Dresden hosts well-known universities, top research centers, and global companies. It’s also home to city nationalists who want to drive out foreigners. How do students from abroad get by?
Reza Ased felt ill at ease after moving to Dresden. A security guard followed him through a supermarket while he shopped for groceries. An employee at the local foreign office who didn’t speak English reprimanded him for his imperfect German. And Ased quickly learned from other foreigners to avoid certain parts of town, especially at night.
In a sense, Ased had bad timing. The 29-year-old native of Amol in northern Iran arrived in this city in the former East Germany to study at one of Europe’s best technical universities just as Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West), a far-right political movement, was being founded. Pegida was Dresden’s creation, and tensions between locals and foreigners rapidly rose.
That was three years ago. Nowadays, Ased still struggles. He sometimes draws suspicious stares on the street because he looks different. He often feels out of place. "It’s like I have to prove myself and show that I’m smart and not a burden," he says. He stuck it out, plain and simple, because of the opportunity. Ased is well along the way to a PhD in electrical engineering and integrated optics at the Technische Universität Dresden – one of just two elite universities in the former East Germany. He’s not alone. About 14 percent of TU Dresden’s 34,838 students today come from abroad, and that hasn’t changed much since Pegida’s rise.
Studying, researching, or working in the former East Germany would be a positive experience through and through for foreigners, if it weren’t for the xenophobia. Indeed, the entire country still struggles to integrate non-Germans. It ranks 17th in tolerance towards immigrants among all countries polled by the Social Progress Imperative, a non-profit group based in Washington, DC. And that’s despite welcoming an increasing number of foreigners in recent years – political refugees and scientific researchers alike.
That’s especially true in the state of Saxony and its capital, Dresden. The city hosts three Max Planck Institutes, more than 40 research centers, and enough high-tech companies to be dubbed Silicon Saxony. So opportunities do abound in academia and industry.
Considered one of Germany’s most beautiful cities, Dresden is also a scenic place to live. It was bombed to ruins in the final months of World War II, but most historical buildings have long since been restored.
That’s one face of Dresden: a place of burgeoning urban development, in both culture and business. The other face, in a sense, has a lot to do with that trove of beautiful Baroque buildings and the bombings that left them in ruins.
Many Dresdeners see themselves as "city nationalists" – in other words, they desperately want to preserve the status quo of previous times, explains Joachim Klose, director of the Saxony branch of the Konrad-Adenauer- Stiftung, a political foundation. "Dresden was always a good stage," he says. It was a rally stage for National Socialists during the Third Reich and for socialists during the German Democratic Republic, he explains.
It continues to be a scenic backdrop for 2,000 core Pegida members who demonstrate to curb immigration each Monday evening. "Dresden has a rather conservative, persevering population," says Klose. And the jury is still out on whether this group’s attitudes can change.
"Simply Saxony" is a well-known slogan in the state. In Dresden, it should apply as equally to locals as to the 6 percent of the city’s population that is foreign. Yet Pegida has benefited from some locals’ fear of foreigners, and an attendant fear of being left behind in the city’s international development.
There is some hope that the climate for migrants will change for the better. Much of the impetus comes from foreigners themselves. Immigrants are fostering educational initiatives to address racial tensions in Dresden.
Ezé Wendtoin, a musician from Burkina Faso, attracted a wide following on YouTube for a love ballad that shares his experiences, good and bad, in the city he now calls home.
And on Saturday nights, foreigners gather at International Friends Dresden, a cultural group launched in 2013 with the intent to become a straightforward network. The group, with nearly 10,000 members, foreign and German alike, has morphed into much more.
Focused largely on social events such as the Saturday evening gathering, it also has prompted political change, albeit minor. In 2015, its organizers invited Pegida’s founders to a town-hall meeting. Surprisingly, the Pegida representatives answered the audience’s questions for four hours. And they later posted an apology on Facebook, stating that all Muslims "are peaceful in our country."
Tensions began to escalate once again in June, after Pegida and the right-wing political party Alternative for Germany (AfD) gathered a particularly large group for Dresden’s Monday demonstration. They intend to build support ahead of national elections in September 2017.
Meanwhile, local universities, research institutes, and even some local businesses try hard to promote themselves as multicultural. The effort can be seen around town, from colorful street posters calling for a cosmopolitan Dresden to banners on student buildings proclaiming that Spitzenforschung ist bunt, or "top research is colorful."
A Welcome Center at TU Dresden even features student testimonials online. These students from a wide array of countries emphasize that the city is a global, modern, and safe one, despite its bad rap.
More and more multicultural centers and nonprofit organizations are confronting the issue head-on as well. A forum that promotes diversity through the arts has sprouted up in the city, and an Islamic Center aims to promote tolerance and integration on a broader scale.
To be sure, universities and non-profit organizations are trying to tackle xenophobia, but the battle will be long.
On a balmy evening downtown, a benefit concert for refugees sponsored in part by the Islamic Center blasted anti- Pegida tunes as attendees feasted on an array of Arabic food to mark sunset during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting.
Karan Khullar, a 30-year-old from New Delhi, was among the attendees, along with a big group of German friends. He con versed with them in colloquial, fluid German, even though he never learned the language in school.
"Through the language, I’ve made a lot of friends," says Khull ar, who moved from the western German city of Darmstadt to Dresden in 2012 to work at the local office of Globalfoundries, a US semiconductor group. Khullar, who didn’t know a soul when he arrived in the city, says it speaks volumes that he has stayed for so long.
In his five years in Dresden, Khullar only felt truly uneasy once, he says, when a man singled him out at a pub. "You foreigners should leave," the man starkly told him in German.