Esmat Shirazi works as a social worker in Ratzeburg, a small town known for its picturesque cathedral | Photo: picture-alliance/dpa
Esmat Shirazi works as a social worker in Ratzeburg, a small town known for its picturesque cathedral | Photo: picture-alliance/dpa

Many refugees and asylum seekers in Germany want to live in big cities. Why? Is a major city better than a village or a small town? We talked to an expert - a former refugee and social worker helping asylum seekers in a rural district in Northern Germany.

Esmat Shirazi knows what refugees in rural areas need from first-hand experience. When she came to Germany as an asylum seeker from Iran in the mid-1990s, she lived in the small village of Gudow and then Mölln, in Germany's northern-most state, Schleswig-Holstein. For her work as a volunteer helping other refugees and asylum seekers in her district, Herzogtum Lauenburg, she received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2012. For the past three years, she's been working full-time for the local government in Ratzeburg (another small town in Herzogtum Lauenburg) as a social worker, helping refugees and asylum seekers to settle into their new lives.

InfoMigrants: Is it easier to start a new life in Germany for refugees if they end up living in a rural area, or if they settle in a city?

Esmat Shirazi: That depends. Living in a centrally-located small town can be very good, especially for the first six months or so, if there is a sufficient support system there. The same goes for living in a village, at least if it's well connected [in terms of public transport].

People can find peace and rest there after their difficult journey. In the first two months or so after their arrival, a lot of refugees fall ill – they get stomach aches, headaches, backaches,…

But after that, a good program needs to be in place – there needs to be a support structure in the refugee shelter. Someone needs to explain to them how life in Germany works, how the school system works, that people here separate the trash, how one can rent an apartment, what it means to be given an appointment at the [immigration] office, how quickly one can be in debt in Germany – a lot of people sign cellphone contracts that they don't understand and then they realize that they can't afford them.  

At that point, you can't explain these things to them in German yet – you need to do it in their own language.

Is integrating refugees easier in rural areas?

In a small town like Ratzeburg – definitely. I always say: When a refugee first arrives, settling in a small town is better for them. You can get to everything you need easily, and you get to meet every [immigration] case worker in person. Everything is more personal. And if the case worker knows a refugee personally, they are more likely to show them empathy if they miss an appointment. In a big city, where everything is handled centrally, you don't have that personal contact. 

The fact that case workers change all the time in big cities, the impersonality, can breed misunderstandings. Many refugees quickly form this impression, 'Oh, they don't like me.'

What's important is that there are programs in place that help refugees. To be honest, many people are trying to move to Ratzeburg [editor's note: where Shirazi works], because they have heard that we have a great support network and many volunteers [that help refugees.]

But even though we have a great network in place, after a while, most people do want to move to a bigger city.


That's where the universities are, there are more opportunities to work or get job training in the cities. Life in a big city has many advantages. Public transportation runs frequently, supermarkets are everywhere, people can get most of their errands done more easily and more quickly.

But people also often have too much time – for example, the danger that the men become gambling addicts is much bigger there. Because gambling is banned in most Islamic countries, many refugees are particularly vulnerable.

Esmat Shirazi received the German Order of Merit in 2012 for her volunteer work with refugees | Photo: InfoMigrants/Mara Bierbach

How important is it for refugees to have people from their home country where they settle?

It's definitely helpful in the beginning.

I've worked a lot with children. Often it's helpful for them, when they do not yet know German, to talk to other kids in their mother tongue. It's good for their self esteem. If two Iraqi children, for example, can talk to each other, they can show the German children: Look, we might not understand your language, but you don't understand our language either.

There's positive and negative aspects to this though.

When a refugee doesn't yet know German, other people can explain how things work to him or her in their native language. Information can spread faster. But sometimes people also pass on incorrect information. If you're unlucky, misinformation and rumors also spread faster.

There has been this fear in Germany that if migrants and refugees are primarily around people from their own home country, that they will form "parallel societies" and won't adapt to the customs in their host country. What's your view on that?

Not every Iranian who is in touch with a lot of other Iranians here is sealing themselves off. If I'm open to people, including Germans, then I'm contributing to the culture – both cultures are intermingling and I'm living in both cultures.

Here's an example for that: For the past 10 or so years, we have celebrated Nowruz – the Persian New Year – in our district. Iranians celebrate with us, Arabs, Germans. In the beginning, people thought it was weird – New Year on March 21? But now people – including the Germans – are always asking: When is the next Nowruz celebration?

What is life like for refugees who end up in villages with a population of just a few hundred people specifically?

You got to be lucky to be comfortable in a village. If there are people there that support you, introduce you to other people, then everyone will help you – then people will help drive your kids to school and to their friends on the weekends, they'll pick you up in their car to go grocery shopping together,…

But if you're unlucky, people are prejudiced, afraid of you, there are rumors. Then you are isolated, you and your family are going to feel really lost.

How important is having a car if you live in a rural area?

In the long term, you can't live in a village without a car.

If the kids get sick in the middle of the night, for example, you can't necessarily call your neighbor at three in the morning and ask, 'Can you drive me somewhere?' And at the end of the month, people might not have enough money for a taxi, and health insurance doesn't pay for that either.

So getting a German driver's license can be really important. How does that work?

If you have an international driver's license, you're allowed to drive in Germany for half a year. After that, you need a German driver's license. By now, people can take the test for that in various languages – Arabic, English, Spanish, Turkish,... [Editor's note: What languages are available for this differs from state to state.] Many Arabic-speaking refugees take the theoretical test in Arabic. They can usually already drive, so the practical test is no problem. But then they can't afford a car. That's one of the reasons why so many refugees want to move to a big city eventually.


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