Story

The Useful Village—a German Sanctuary

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The East German-era banquet hall in Amt Neuhaus where more than 400 locals gathered in October 2015 to debate the arrival of refugees in Sumte. The hall was a chaotic scene, with journalists, far-right agitators, and many worried villagers who wanted to know what the arrivals would mean. Image by Valerie Schmidt. Germany, 2017.

The East German-era banquet hall in Amt Neuhaus where more than 400 locals gathered in October 2015 to debate the arrival of refugees in Sumte. The hall was a chaotic scene, with journalists, far-right agitators, and many worried villagers who wanted to know what the arrivals would mean. Image by Valerie Schmidt. Germany, 2017.

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The refugee camp in Sumte in September 2016, after the last refugee had left. Employees have stacked the camp mattresses in one of the former bedrooms. Many refugees left of their own accord in the spring and summer; others were relocated into larger towns. Image by Valerie Schmidt. Germany, 2017.

The refugee camp in Sumte in September 2016, after the last refugee had left. Employees have stacked the camp mattresses in one of the former bedrooms. Many refugees left of their own accord in the spring and summer; others were relocated into larger towns. Image by Valerie Schmidt. Germany, 2017.

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A storage room at the shuttered Sumte camp is packed with donations for the hundreds of families from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and across Africa and the Middle East who had lived here. In September 2016, the refugees have left and the strollers are unused. Image by Valerie Schmidt. Germany, 2017.

A storage room at the shuttered Sumte camp is packed with donations for the hundreds of families from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and across Africa and the Middle East who had lived here. In September 2016, the refugees have left and the strollers are unused. Image by Valerie Schmidt. Germany, 2017.

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Reinhard Schlemmer, a retired East German army officer and Sumte's former mayor, set in motion the plan to relocate nearly 1,000 refugees to an under-used office complex in his small village. "All the children out in the dirt," he remembers thinking. "And all of our halls standing empty." Image by Valerie Schmidt. Germany, 2017.

Reinhard Schlemmer, a retired East German army officer and Sumte's former mayor, set in motion the plan to relocate nearly 1,000 refugees to an under-used office complex in his small village. "All the children out in the dirt," he remembers thinking. "And all of our halls standing empty." Image by Valerie Schmidt. Germany, 2017.

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Renate Schieferdecker, the Christian pastor in the nearby town of Amt Neuhaus, remembers when locals first learned of the coming asylum seekers. "We were naturally concerned when the news came," she said. Among the concerns was the threat of violence. "Any time you get an Afghan and a Persian together, there will be conflict." Most of the worries proved unfounded, she later said. Image by Valerie Schmidt. Germany, 2017.

Renate Schieferdecker, the Christian pastor in the nearby town of Amt Neuhaus, remembers when locals first learned of the coming asylum seekers. "We were naturally concerned when the news came," she said. Among the concerns was the threat of violence. "Any time you get an Afghan and a Persian together, there will be conflict." Most of the worries proved unfounded, she later said. Image by Valerie Schmidt. Germany, 2017.

In the fall of 2015, Germany designated Sumte, population 102, as a sanctuary for nearly 800 refugees. What followed was a living experiment in the country's principles.