PROVO, Utah — The German ambassador to the United States met with the second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City this week, and the two men learned they have more in common than their native German language.
Ambassador Peter Wittig and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf agreed that refugees need personal help from local residents when they resettle in a new country.
"In the end," Wittig told the Deseret News after he spoke at Brigham Young University, "it's a challenge and, if you will, an assignment for each and every citizen to go out and open our hearts and contribute in a small or big way to help those refugees, either alleviate their plight or integrate them in their communities."
Wittig said that in their meeting, the same feeling was stressed by President Uchtdorf, who himself was a refugee twice as a child in war-torn Germany. President Uchtdorf mentioned that briefly in his talk at the church's worldwide general conference on Sunday and elaborated on it in a video interview in February.
During the same general conference, LDS leaders announced a new relief effort to support refugees by the women and girls in the church's Relief Society, Young Women and Primary programs. The First Presidency, including President Uchtdorf, sent a signed letter to local church leaders around the world about the effort, which is called "I Was a Stranger."
The effort's website, iwasastranger.lds.org, details numerous ways volunteers can help refugees integrate into their new neighborhoods and communities.
Wittig said assimilating refugees is a duty outlined in the German constitution. Today, 20 percent of Germans are immigrants or have at least one immigrant parent.
The current crisis is staggering.
"This is a human migration of epic proportions, I am tempted to say of biblical proportions," Wittig told an overflow crowd of a few hundred students and faculty in a lecture Wednesday at BYU's Kennedy Center for International Studies.
More than 1.1 million refugees flooded into Germany in 2015, the equivalent of 4.4 million entering the United States in a single year. In November alone, 10,000 refugees a day crossed German borders.
"The sheer number and speed of those refugees just overwhelmed us," Wittig said. "Europe and Germany were not prepared for this."
Wittig said Germany had to reduce the numbers, and its goal is fair distribution and ordered process of refugees entering Europe.
He said Germany must distinguish between those who are refugees — those who are politically persecuted and fleeing war — and those who understandably are seeking a better life.
"The latter group we will not be able to take," he said during a question-and-answer session.
On Thursday, German President Joachim Gauck said Germany must integrate refugees quickly or risk the rise of political and religious extremism, Reuters reported.
"The population must actively engage in accepting refugees and helping and supporting them as they integrate," Wittig said at BYU.
He praised the United States for the pivotal role it is playing in financing refugee camps in and near Syria and addressing the root causes of the crisis with diplomatic and military means.
"This is a time of seemingly endless turmoil around the world," he said, but he said the good news is that German-U.S. cooperation is as good as its ever been due to the strong relationship between President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
However, he said both nations need to work to improve their understanding of one another.
He said young Germans now see America less as a land of opportunity and more of a threat to personal privacy, while young Americans know little about Germany beyond World War II stories and luxury cars.
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