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Caught Between Two Cultures: Risk of Suicide Greater for Turkish-German Women

By Barbara Hardinghaus

The number of attempted suicides is five times as high among young Turkish-German women than their ethnic German counterparts. In a state of limbo between two cultures, they often succumb to despair. Sema, a 27-year-old woman who tried to commit suicide twice, is a case in point.

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Her parents had just had another one of their arguments, and that night she swallowed all the pills she could find -- two entire bottles. She fell asleep quickly and was taken to the hospital, where doctors pumped out her stomach. She was 13.

Perhaps it was only an attempt that time. Perhaps she wasn't really trying to kill herself, but was crying out for help instead. She doesn't remember.

Sema (not her real name) is now 27. She is sitting in a Turkish café in Berlin's Mitte district that she sometimes frequents.

Her father was 15 when he came to Germany from Turkey, and her mother is also Turkish. The parents moved from Hamburg to Berlin, where Sema grew up as a German child in a Turkish family.

She has thick kohl eyeliner under her big eyes, and she wears her dark hair tied together in a braid. She smokes a lot, and every time she coughs she smiles, as if to apologize.

When her parents moved to Berlin, her father opened a coffee shop and her mother washed clothes for other people. They worked hard to make a better life for themselves.

There were few Turkish children in the neighborhood at the time, and Sema went to kindergarten with German children. But when the children were served pork, her parents kept her home. She was alone a lot at the time, and she remained alone throughout school.

Sema's father forbade her from playing with the other children in her class, saying that they were Turks and not Germans. Germany was their opportunity, not their new home. Sema cleaned the apartment and cooked for herself, eating eggs, French fries and beef sausages.

Her family believed that the more they worked, the faster they would succeed in this new country. But they didn't.

Five Times as Likely to Commit Suicide

Berlin has about 170,000 residents of Turkish descent. For several months last summer, life-sized posters were displayed in subway stations and on advertising columns. They included a hotline telephone number and one sentence, written in both German and Turkish: "End your silence, not your life!"

Meryam Schouler-Ocak, the physician-in-chief at the psychiatric clinic of Berlin's highly respected Charité hospital, is behind the poster campaign. Her office is in the St. Hedwig hospital, not far from the café where Sema is sitting.

Schouler-Ocak is of Turkish origin. She has been hearing young Turkish women's stories for years. And ever since she saw the numbers corresponding to the stories, she has also been doing something about it.

Young German women of Turkish origin, she says, are five times as likely to attempt to commit suicide as non-immigrant women of the same age, and they are twice as likely to succeed.

During the poster campaign, Schouler-Ocak gathered all the information she could find. She found some information in the medical literature, but not much. At a hospital in Frankfurt, she learned that it was often young women of Turkish origin who tried to commit suicide.

But what were the reasons?

Schouler-Ocak and some of her colleagues put together a proposal for a project and secured the support of the Ministry of Education and Research. She staffed the hotline that was listed on the posters with two women who were also from immigrant backgrounds. She had interviews conducted and obtained additional data from emergency rooms in Berlin and Hamburg. Schouler-Ocak plans to analyze the data by the end of the year.

The reasons why young women of Turkish descent try to commit suicide extend beyond the much-reported issues of arranged marriages, honor killings and threats from the family. Sometimes the process starts out harmlessly, quietly and without any violence. Schouler-Ocak is now well aware of this.

The problem affects young women who were born in Germany and are in fact well integrated into German society, but still face pressures associated with their origins.

Desire to Be German

When Sema's father opened his coffee shop, things didn't run smoothly at first. The father came home late in the evening, and sometimes he was drunk and shouted at the family. Sitting on the sofa in their apartment, Sema and her mother could already hear the father shouting in the stairwell.

Sema crept into her parents' bed at night and slept there. She would be alone the next day, cleaning and eating. Her father began coming home later and later, and he fought with her mother.

The mother wanted a divorce when Sema was eight, but the father threatened to take away their child. What good was a Turkish father without a family? He took Sema, flew back to Turkey with her and returned to the small village he had come from.

It was sunnier there than it is in Berlin, says Sema as she sits in the café and remembers those days. In Turkey, Sema, a child from the big city, had other children to play with and, for the first time, she finally had her father.

Sema thought that she was the reason her mother had become unhappy back in Berlin.

She would have liked to be German like her German girlfriends who she secretly met. Her friends could do as they pleased when they were on vacation. Sema told them that she too was going on vacation, a family vacation at the beach. Instead, she stayed at home and played by herself in front of her parents' apartment building.

Her German girlfriends celebrated Easter and Christmas, but Sema didn't. She lived in the German world like someone living in a bubble in which she could move around, but only with great care. She would alternate between the German and Turkish worlds, but she felt at home in neither one. Who was she?

One night, after her parents had had another one of their arguments, she swallowed all the pills she could find -- two entire bottles. She was taken to the hospital, where doctors pumped out her stomach. She was 13 when she tried to kill herself for the first time.

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alasiaperle 08/08/2011
Young women of Turkish origin, between the ages of 18 and 35, are particularly at risk. ---- These are a woman's main "childbearing years". A very bad time to be looking for an identity, in a culture that only accepts one choice. Once their hormones start winding down and the mens eyes start focusing on younger women, indeed things become "not so bad". The woman forgets what the fuss was about and is just plain old GLAD not to attract the attention of men and family so much anymore. It's not really the two culture issue, though it's seems like an obvious answer. You'll find this situation back in Turkey and many Balkan countries as well. It's about woman being free to develop her own identity, whatever that may be. Period.
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