works for Germany’s national reception center for refugees in Karlsruhe, “but the people have rooms where we can accommodate the families together. They have all you need.”
Since opening in mid-September, the military base-turned-refugee center has housed up to about 500 refugees on any given day, Majer said. He expects about 1,400 refugees will cycle through the facility before operations are moved to a former Army barracks south of Stuttgart in mid-November.
“A very large group of them are from Syria,” he said, and there have also been large numbers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the former Yugoslavia and eastern Africa. The base has also housed a small number of Iraqis.
Meals are served in a former gymnasium where a sign in the colors of the old high school — blue and yellow — reads, in English, “Welcome to Heidelberg.” The base itself is named after Gen. George S. Patton, the famous World War II general who revolutionized armored warfare. More recently, in 2007, members of the U.S. Army’s V Corps’ command group reunited with their families in the gym after a year in Iraq.
The base, part of the former Heidelberg garrison, closed last year as the Army pulled out of the city. V Corps inactivated last summer after one last deployment to Afghanistan.
That history is all but lost on those staying here now.
Majd, 31, a Syrian asylum-seeker who arrived in Germany in late September, said it was obvious the old base had been an American facility of some sort. It has a basketball court and a baseball diamond, but no soccer field, which was a giveaway, he said.
For the time being, he doesn’t mind sleeping on the stiff military cots the Germans have provided. The meals aren’t quite what he and other Syrians here are accustomed to, he said, but he won’t complain.
“After all, what we seek is just safety,” said Majd, who declined to give his last name to protect his family still in Syria. “And here, we feel safety and we are thankful.”
In the first half of 2014, Germany registered 65,700 new asylum applications, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency — more than any other country during that time period. The crush has overwhelmed Germany’s ability to process refugees and get them into temporary housing while their asylum claims are processed.
The center at Patton Barracks “was kind of improvised,” Majer said. “We had very large numbers of refugees to accommodate in Karlsruhe, but it was too much for us.”
The city of Heidelberg offered up the old base as a temporary solution. Refugees stay here for three to four days before they are moved to other accommodations, Majer said.
The refugees aren’t confined to the barracks, but with little money, few wander very far from the installation.
Inside, women hand-clean clothes in makeshift laundry facilities and hang the items to dry on temporary fences separating the two buildings used for the refugees from the rest of the empty base. Boys and young men play soccer on the baseball diamond using goals made from scraps of wood and concrete. Men huddle in groups, chatting and chain-smoking. Meals help break up the monotony.
“It’s not very comfortable,” Majer said, “but it is only for a short period of time.”