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Rostock, notorious for Germany's worst racist riots, struggles for redemption

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“If it weren’t for the riots, we’d be known for the sea, tourism, maybe the university, soccer, and history,” says Thomas Niebuhr, an editor at the local newspaper Ostsee Zeitung.

Yet for many foreigners, Rostock – like much of eastern Germany – is considered a xenophobic place. Only about 3 percent of the city’s 200,000 residents are foreign-born, three times fewer than in most German cities. Since the riots, many say they still endure racial slurs in public places, mistrust local law enforcement, and interact daily with neighbors who voted their chief tormentors into public office.

Foreigners out

The refugee center Oekohaus Rostock offers a window into this world. Located in a dense cluster of trees near the final stop of a tram line, the fenced-in campus, which houses some 200 Africans, Arabs, and Eastern Europeans, appears half public-housing project and half campground. Refugees assigned to the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania  by German immigration often linger here for years before getting cleared to look for work or private housing.

Maxime Sanvi Sodji, a 37-year-old Togo native and former refugee himself, is a social worker here. For 13 years, he’s braved the worst of Rostock with a grim determination. He's been called racial slurs hundreds of times, he says. He’s accustomed to watching people avoid sitting in empty seats near him on public transportation. And since his friend got badly beaten a decade ago – and the paramedics’ first question was if he had his papers – he’s joined an underground network of ersatz first responders.

"I can call the police, but I do not think they will be there in three minutes," he says. "But I am 100 percent sure that my fellow people will be."

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