At Home in a Foreign Country German Turks Struggle to Find Their Identity
Part 3: Transforming Chaos into a Model School
One Berlin school is a good example of how this could be changed. In 2006, teachers at the Rütli School in the Neukölln neighborhood sent an urgent appeal to the school board, begging it to address problems that included kicked-in classroom doors, pictures torn from the walls and the use of firecrackers in school, as well as aggression, ignorance and lack of respect. Cordula Heckmann, who was working at the neighboring middle school at the time, has been the principal of the Rütli School for the last two years, in which she has achieved what many believed to be impossible: She has helped to transform the chaos into a model school, the 47,000-square-meter (around 500,000 square feet) "Campus Rütli."
About 90 percent of students are still from immigrant families, while 80 percent are still eligible for free schoolbooks and materials, because at least one parent receives benefits under Germany's Hartz IV welfare reform program. But now the school has become a place of hope, where even an outsider has the opportunity to climb the social ladder. On the campus, children play chess, dance, play drums, receive free tutoring and learn Arabic and Turkish.
Critics malign the project as a "soft approach deluxe," one that involves too many foundations, costs too much money and isn't transferable to other cities and neighborhoods. But the most important thing Principal Heckmann has achieved is free, although it takes time, energy and patience.
It began with T-shirts and a campaign called "You Are Rütli." The goal was to teach the students that a school is made of people, not concrete, and to make them understand the meaning of responsibility and respect. When Heckmann walks through the hallways today, students remove their caps and quickly take their feet off the benches. If a student misbehaves, they can expect to be sitting in Heckmann's office by the next day. In these meetings, she reminds the offenders of their family honor, their countrymen and their responsibility to the school. Sometimes she tells them that what they did was a disgrace.
"You Don't Get Stamped as an Immigrant Here"
Honor, disgrace, responsibility; as simple and transparent as it sounds, Heckmann has managed to convince the students in her school that they are being taken seriously, because she speaks their language. Many young people in the Reuterkiez part of Neukölln refer to Rütli as if it were their first great love. They identify with the school and even insist that Rütli should no longer be synonymous with the lower classes, but with the concept of respect for those who work hard, no matter where their parents are from. Rütli has become a brand. "You don't get labelled as an immigrant here," says one female student.
Girls, in particular, need to be encouraged, says Heckmann, because they will be raising the next generation one day. If the girls turn into strong women, she adds, their sons will stand a better chance of not becoming patriarchs like their fathers. Campus Rütli features girls' groups, soccer for girls and sex education specifically for girls.
No matter what steps are taken to facilitate social mobility, the same principle always applies: the earlier the better. Although 84 percent of all children from immigrant families go to kindergarten, they are rarely there for more than a year, which is much too short, says the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration. The number of daycare openings is too low in many places, the teachers are often poorly qualified, there is no language instruction, and the quality of German tests varies too widely. For these reasons, immigrant children are often poorly prepared when they enter elementary school.
But as long as early language instruction is dependent on living in the right neighborhood, and as long as children speak neither German nor Turkish well, the consequences have to be addressed. In the worst cases, judges order violent young offenders to take aggression-management courses, so that they learn not to vent their frustrations with their boots and fists.
Social organizations conduct the courses in some cities. In Munich, for example, the most challenging cases -- young men up to 21 years old, all from immigrant families -- end up in courses taught by the Workers' Welfare Association.
Eight young men from Turkish, Iraqi, Serbian and Palestinian families are sitting in a room near Munich's main train station. Some have criminal records as multiple offenders, for such crimes as theft, robbery and assault. Their victims often end up with broken noses, and one even died. The Workers' Welfare Association employee who conducts the anti-aggression training is named Haci Erdogan, and he likes to keep things brief and to the point. "Take out your cell phones, shut them off and leave them on the table," he tells new students.
Erdogan is all too familiar with his students' system of values, which he describes as follows: If you don't hit back the minute somebody tries to get the better of you, you're weak. Real men are not weak. They defend themselves and their families, no matter what happens. If you don't strike back, you're either a woman or gay. In any case, you're a loser, a victim.
And victims are screwed.
It's a code of conduct for the street, where weapons and muscles are the way to address problems. The biggest misunderstanding lies in the concept of honor, and the notion that having one's honor violated is reason enough to strike back. This understanding of honor was imported into Germany primarily from Arab countries, where the collective is worth more than the individual, and it is part of a man's duty to keep his family's reputation intact.
A good anti-aggression trainer manages to crack the concept of honor. This works best when the boys open up, which none of them does unless Erdogan forces them to. He plants himself in front of a young man who we will call Ayhan.
"Ayhan, is your mother a whore?"
"Where is your mother now? Is she walking the streets?"
"She isn't turning tricks? Then what's she doing?"
"She's a cleaning woman."
"She's not a whore? Are you sure?"
Erdogan asks another attendee to come to the front of the room, and then he suddenly hugs him. He gets so close to a third student that the tips of their noses are touching.
The course lasts three months, with three-hour sessions once a week. Sometimes attorneys speak to the group to explain Germany's criminal code. Those who don't show up are sent to jail. "Of course, we can't change their world in three months," says Erdogan. Nevertheless, he adds, it's enough to get the boys to understand that they don't have to react violently to every provocation.
Like Caglar Budakli, Aylin Selçuk was born and raised in Germany. Her parents are from Turkey. She lives in Berlin, like Budakli, but her Berlin is a different and friendlier place. Selçuk, 22, graduated high school with top grades and is now in dental school. What she and Budakli have in common is her rage over how Germany treats the children of immigrants.
The future dentist says that she is taken aback by the arrogance of the so-called majority society when it comes to certain subjects. As a high-school student, why did she have to listen to teachers ask her whether she was going to be married off during summer vacation, just because she was going to Turkey to visit her grandparents? And why does everyone want to explain Islam to her? And why, in public debates, do those who act as if they were the true Germans constantly talk about the children of immigrants, instead of talking with them?
Being a German Turk
"Like everyone else, we are entitled to have a say and, most of all, to help shape things," says Selçuk. Five years ago, just as the country was discussing the excessive violence at the Rütli School, she sent an email to friends and acquaintances. At first, she says, it was nothing but a vague thought, a feeling that something was going wrong. "I felt that we lacked a voice that speaks for young immigrants," she says.
Some 70 people came to the first meeting, and Selçuk, 18 at the time, told them: "People, we're part of society. We too are Germany's children." The group established an association called DeuKische Generation (German-Turkish Generation), a name that seeks to express something that has been viewed as a problem until now: Being a German Turk. The association's main goal is to provide an identity to the members of a third generation, who are torn back and forth between the country of their parents and the country where they were born. They are half German (Deutsch) and half Turkish (Türkisch), or Deukisch.
The message of Selçuk's story is that being Deukisch isn't so bad. Although her parents are not wealthy, they did their utmost to ensure that their daughter could enjoy the best public education possible. Now their daughter is taking a stand to help as many immigrant children achieve the dream of making it in Germany as possible. The association provides schools with young mentors whose goal is to teach students that a child of immigrants can be successful. "There are many children of immigrants who see themselves as victims and start hiding behind this position," says Selçuk. Tenacity and assertiveness have to be learned, she adds.
It is a plea not to push the young men and women of the second and third generation to the margins, where their rage is only likely to increase. One thing is clear: They will not return to the country of their parents or grandparents. They are part of Germany, and they are staying in Germany.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: German Turks Struggle to Find Their Identity
- Part 2: Ethnic Segregation in German Cities
- Part 3: Transforming Chaos into a Model School