No German, No Benefits Turkish Family Fights Language Requirement
Imhan K., a Turkish woman living in Germany, had her welfare benefits slashed after her husband refused to let her take German courses. Now a court must decide whether immigrants can be forced to learn the language and adopt Western mores.
After three-and-a-half years of legal wrangling, there's still no end in sight. At least officially, the case centers on 290.70 ($392). The K. family, thus identified to safeguard its privacy, is made up of ethnic Turks living in Germany. They claim that the state owes them the money. But, in reality, it's a matter of principle.
The questions at the heart of the dispute are: Can immigrants be forced to learn German? Can people who decline such an offer be denied welfare benefits? Or, viewed from the other perspective, can immigrants who live off state benefits refuse to integrate into society, or can they live as a group as if on an island and free of societal obligations?
The case of the K. family is typical of the problems German authorities face in dealing with immigrants from countries such as Turkey who don't want to integrate.
Ismail K. had just turned 19 when he came to Germany. It was 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell. He left behind the hardship, rigid moral values and ironclad hierarchical structures of a world whose rules have remained an internal part of him to this day. His extended family lived in a tiny village in eastern Turkey. As the head of the family, his father decided which of his sons went to school, for how long, when it was time to marry and what jobs they would have. His mother looked after the children, managed the household and generally saw to her husband's needs.
On his arrival in Germany, Ismail K. sought political asylum, claiming that Turkish authorities had falsely accused him of belonging to the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). His application was initially turned down, and for a while he faced deportation. But the case dragged on and on.
K. moved to a small town near Limburg an der Lahn in the western state of Hesse, where he married a woman from his village who had followed him to Germany. By the time he was finally granted political asylum, in 1996, the couple already had four children. Since asylum seekers aren't officially allowed to work, the family had been forced to live off welfare for many years. This hurt K.'s pride. After all, in his traditional mindset, the head of the household is responsible for providing for his family. He was therefore keen to live up to expectations.
In 1999, the naturalized immigrant started a pizza service. Business was good at first, and K. was in his element, just as he had always imagined. Now he was the one giving the orders, while relatives and acquaintances manned the pizza ovens and delivery vans.
Buoyed by his success, K. took out bigger and bigger loans, and eventually opened a large pizza restaurant, convinced that his customers would now come to him. But the plan failed, and people stayed away. Even his delivery service lost customers to competitors who undercut his prices.
In 2006, the dream of running a successful business was dead. The restaurant went bankrupt, and K. was left with a mountain of debt. The would-be entrepreneur was convinced he had failed in every way: As a businessman, as a family bread-winner and as a shining example for his children. Although still in his mid-30s, he was sometimes found staring into the distance. "Ever since he went bankrupt, he's been a broken man," a former employee says.
Blocked from Learning German
One Monday afternoon in August 2013, K. met with Florian Würz, a lawyer, in the dining room of his former pizza restaurant. The room has served as the K. family's living room ever since they were forced to leave their own home. The shiny wooden ceiling with built-in speakers and the tiled floors serve as a reminder of better days. Out on the terrace, a handful of chairs are slowly rotting away.
The head of the family, a powerful, stocky man with a five o'clock shadow, asked his lawyer in broken German about the next steps in the legal proceedings. He has never really learned German. But, unlike his wife, who sat silently at his side, he can at least make himself understood. Although she has spent the past 22 years in Germany, Imhan K. has only the most basic vocabulary, barely enough to buy bread or a soda. "But she understands a lot," her husband assures the lawyer. In Mr. K.'s eyes, that's all she needs.
But does she think so, too? Isn't it frustrating for her to live in a country in which she can't even speak with the locals? Sometimes it can be quite difficult, an acquaintance translates for her. But she manages to get by. After all, the family mainly speaks Turkish, and they have little contact with Germans. If anything needs explaining -- say, at the doctor's office or to the authorities -- the children jump in as interpreters.
Mrs. K.'s poor German language skills have been at the center of a bitter legal dispute for years.
Ever since the disastrous collapse of his pizza enterprise seven years ago, Ismail K. hasn't worked -- at least not officially -- and the family has been forced to live off welfare. Whenever his local employment office in Weilberg encourages him to find a job, he counters that he has several debilitating ailments that prevent him from working: backaches, a damaged shoulder caused by a car accident, knee problems, diabetes and the depression triggered by his bankruptcy. The now 43-year-old often gets doctors' note freeing him from having to look for work.
Since he has rejected so many job offers, the employment office has cut his unemployment benefits -- first by 30 percent and then by 60. They eventually cut it off completely for three months. And that's when the authorities started taking a closer look at K.'s wife, Imhan, then 41 years old. But she had her hands full already. Four of the couple's six children were still living at home, and her husband wanted to be taken care of as well. On weekday evenings, she also worked as a cleaner for a temp agency.
If her German were better, she would be able to find more qualified work and earn more money, a case worker at the labor office explained. So she offered Imhan K. a free German language course, with lessons three mornings a week from 8 a.m. until noon.
Mr. K., who had accompanied his wife to the employment office, objected immediately and vociferously. "Impossible!" he shouted. "No way. That's out of the question!" He said his wife was far too old to learn German, and in any case, she didn't have time to attend lessons. Who, he demanded, would take their youngest daughter to kindergarten in the morning?
Though she sat silently through her husband's outburst, and only understood a fraction of what was being said, Imhan K. at least got the gist of the conversation: Her husband didn't want her to learn German. Intimidated, she turned the offer down. Her husband grabbed her by the shoulder and hurried her out of the room.
Mrs. K.'s involuntary refusal to learn German runs counter to the efforts by towns and cities across Germany, which offer free language courses to female Muslim immigrants in particular as a way to help them escape the isolation often imposed by their own families. The city of Frankfurt alone runs hundreds of these courses as part of its "Mommy's Learning German" program. These lessons are primarily aimed at women from Turkey.
According to a study by Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, about 70 percent of Turkish women living in Germany have never learned a profession. Many work from morning till night in the home, and some rarely step outside their own four walls. Some, like Imhan K., can barely manage a handful of German words after decades spent living in Germany. As a result, they are completely dependent on the help of others in their daily lives.
Since Mrs. K. rejected their offer, the employment office in Weilburg decided to cut the mother-of-six's welfare by 30 percent for three months, that is, by 96.90 a month. They stressed that, rather than being meant as a punishment, it was meant -- as they put it in their bureaucratic jargon -- "as an economic sanction to enforce a change of behavior of a predominantly educational nature."
Mr. K. was outraged by the decision and refused to back down. "The employment office is spying on us," he insists to this day. So he asked his lawyer to sue the authorities on his wife's behalf -- thus adding yet another case to the statistics: Germany's social welfare courts are currently plowing through some 200,000 appeals against welfare cuts.
Almost half of them are eventually successful, but the K. family's case was turned down. In the words of the ruling by the court in Wiesbaden, an ability to speak and write German is an absolute prerequisite for permanent integration into the labor market. Mrs. K. should therefore have learned German. In other words: If you want welfare, you have to learn German.
The court rejected the argument that Mrs. K. had no time to attend lessons due to her dual role managing her household and cleaning in the evening. It said her husband would simply have to help out. After all, since he was unemployed, he would have "no problem" taking over responsibility for some of her chores.
Ismail K. didn't understand the ruling's rationale. Clearly it was a cultural misunderstanding of shocking proportions. Although he had lived in Germany for 24 years, K. had always clung to the patriarchal privileges of the country in which he was born. Was he -- the head of the family -- expected to look after children? Was he now supposed to do the shopping, or maybe even cook? Owing to his diabetes, K. has to eat several small meals a day. Did they now want him to prepare this food by himself?
That's a woman's role, Mr. K. insisted. And, in any case, he was too ill to do so even if he wanted to. When K. submitted a terse doctor's certificate claiming that he couldn't look after his children due to "emotional problems," the court dismissed it, describing the letter as a "mere certificate of convenience."
Even though the case centered on a relatively small sum -- a bit less than 300 -- Würz, the lawyer, filed an appeal citing a similar case from a few years earlier. In 2007, an appeals court had overturned a ruling by a lower court that had rejected a claim by a welfare recipient. "We therefore have a good chance of winning," Würz says.
Whatever the regional social welfare court for the state of Hesse decides, K.'s children are now old enough to ask themselves whether they want to stay in Germany. Three of them are now adults and have opted to take Turkish citizenship. They have married people from within their circle of Turkish friends, and they have little contact with German families.
That is less unusual than one might think. A survey conducted by a Berlin-based polling firm found that some 62 percent of Turkish migrants prefer to be among their fellow countrymen, a far higher proportion than earlier polls had found. Only 15 percent consider Germany to be their only home, while 45 percent yearn to return to Turkey at some point.
That's not an option for Merve, the second-youngest of K.'s daughters. The 13-year-old rejects such paternalistic ideas. Unlike her mother, she refuses to wear a headscarf, and she occasionally even talks back to her strict father. At school, she learned to speak perfect German, and she dreams of a future in her adopted home.
"I want to graduate from middle school and high school, and then I want to go to university," she says. And what does she want to be when she grows up? Without hesitation she replies: "A dentist."
Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt