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SUMTE, Germany – When state authorities called Mayor Grit Richter in October to tell her they planned to temporarily house up to 1,000 people from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere in a former office complex in the tiny village of Sumte, she couldn't imagine how it would work. The area is short on jobs, public transport and other facilities, and residents were anxious about the new arrivals.
Six months after the first arrivals, not only have fears of violence and overtaxed utilities not materialized, but the shelter has brought benefits including dozens of jobs to the sleepy village of 102 people and the isolated rural region of northern Germany where it is located.
There are few signs of friction, and if people still have concerns, they're not willing to talk to reporters about them. Residents have better lighting and more police, and some even hope the facility will remain after its planned one-year life span ends.
"What has been very positive is the jobs — that is very important — and the economic spring it has brought. That's needed here," said Richter, the mayor of the Neuhaus municipality, which includes Sumte. "It would be nice if it lasted."
She wasn't always so confident.
"My first thought was, my God, so many refugees, so many people in this building — Sumte's infrastructure can't deal with that ... and how are we supposed to do it?" recalled Richter, who got the call when the influx of migrants was at its peak. In all, nearly 1.1 million people were registered as asylum-seekers in Germany last year.
Germany has been the biggest destination for migrants in Europe, with several other countries reluctant to share the burden. And while Germans have generally been welcoming, that hasn't been the case everywhere: screaming anti-refugee mobs made headlines in some places, particularly in the ex-communist east.
At a sometimes heated town-hall meeting in the tiny next-door town of Neuhaus, residents raised concerns about children's safety, the prospect of many single men arriving and whether the sewage system would collapse, among other things.
"A lot of questions were asked, people were very anxious — but we saw in retrospect that these fears were unfounded," said Kim-Eileen Fischer, 20, who graduated from high school last summer and became deputy chef at the facility.
The first refugees arrived in early November, after a few frantic weeks knocking the building into shape. Jens Meier, who runs it, hired around 70 people to keep it going: security staff, people to work in the kitchen and medical center, administrators and others. He says more than 40 were local residents.
They include Sabine Schack, who landed a position running the laundry after losing her previous job of some 20 years and said it was "very nice, very important" to get the work after an 18-month sickness break.
"You have to take on the challenge and not go with prejudices," she says of the task of hosting the migrants. She's still in contact with two families who moved on from the facility, where people live for the first few months before being moved to more permanent accommodation.
Drive through Sumte — essentially a single street of well-tended houses, lined with blossoming fruit trees — and you could miss the facility entirely.
The single-story complex, once home to a debt-collection company that was the biggest local employer, is hidden down a side road on the village's edge, between fields with cows and horses. There's a bus shelter and nothing else. The nearest shop and snack bar are in Neuhaus, 4 kilometers (2 ½ miles) away. Many locals make long commutes during the week to Hamburg or the county seat, Lueneburg, but the refugee center has meant orders for local firms and jobs nearby for some.
Before the first migrants arrived, the sewage system and pumps were upgraded and more street lamps installed. They're now kept on overnight, rather than being switched off to save money. The municipality now has four police officers rather than two, and longer police station opening hours. The state government picked up most of the costs, while a lighting manufacturer also made a donation.
There have been minor problems, quickly resolved, among them a complaint about empty bottles being tossed into a field by youths gathering at the bus stop. The bottles were cleared up, camp residents told not to do it again — and another bus shelter was set up outside the refugee complex for young people to hang out in.
That apart, "everyday life has remained unchanged," Richter said. Locals have gotten used to newcomers in the local supermarket, to which the shelter runs shuttle buses. While there isn't much contact between migrants and locals, the refugees organized a Christmas concert that residents attended.
In the end, the number of refugees in Sumte peaked at 706. It's now down to 115, with no new arrivals since late February.
Sumte's remoteness, along with northern Germans' traditionally calm and reserved mentality, may have helped make the project a success.
"The quietness of this area may have played a certain role," said Meier, the shelter chief. "You can really wind down here, particularly if you come from turbulent circumstances."
Amir Sharafiddin, a 26-year-old from Homs, Syria, said the uneventful life is "not a problem" for people coming from a broken country — "it's good for them now."
A resident of the shelter for five months, he's now helping as an Arabic-English translator, saying he wants to give something back to Germans for fear they may "get tired."
"I cannot say something bad about Sumte," he said.