Last month, a newly opened shelter for asylum seekers in the Berlin neighborhood of Hellersdorf became the scene of heated protests by far-right demonstrators. But the controversy was only the most recent reminder that racism remains a serious problem in Germany. Far-right violence against immigrants has become endemic in parts of the country, while in the bigger cities, discrimination tends to be subtler if also widespread -- as seen with the recent scandals over racist door policies at nightclubs in Berlin and racial profiling by the Hamburg police.
In the spirit of public debate, SPIEGEL spoke to 15 people with foreign roots living in Germany to find out how racism plays into their daily lives. From the German-born housewife who was told to "go home" and treated like a terrorist after she decided to start wearing a headscarf, to the 79-year-old retiree whose family was killed at Auschwitz and still regularly gets insulted as a "gypsy" -- their stories paint a complicated, disturbing picture of the state of multiculturalism in a Germany still rife with nativist tendencies.
There are plenty of success stories -- a professional soccer player, a city treasurer and a parliamentarian are among those given a voice here. But even they have faced their fair share of discrimination. Lincoln Assinouko, a forward for a regional team in Lower Saxony, has been peppered with racial epithets by members of an opposing team. And Green Party Berlin representative Omid Nouripour has staff who help him sort through the piles of racist and Islamophobic hate mail he continuously receives.
Click through to read their stories in their own words.
"In science class, we inflated chocolate-covered marshmallows to see how they burst. On three different days, our teacher called them by their old German name, n-word kisses, instead of the new, less offensive term, chocolate kisses. In the evening, I told my mom, who's on the school's diversity committee. The next day, she wrote an email to the school that said, 'Don't we want to agree that that word isn't okay?' The third day, the teacher said the n-word again, then put her hand over her mouth and said, 'Oh, but I'm not allowed to say that.' She asked if anyone could explain why. I raised my hand and said we don't use the n-word because people used to use it to insult black people. But then the teacher wanted to see my cell phone and said I must have used it to call my mom. We're not allowed to make calls in school. I told her I hadn't called my mom -- I had told her about the n-word in the evening. And that the teacher had used that word three times now. She said she'd only said it one time, and took my cell phone away. The days after that I had to give it to her too, and I didn't get it back until after class. It didn't stop until my stepfather complained to the teacher in person. But she didn't apologize."
"I come from Russia and have lived in Germany for 15 years. The fact that I'm employed, that I was married to a German and don't rely on government assistance, and that I nevertheless still don't have a permanent residency permit -- that's not what I want to talk about right now. I'm more concerned with one tiny detail. My most recent visit to the local authorities two months ago made a deep impression on me. The official there asked for my fingerprints, saying this was one of the requirements that must be met in order to obtain permanent residency. So he took and stored my fingerprints. I asked my German boyfriend, who was there with me, whether he had had to undergo the same procedure in order to get his German identification card. The German official explained that German citizens are not obligated to provide fingerprints, only foreigners. Fingerprints are used to track down criminals, which means that I, as a foreigner, am automatically considered a potential criminal, while Germans aren't."
"I'm a forward for my team. Swear words get used a lot during matches -- that's just a part of a physical team sport, part of playing a contact sport. But during a league game in the winter of 2011 with a team from the bottom half of the league rankings, the two central defenders provoked me from the very first minute -- it was vulgar, below the belt, hurtful. I don't want to repeat the words they used, but they were extremely racist and had to do exclusively with my ancestry and my skin color. I tried just not to listen, but eventually I was so angry that I couldn't concentrate on the game anymore. My coach pulled me out at the 70th minute and we decided together to report the incident, which led to a sports court trial. I had some concerns beforehand. What if they didn't believe me? But luckily there were witnesses who confirmed my statement. Both the defenders were banned. The other thing about this that really made me think was that one of the two defendants was in training at the time to become a police commissioner."
Tsepo Bollwinkel Keele
"Whenever I tell people I'm a professional musician, I get the same annoying comment in response. No wonder, they say -- after all, music is in my blood. My standard answer to that is, 'No, I practiced.' I see this as another form of racism. People don't mean it badly, I know that, but by saying that, they're expressing racist stereotypes and propagating racism, without stopping to think about what they're doing. As if being black means a person automatically knows how to sing and dance."
Nguyen Thi Hien Thuy
"After finishing my bachelor's degree in 2011, I wanted to do an internship. I found plenty of offers online. But everywhere I applied, I was turned down -- each time, the position was supposedly already filled. Other Vietnamese students in my program had the same experience, while the German students almost never had trouble finding an internship. Eventually I decided to get a master's degree, so I would be at a higher level."
"Eight years ago, I made the decision to wear a headscarf and since then my life has been a different one. My father came from Morocco to Hamburg, where he worked at the port and later as a sports director for the police. My mother is German. No one forced me to take this step. It was my decision. A while ago, I was at a bus stop and left a package unattended for just a moment -- passersby were alarmed, thinking I was about to set off a bomb. At a Lidl supermarket, an elderly man started insulting me for no reason: 'What are you doing here? We don't want you here!' The bus driver no longer says hello to me, since I started wearing a headscarf. When I wore a burqini -- a full-body swimsuit -- to the swimming pool, the lifeguard reprimanded me, claiming my swimsuit disturbed the other swimmers. Some people see me as the victim of a supposedly archaic culture that discriminates against women. Others see me as a dangerous fanatic, an Islamist. I am not accepted as a self-confident woman who wears a headscarf."
"I come from Lagos, Nigeria, and I came to the German city of Solingen with my parents as a child. Sometimes someone on the street would say, 'You're a poor child' and give me five marks. I later studied engineering in Mannheim and Cologne, then worked as an industrial engineer in Berlin. My colleagues there quickly made clear what they thought of me -- nothing. When we sat down in the company cafeteria together, suddenly they were experts on Africa, acting as if they knew everything about the continent, better than I did. But eventually that grew too boring for them. Data started disappearing from my computer. At my presentations, the projector would be missing. I developed strategies: I logged out every evening before going home, stored my data on a USB stick and made copies of presentations. I didn't let it show any more than they did. Then my contract expired."
"A Greek, of all things! That's what a lot of journalists thought in 2011, when I became city treasurer in Oberhausen, one of the most deeply indebted cities in Germany. And that's more or less what they wrote as well. It was an exciting story for them, a curiosity, and that was okay at first. What wasn't okay was that after more than a year, my Greek roots were still a story, still part of the message being communicated. For many journalists it was less about content, about the question: How do you plan to solve Oberhausen's problems? Far more, the question was: Where do you come from? How crazy! I was born in Germany, in Hilden, a city in the Rhineland. I studied economics in Germany. My parents came to Germany from Greece a long time ago, in the early 1960s, as 'guest workers,' as they were called at the time. That, though, is completely irrelevant to my work as treasurer. In Oberhausen itself, incidentally, my background has never been an issue. No city resident has ever commented on it, no colleague in the city administration, not even a political opponent. It was a purely a media struggle with journalists."
"I wouldn't say there's ever been anything especially terrible. I came here from Belarus with my mother, went to preschool and at first everything was fine. But when I started school, the prejudice started too. They called me 'Russian,' and when my father brought me to school in his relatively nice car, they would say, 'Typical Russians, with their nice cars.' They didn't say the word 'stolen,' but it was there in the room. Later, in secondary school, one of my teachers would always give me a severe look whenever something about Putin came up, for example when the women from Pussy Riot were arrested. As if I could do something about it, as if I were Putin, as if all Russians were Putin. That's not really so bad, but it's annoying. It's also annoying when I'm in a store and talking to relatives on the phone in Russian, and I see how some of the women pull their purses closer and clutch them tightly."
"For many customers, my bald head makes me a pimp and my stubble makes me an Islamist. I was born at the fish market and grew up in my father's export business on Hamburg's Reeperbahn street. Now we run a convenience store. I'm sure there must be a secret workshop somewhere where people learn the standard questions to ask Turkish storeowners: Do you own this store? How are things in the drug business? Protection money? Big family looking out for you, huh? Big family? That would be my three little sisters."
"I think Germany is a nice country and I'm glad to live here, but there are moments when that's not the case. When I was 24 and became a head chef, a friend of my boss at the time said to my boss, 'You don't want to make a Turk a head chef, do you?' And before I went to Hamburg at 28 to take over my first restaurant, I read in the newspaper, 'Will there soon be high-end döner at Le Canard?' That hit me hard. Behind it was the racist idea that because my name is Ali and I have black hair, döner must be the only thing I know how to make. People were thinking: He wants to take over Le Canard, one of Germany's most expensive restaurants? A lot of people talked that way. But for me it also served as an incentive. After about a year came the first star. And you know what? That was the end of the comments. If you're just a foreigner, that's a bad thing. But if you're a foreigner and successful, then it's okay. I had to work hard to be respected. Now, the things that still happen in the restaurant mostly strike me as funny. It doesn't affect me anymore. When one patron said, for instance, 'Mr. Güngörmüs, my wife and I were recently in your hometown, Istanbul.' 'Ah, nice,' I said. 'I like visiting Istanbul too, but it's not my hometown.' Or another patron, generally open-minded, who wanted to compliment me and said, 'These compositions of flavors from the region you come from…' I just asked calmly, 'Which flavors from which region do you mean?' He said, 'Well, the turbot with the cinnamon from your home…' And I said, 'You know, I grew up in Munich and cinnamon doesn't grow there.'"
"I was nine years old when my family and I were deported to Auschwitz. The Nazis murdered half a million Sinti and Roma, which is something very few people know. To this day, I fight against ignorance and prejudice. When I moved to Mettenheim 50 years ago, people said 'antisocial' individuals were settling in the village. I ran an antique store and built a house here, yet I still sometimes get talked down to as a 'gypsy.'"
"'Omnipour, you're one of these immigrant Kanake [a pejorative for immigrants from southern countries] that never get things right. You've never even seen the inside of a soldiers' barracks,' one commenter wrote. The topic was my area of specialty, defense policy. It's always the same, in online comments, emails and letters. I have to read such things almost daily. My staff separate them into xenophobic and Islamophobic letters and then they sort them into blogs, Facebook comments and letters. I came to Frankfurt from Iran when I was 13. Now, after several years in the Bundestag, I try not to take the insults personally anymore. Humor is the best way out of this sort of situation. When someone calls me -- an Iranian -- a 'damn Arab' and tells me to go 'back to Turkey,' all I can do is laugh that some commenters really are that dumb."
"My husband and I were both born in Berlin, and we were looking for a new apartment here. It was more difficult than we expected. We're Afro-German. People don't hear that over the telephone, and landlords often think my name is French. We both earn good salaries, and we always got an apartment viewing appointment. But then when we got there, the atmosphere would be noticeably cooler. We looked for several months, with no luck. So my husband and I decided he wouldn't come along to the viewings anymore. When it was just me, apparently I seemed less threatening than a black man. One time, a real estate agent was very taken with us on the phone. I was one of just a few candidates who viewed the apartment, and I liked it, so I asked the agent for the forms to fill out. He asked if I was planning to apply for the apartment and when I said yes, he replied that it was a pity, since it wasn't going to work out. When I asked why, his reply was evasive -- there were already so many people interested, he said. Then he asked my husband's first name. When I told him, he said it would be very difficult for us. When I got home, my husband and I called the city senate's anti-discrimination office. The employee we talked to there said it was a clear case of racism and advised us to perform a comparison. So my mother called the agent. He was eager to talk her into coming for a viewing and didn't connect her with me. We had enough evidence at that point to take the case to court, but in the end we decided not to do it. It could have ended up being simply our word against his."
"I found out what my colleagues really thought of me one day at lunchtime when I unwrapped a BiFi brand salami. 'You eat pork? Never seen a Turk do that. I don't understand it anyway, why these Muslims don't eat pork. What idiots.' For two years, no one bothered to learn my name. It was always 'Where's the Turk?' if someone was looking for me. I'm not a Muslim, and I'm not a Turk. I'm German, born in Cologne. I recently had a date with a woman. She only knew my first name. I'd just shaved. In the middle of the conversation, she said, 'I wasn't sure, but thank God, you're not a Turk.' I didn't call her again."
BY ANTONIA BAUER, SVEN BECKER, TOBIAS BECKER, ÖZLEM GEZER, BARBARA HARDINGHAUS, ANNA KISTNER, KATRIN KUNTZ, MIRIAM OLBRISCH, MAXIMILIAN POPP, GORDON REPINSKI, ANNE-KATRIN SCHADE AND TAKIS WÜRGER