Düsseldorf is one of the most international cities in Germany.
The 600.000 citizens town is famous for carnival, “Japan Day” and for it’s high standard of living: According to Mercer’s Düsseldorf is the 6th best city for expats to live in – worldwide! Now Düsseldorf wants to become even more welcoming. Immigrant Spirit spoke to Dr. Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, Chairwoman of the Free Democratic Party and former First Mayor of Düsseldorf.
Immigrant Spirit: Dr. Strack-Zimmermann, the Free Democratic Party proposes English as an additional service language in Düsseldorf’s city administration. What will change?
Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann: Our intention is that in the future the city administration is able to communicate with the citizens and guests in English.
There are 600.000 residents in Düsseldorf. About a quarter do not own a German passport. And most of them speak English. They also learn German – but very often it is hard to communicate with the bureaucracy in German. Especially in difficult situations.
That’s why we propose that the city employees start learning English. Best during their apprenticeship, but also after working for the city for a long time.
It’s a yardstick for the hospitality of our town and a benefit to an international city that our government employees speak English. “Willkommenskultur” needs to be more than just a word.
Immigrant Spirit: How long will it take to implement your proposal?
Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann: This depends of course on the Lord Mayor and the city administration. I know that the Prof. Dr. Meyer-Falcke – the board member in charge of human resources – is highly in favour of our initiative.
We make an offer to the city employees. We give them the chance to improve their English for everyday conversations as well as for professional purposes – and we make English a cornerstone in the education of the future administrative employees.
Immigrant Spirit: You mentioned the term „Willkommenskultur“: 15.000 foreigners move to Düsseldorf every year. At the same time a lot of refugees are coming to Düsseldorf. How is the city affected by the refugees?
Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann: Düsseldorf is required to provide space for three percent of the refugees coming to North Rhine-Westphalia. And NRW is the destination for circa 24 percent of all refugees who come to Germany.
This means we provide shelter for ca. 2.600 refugees at the moment. Until the end of the year this number will grow to 5.000. The welfare agency and the child protection services are very active in this area. We also have a refugee designee now, which is very important in order to coordinate the different programs.
Our first task is to find a place for the refugees. We try to organize this decentralised, so that they can stay in smaller groups.
Immigrant Spirit: How is this organized right now?
Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann: This is a difficult task. Not because we lack space, but because there is high time pressure. For example: 850 refugees are in hotels right now. We cannot finance this on the long term, because we are charged per head and night. This alone costs ten million EUR annually.
We have to move these people to housing modules. Each of these modules provides space for 100 to 150 people. We would pay 1.5 million EUR to buy four to five modules – not ten million… Just to show the magnitude of the task.
We also rented apartments and – unfortunately – some refugees had to be placed in gymnasiums. This cannot be a long term solution. We need the support of the population – it would create discontent if citizens can’t use their sport facilities for a longer period.
Immigrant Spirit: Talking about discontent: You are well known in Düsseldorf for passionate politic style. Especially in regards to refugees you made your viewpoint crystal clear…
Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann: I care very much about refugees. As the Germans we cannot look away if refugees come to Europe. If you see what the Italians do, what even poor Greece is doing – one million refugees with only nine million citizens –what we do is peanuts. 250.000 refugees is nothing for Germany. We should take much more in, especially if you consider the drama in the Mediterranean.
Immigrant Spirit: But some in Düsseldorfer see this differently…
Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann: The good thing is the majority of Düsseldorfer is unbelievably helpful. Be it living quarters, social support, clothes or any other things. At the same time there is a fraction who don’t want to help. Unfortunately you find this attitude in areas of the city, who are doing very well. But this is only a small group. Then there is a big group, who wish to help – but they are unsure. These are the people we need to reach out too.
Immigrant Spirit: Your commitment to help refugees got you into a quarrel with the Christian Democratic Union…
Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann: I was shattered by the discrepancy between the „C“ in their party name and the reality. When it counts, the CDU faction in the city council fails to honour the „Christian“ claim in their party name. The CDU is agitating in “better off” neighbourhoods against refugees in this areas. Let me be clear: There will be no “refugee-free” areas in Düsseldorf.
The CDU was so upset by my speech that they left the city council meeting. The refugee topic cannot be used for party politics. No matter what political colours we wear – we have to overcome this problem together.
This is especially true for the Free Democrats. A party who puts freedom in their party name will not build new walls when people seek freedom and want to take life in their own hands.
Immigrant Spirit: Let’s talk about the values of your party. You are not only the Chairwoman of the FDP Düsseldorf, but also the Vice Chairwoman of the Free Democratic Party in Germany. What is driving the Free Democrats?
Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann: We put the individual human being in the centre. We don’t ask: “Where are you from?” but “Where do you want to go?” We aim to enable people to build a meaningful life – independent from heritage, intellect, etc.
Government should provide a framework, but inside this framework everyone should be able to live the life they seek. What education they choose, where they live, what profession they pick – this is something everyone should decide for themselves.
This also means: You are responsible for your own life. This is the reason why many see our politics as “exhausting”- if you don’t get “pampered” constantly, but have to take initiative yourself, then life demands more – but it is also much more satisfying.
Those who want to join us, you should know: We put individuals in our focus, there should be as few barriers as possible set to them, so that they can live their lives independently.
If you are interested in political life: There will be an English language event with Dr. Stack-Zimmermann and Sir Graham Watson, President of ALDE party on 11 June 2015 in Düsseldorf.
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