At Home in a Foreign Country: German Turks Struggle to Find Their Identity
The first Turkish 'guest workers' arrived in West Germany 50 years ago. Like other immigrants, they've had children and grandchildren since then. But large segments of younger generations are struggling to find their place in Germany, where they are hampered by a lack of education and prospects for the future.
It was supposed to have been yet another feel-good, photo-op meeting. Maria Böhmer, the German government's integration coordinator, had invited a group of young people with foreign roots to a gathering at the Chancellery last Tuesday. The event was meant to generate cheerful images of immigrants and tell the story of a successful integration policy. But then four young men and a woman stepped onto the stage.
They took turns at the microphone. They said they were tired of being brought to Berlin and paraded as model immigrants. They also said that the old truism that all it takes to be successful in Germany is hard work was a lie. Shalau Baban, 17, stepped up to the microphone. His roots are in Iraq and he goes to school in the central German city of Marburg. "I have a good friend," said Shalau. "His name is Adnan. He was always hardworking. He was deported two weeks ago." Nothing is good in Germany, the five young people said, nothing.
The room fell silent when they stepped off the stage. Integration official Böhmer had stopped smiling. A few teenagers had just destroyed her integration show. They had shown her and the assembled journalists that an entire country has been lying to itself for years when it comes to the subject of integration, and to the children and grandchildren of immigrants.
Many in this young generation still feel as if they haven't arrived in Germany. It's their home, and yet for many it remains a foreign place. And despite the German government's official celebration this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the German-Turkish recruitment agreement, some of the children and grandchildren of those first immigrants see little reason to celebrate.
Chancellor Angela Merkel will try to keep up appearances. She will meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Berlin this week, and together they will thank the first Turkish guest workers for their services to Germany. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), will speak, and so will Integration Coordinator Böhmer. It'll be the usual official treatment of this subject: lots of words, big speeches and, if possible, some sort of an appeal. But nothing will be offered to improve the current situation.
Half a century after West Germany began promoting immigration, German society is having a hard time dealing with the second and third generations, and with the question of how to give meaning to the word integration. The country seems to be losing its connection with parts of the younger generation.
That is because they didn't grow up in Ankara, Palermo or Pritina, but in Stuttgart, Braunschweig and Rostock. And although they did grow up in Germany, they have fewer prospects for success there than their fathers and grandfathers, who came to the country as adults to find work or political asylum. Almost a third of all men and women with foreign roots between the ages of 25 and 35 have no professional qualifications. The data is especially alarming for the roughly three million Turkish immigrants, Germany's largest minority. The share of young Turks with no professional qualifications rose from 44 to 57 percent between 2001 and 2006. This figure alone -- 57 percent -- perfectly illustrates the sheer magnitude of the failure on both sides.
At the same time, those with higher qualifications, the ones Germany urgently needs, say they want to get out as soon as possible. In 2006, there was net outward migration from Germany to Turkey for the first time. This too is an indication of the failure of a modern society. For many immigrants, Germany is no longer attractive enough.
An Unnecessary Social, Economic and Political Catastrophe
"Germany is starting to think about immigration when it has already been a country of emigration for some time," says Klaus Bade, chairman of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration. The failures of the children and grandchildren of guest workers, says Bade, is "an unnecessary social, economic and political catastrophe."
The country is unquestionably dependent on the children of immigrants, young people like Shalau Baban, whose family once fled from Iraq. He grew up in Marburg, a university town in central Germany. He goes to school there and has German friends, and yet he too uses terms like "the Germans" and "we foreigners" to classify people. The rap songs he and his friend Daniel Fisher, 18, write are furious responses to the insincerity of many politicians who discuss immigrants, thereby defining these two high-school students as problem cases, and as two boys who don't belong.
In a few years, well over 50 percent of the residents over 40 in many large western German cities will be immigrants. The Prognos research institute predicts that Germany will be short three million workers by 2015. For the economy, the children of immigrants could be a welcome reservoir of globally thinking and culturally diverse employees, and yet the reality is different in many respects. Some 2.3 million people between the ages of 15 and 25 with foreign roots live in Germany, or one in four members of this age group. Many struggle with similar problems. On average, they are less well educated than the children of German families, their German isn't as good, and they don't do as well in kindergarten, school and in the labor market.
Few of them make it to college. In an ideal world, the fact that 2.3 million people have their family origins in Iraq, Tunisia or Croatia would be an advantage and not a disadvantage in an interview. In an ideal world, there would be more managers, judges, engineers and tax officials of Turkish, Russian or Iranian descent. But in the German reality, the unemployment rate is almost twice as high among immigrants as Germans. In the public's perception, Germany's status as a country of immigration is reflected primarily in its crime and unemployment statistics.
Struggling with the Consequences of Immigration
Caglar Budakli, 30, was born in Berlin. His parents are from Turkey, but he has a German passport. He is one of those who were almost lost entirely. His father came to Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood from Kars, a city on the Turkish-Armenian border, in the 1970s. He moved into a three-room apartment with his family and took a job on the assembly line at Siemens. Budakli says that when his father came home from work in the evening, he would either go straight to bed or be so drunk that he would beat his wife and children. Budakli's parents were unable to teach their son how to get ahead in Germany, because they themselves were struggling with the consequences of immigration.
And even well-educated immigrants have a tough time in the labor market. According to calculations by the State Office of Statistics in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, 9.1 percent of high-school graduates with immigrant parents are unemployed, compared with only 2.6 percent of those with German parents.
At the same time, parents are reacting more sensitively to increasing the immigrant quota in their children's' schools. The classroom has become a battleground. Many fathers or mothers would rather drive their children halfway across the city than send them to schools with high immigrant populations, leaving behind classrooms filled with the sons and daughters of poorly educated families. Germany is regularly at the bottom of the heap in international studies that compare the educational opportunities of children with and without immigrant backgrounds.
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