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Generosity vs. fear: How German supermarkets deal with refugees

, September 29, 2015, 0 Comments

german-supermarket-generosity-refugees-marketexpress-inA supermarket owner in the western German town of Jüchen spontaneously offered his help when a bus with refugees arrived in the middle of the night. Firefighters, who were organizing the logistics for the refugees’ arrival, called Michael Ermer late at night and said they would need lots of baby food and sanitary products like baby wipes.

One store owner gives away goods to help incoming refugees, another one keeps them out of his shop by hiring bouncers. German supermarket chains’ responses to the influx of refugees differ dramatically.

“We simply said ‘Sure, we can help’ and emptied our shelves,” Ermer, who runs the local REWE supermarket, told DW. “When help is needed, you’ve got to help,” he said.

And when Ermer says he emptied the shelves, he is not exaggerating.

The message on the shelf says that goods were given away in an “urgent emergency situation” and asks for customers’ understanding.

Since then, the spontaneous decision to help has snowballed into a big story online. German media outlets like the online edition of weekly magazine “Stern” have reported the story and the photo of the message to customers and the empty shelves has spread like wildfire on Facebook and Twitter.

Ermer’s decision to donate the much-needed baby items was mostly met with understanding and gratitude.

“The reactions from customers we talked to were mostly positive,” Ermer said. “We even got thank-you calls from all over Germany and other European countries.”

‘I’ve never gotten presents from REWE’

But the head of the Jüchen REWE has also seen the other side of the spectrum. He said he received some harsh emails, and some commenters on REWE’s Facebook page have also made clear they do not approve. Their anger seems to win out over fact checking, however.

“REWE seriously gave away all goods from one supermarket to refugees,” Bernd Stückrad wrote on the store’s Facebook wall. “I have never gotten any presents from them. I will never set foot into a REWE store again.”

Ermer is unfazed by the negativity of some and said he would immediately do the same thing again. He also stressed that local customers did not have to worry about where to buy formula for their babies, since there is another store that sells baby products nearby.

Supermarket bouncers

Elsewhere, things have not gone as smoothly when supermarkets had to deal with refugee arrivals. The head of an Edeka market in the central German town of Calden started to employ security personnel in August, because, he says, refugees were overrunning his store, stealing goods and ripping open packages.

Ewald Eckert, head of the Calden Edeka, only let two refugees at a time into his store, media like the reputed Berlin daily “Tagesspiegel” reported in August. Eckert soon stopped talking to the media, but in an earlier statement said that he felt “left alone” with the large number of people that came to his store from the nearby refugee housing facility at Calden airport and the was trying to protect his mostly female employees.

Police said they did not have any records of official complaints or reports from Eckert’s side. The police chief in Kassel, the next larger city, told the “Tagesspiegel” that there were problems, but not “as massive as it’s been portrayed.”

The Real fight against rightwing extremists

In Heidenau, supermarket chain Real had issues not with the refugees themselves, but with ugly rumors about them that were spreading online. The city in eastern Germany sadly rose to fame when anti-immigrant extremists violently protested against a refugee home in August .

“For weeks, unknown persons have been spreading mean-spirited rumors on social media,” Real spokesman Markus Jablonski told DW. He added that there are roughly 100 Real supermarkets that are close neighbors with refugee homes, but these problems have only occurred in Heidenau and the eastern German city of Erfurt.

To defeat the rumors, Real put up these posters. They clarify that the number of shoplifting incidents has not risen since refugees moved in next-door, that it’s not true that only refugees are allowed into the store between 8 pm and closing time at 10 pm and that refugees do not get preferential treatment – employees would not turn a blind eye if refugees stole goods worth less than 50 Euro.

“We had to react,” Jablonski said, so that regular customers would not be influenced by the false and hateful rumors spread online.

Social media like Facebook have recently been criticized for not doing enough against hateful or xenophobic content . Fortunately, as the story of the generous REWE in Jüchen shows, many users like to share positive content, too. Michael Ermer wasn’t aware at first that the photo of his empty shelf plus customer message spread online at all.

“I don’t even have Facebook,” Ermer said with a laugh. “I only learned about it a couple of days later when the first phone calls came rolling in.”