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Celebrating Oktoberfest During the Refugee Crisis

For over two hundred years, Oktoberfest has been one of the largest public festivals in the world, synonymous with jolly, drunken merriment. The holiday conjures images of beers frothing over steins and bellies spilling over lederhosen. Six million people consume 7.5 million liters of beer, and after days of debauchery amidst grown adults dressed as Hansel and Gretel, it begins to look like a trippy version of a Grimm fairytale. It’s a tradition of unapologetic silliness.

On Saturday, the jolliest festival on earth commenced during one of the most somber events in recent history. Europe is experiencing the largest influx of refugees it has seen in decades, and Germany has opened its doors to more refugees than any other EU nation, giving rise to many questions for travelers: Will festival goers be a burden to an already exhausted infrastructure? Will there be unforeseen challenges in traveling around the city? Is it even an appropriate time to celebrate?

“The city will do everything possible to make sure that both a human and respectful care for the refugees and a festive Oktoberfest can take place at the same time,” Rupert Geiger of Germany’s National Tourism Board assured me. The celebrating commenced without a hitch on Saturday, and will continue until October 4th.

Germany received international praise when they became the first EU country to suspend a 1990 protocol which forced refugees to seek asylum in the first European country in which they set foot. When Berlin announced that they expected 800,000 people to enter their country this year, it catalyzed a new crop of initiatives to aid the transition. Humboldt Universitat is inviting refugees to attend classes for free as guest students. The website Refugees Welcome helps refugees find housing by pairing them with German roommates. Star soccer team Bayern Munich donated $1.1 million to fund supplies.

Germany’s openness is something to celebrate, and people have been traveling from all over the world this week to do just that. However, last week, the country announced that it was temporarily closing their border with Austria, most likely for the duration of Oktoberfest. While Germany is still receiving refugees via other border crossings, the shared Austrian border is the closest access point to Bavaria. During the temporary close, Munich will only receive a few hundred refugees daily, though they have welcomed over 60,000 this month.

Geiger insisted that since September 12th—when Munich welcomed 13,000 refugees in one day—city officials have become well equipped to ensure an organized and peaceful welcome for people, whether it’s to visit for the holiday or to make Germany their new home. “Officials have also managed to set up additional welcome areas along the German border besides Munich (e.g. near Passau and Bamberg) to keep both the care of refugees and flow of tourists organized,” he confirmed.

Revelers won’t have to worry about delays or other challenges while traveling to Oktoberfest, either. Public transit is still the most efficient way to arrive, and city officials have made sure that the Deutsche Bahn is running on time. Five hundred police are present at the Oktoberfest fairgrounds, as well as mounted security in the main railway station to herd drunken travelers to the festival tents. Lord Mayor Dieter Reiter said he expects the celebrating to continue without incident.

Oktoberfest is a major source for revenue in Munich, and tourism from this year’s festival will continue to support the infrastructure and welcome areas the city has established for refugees. But if Oktoberfest attendees would like to contribute more, they should consider donating to the International Rescue Committee, local initiatives such as Refugees Welcome, or bring donations of food and clothing to the Munich Police Department. Police have stated that they were overwhelmed with the abundance of donations lately, but assure that all blankets, coats, and toys will be used.

This month, Munich will not only welcome 6 million tourists, but tens of thousands of refugees who hope to be part of Germany’s next generation. Geiger’s’ enthusiasm reflects a long-term goal to engage and welcome asylum seekers to the Munich community. “The stream of refugees to Central Europe and especially to Munich as one of the major hubs is a big challenge for the city and the country as a whole,” he says. “[But] so far Munich has done an excellent job in openly welcoming the refugees, with thousands of volunteers helping!” So long as the country continues to open its doors to new communities, inviting newcomers to not only join in Germany’s traditions but be part of Germany’s future, there will be a reason to celebrate.