People outside the Essener Tafel food bank in Essen. The food bank has stopped signing up more foreigners Image Credit: NYT

ESSEN, Germany: Jorg Sartor does not like to turn newcomers away from his food bank, especially single mothers like the young Syrian woman with her 5-year-old son who had waited outside since before dawn.

But rules are rules. And for the moment, it is Germans only.

“Come here,” said Sartor, waving the boy over. Sartor disappeared into a storage room and re-emerged with a wooden toy. Then the boy and his mother were shown the door.

The decision of one food bank in the western city of Essen to stop signing up more foreigners after refugees gradually became the majority of its users prompted a storm of reaction in Essen, a former coal town in Germany’s rust belt, and across the country.

The controversy has highlighted an uncomfortable reality: Three years after Germany welcomed more than 1 million refugees, much of the burden of integrating the newcomers has fallen on the poorest, whose neighbourhoods have changed and who have to compete for subsidised apartments, school places and, in the case of the food bank, a free meal.

Ask any of the Germans lined up outside the former water tower that houses the food bank and they will call Sartor a “people’s hero.”

“He stands up for us,” said Peggy Lohse, 36, a single mother of three.

“We have worked and paid taxes in this country; our parents built it up,” said Marianne Rymann, 62, also in line. “How can it be that we are turned away and those who just arrived get what they need?”

When some 1.2 million migrants and refugees arrived in Germany in 2015 and early 2016, they were distributed across the country with the aim of sharing the cost and optimising the chances of integration.

But many later left their designated homes, gravitating to areas that already had a high concentration of migrants.

Essen, a city of 600,000 people, has seen its Syrian community grow to nearly 11,000 from 1,300 in 2015, said Peter Renzel, who is in charge of social policy at city hall. Most of them live in the working-class districts of the north. “It is a challenge,” Renzel said.

When Merkel opened the border, she famously said, “We will manage.” Now, some towns are saying they cannot.

Several food banks have sought to limit tensions by segregating immigrants and Germans by time or day. Some have banned young men from signing up - in theory not to target migrants, but in practice exactly that.

Sitting in his crammed office in Essen one recent morning, arms defiantly crossed over his belly, Sartor scoffed. “They’re doing what I’m doing,” he said. “They’re just not saying it.”

A former coal worker who retired early when his mine shut down, Sartor has run the food bank for 12 years as a volunteer.

Food bank users normally sign up for a year’s pass, after demonstrating proof of need. It was Sartor’s idea to block any more non-Germans from signing up, at least temporarily. The food bank continues to serve those foreigners already on its lists.

When a message about the new policy went up on the food bank’s website, no one complained. It was only when the local newspaper wrote about it that the decision suddenly exploded into the national news.

Share still high

Given the controversy, representatives from the food bank, the city and migrant groups met and agreed that the ban would be lifted “as soon as possible” - but only after the numbers of migrants and native Germans evened out.

For now, the share of foreigners among food bank users is still 60 per cent, Sartor said.

One of his 120 fellow volunteers resigned in protest over the decision. But those handing out bread, fish, vegetables and fruit on a recent afternoon said that something had to be done.

In addition to language and cultural barriers, some here spoke of an attitude barrier between vulnerable and often older Germans in need and young, often male, refugees who had been through a lot.

“The willingness and ability of these young refugees to take their own fate into their hands feels threatening to people who have long given up on theirs,” said Britta Altenkamp, a local member of the state Parliament.

“And now we are expecting these people to be the face of a tolerant and welcoming Germany.”

The controversy has split the network of more than 930 food banks across the country that, like the one in Essen, belong to a charity called the Tafel. The charity has grown to 60,000 volunteers and serves 1.5 million people across Germany. Many of them have experienced similar tensions.

Sabine Werth, who now runs the Berlin subsidiary, founded the network in 1993, when a wave of homelessness swept across her city. “One of our founding principles is that we serve according to need, not origin,” said Werth, 61.

Sartor proudly showed off his donation account: Over the past two weeks the food bank has received as much as it would normally raise in six months.

Some try to earmark their donation to Germans only, but Sartor does not accept those.

His inbox is mostly full of praise: “Keep going” one message read. “God bless you,” said another. He has 2,340 unread emails.

The nationwide head of the charity, Jochen Bruhl, said the debate animating the country was largely missing the point. Germany is Europe’s richest country and has a budget surplus of more than €40 billion (Dh202 billion; $55 billion), he pointed out.

“The whole country is up in arms about this one little food bank in Essen,” he said, “when the real scandal is that in this rich country we have this kind of poverty.”

Dignity is everybody’s right

A single mother, Tamm, now 39, first came to the food bank as a user herself. That was 10 years ago. She remembers lining up outside, on a busy street a stone’s throw from the main station, in plain sight of everyone.

“There is already an element of shame in standing out there,” Tamm said. “The last thing you need is having to fight for your place.”

It is a question of “dignity,” she said.

It is for others, too. The Syrian mother who was sent away one recent morning, Habib Banavsch, said she hated having to line up for charity. “I would much rather be home in my country,” she said quietly.

But war is still raging in her home city of Afrin, and she is alone looking after her son Yousuf after his father left.

“We need help,” she said.