The young man sits with his bag in Istanbul's airport, as he often does when he doesn't know what to do with himself or his time.
The bag holds two towels, two pairs of jeans, three T-shirts, a pair of shoes, a jacket and his toiletries. It also contains an English dictionary, a folder containing documents from a German Office of Alien Affairs and a bottle of antidepressant pills, which he needs to fall asleep. The bag is the size of a carry-on bag, and he could easily be mistaken for a tourist visiting Istanbul for a couple of days. Such tourists are eager to see the sights and do the things tourists do here: see the Bosporus, Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque or a game of Fenerbahçe, the city's famed football team -- and then return home.
In fact, there is probably nothing Mohammad Eke would like more than to go home -- to board an airplane, take off and arrive at his destination. But, for him, that would be difficult and perhaps even impossible. Going home would mean returning to Germany, where officials have spent a lot of time and effort over the last few years trying to get rid of him and send him to Istanbul.
When they finally succeeded, it was Aug. 6, a hot summer day. Sometime between two and three in the morning, Eke walked out of his cell at a deportation center in Büren, a town in northwestern Germany. He hadn't slept. During the nine months he spent in custody pending deportation, he had dreaded this moment -- while at the same time longing for it.
Then, he was handcuffed and driven a short distance to Düsseldorf's airport, where he was searched -- his clothing, his bag, his body. Then he was driven out to an aircraft so that he could board it before the other passengers. He sat down in the window seat in row 29. He was joined in his row by two federal German police officers who were accompanying him during his deportation. And just in case there were any problems during the flight -- such as a suicide attempt, perhaps -- there was a doctor sitting in the seat in front of him.
At approximately 8 a.m., Turkish Airlines flight TK 1530 took off for Istanbul on a normally scheduled flight. Eke watched Germany's industrial Ruhr region slip away beneath him, and he thought back to the only time he had traveled abroad, for a weekend in The Hague with his football team. He was a child then, but now he was 21 and sitting in an airplane for the first time.
The only reason he was taking the first real journey of his life was because he was being deported to Turkey. He had never set foot in Turkey. He didn't speak any Turkish.
Eke remained quiet throughout the flight, looking every bit the tourist among tourists.
A Turkish police officer was waiting at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport. The escorts from Germany disappeared, and then Eke spent a number of hours in two police stations. Eventually, he was handed a document that he couldn't read, though it seemed important.
Then he was free to go.
By the time Eke left the police station, it was already dark. The only things he had on him were his travel bag and the €50 ($75) he had been given as a deportee.
For the first few weeks, he spent nights in a mosque on the airport grounds. He hid in a corner and slept on a carpet that smelled musty from the feet of the people who prayed there. During the day, he walked over to the departure hall and watched the travelers pulling their trolley cases past the glass booths of the Turkish border officials. He went to a mobile phone shop that offered free Internet use to keep up with German football scores and write e-mails to his girlfriend back home in Essen. Otherwise, he simply waited -- either for a surprise turn of events or for someone to come along to tell him that it had all been a mistake.
What else could it be, he thought. He wasn't a criminal. He was born in Germany, and he had spent his entire life there. Germany was his home, and German was his native language -- German with an accent from the Ruhr region. How on Earth could they deport someone as German as he was?
That question still haunts him, and all the time. But what Eke lacks is a good answer, something that will make his story make sense. But perhaps there is no explanation, at least not one that makes sense. And if there is, it's typically German -- complicated.
A Story That Never Should Have Happened
The immigration office in Essen is housed in a new, cube-shaped building. Jörg Stratenwerth, its director, sits in an office on the fifth floor. He is an amiable, heavyset, 38-year-old man who has spent his entire career working for this agency. He was promoted to head the office a few months ago, and there is now a file sitting on his desk that he will use to help explain the case of Mohammad Eke. Two clerks are also sitting in on the meeting, as is Detlef Feige, the spokesman of the city of Essen. Four men for one story, and a story that is neither particularly significant nor particularly confusing. In fact, by the end of the meeting, you might have been left wondering why this story ever happened.
Stratenwerth opens the file. It all began 21 years ago, on May 30, 1988, when Mohammad Eke was born. He had a different name then: Mohammad Ahmed. During his childhood, he was always told that his parents came to Germany from Lebanon before he was born, after fleeing the civil war there. Since they had no passports, they were all classified as refugees with "unresolved status." Mohammad Ahmed went to kindergarten and then school. He played in the local football club, and he was an FC Bayern fan. He was a Lebanese from Essen whose German was better than his Arabic.
In 2001, Mohammad's parents received a letter from the immigration office. The letter stated that officials had discovered evidence that they had provided false information about their origins when they immigrated to Germany.
Stratenwerth pulls a piece of paper out of the file. He speaks quickly, and his sentences are filled with the flotsam of data and legalese. But when all the important details are filtered out, Eke's story boils down to this: In 2001, immigration offices across the country launched investigations, and special police commissions had been formed to find so-called "fake" Lebanese. The authorities suspected that a few thousand Turks had come to Germany in the 1980s as part of a large wave of refugees claiming to be victims of the civil war ravaging Lebanon. In the first few years of the new millennium, the immigration offices conducted DNA tests to ascertain degrees of kinship and searched for evidence in Turkish birth registries. In the case of Mohammad Eke, the officials found what they were looking for: his parents were part of the group they had uncovered.
DNA tests were done, and the results showed that they were not Lebanese. Instead, the test indicated that they were from the remote Mardin Province in southeastern Turkey, where Arabic is spoken. "The parents presented Lebanese papers," Stratenwerth says, "but they were amateurish forgeries."
Grasping for an Identity
Sitting in a café, Eke calls this all "the lie." He spits out the words like poison. The lie divided his life into two identities. Suddenly he was a Turk. Mohammad Ahmed became Mohammad Eke. He was ashamed of his parents and ashamed to face his friends. How could he explain to them that he had lived with a fake background, in a Lebanese fairytale? The lie began to pervade his life. And it quickly and inexorably set in motion the series of events that would end with his being stranded here in Istanbul.
Eke speaks in a quiet voice. He is wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and his face is the face of a boy. "I'm confused," he says. "I don't know what or who I am. I don't know whether I'm a Sunni or a Shiite. I have no history -- or at least not one I'm aware of." His father, he says, never told him where the family came from, not even after the lie had been exposed. He remained clueless about his family's past. Instead, Eke withdrew into the only thing that seemed indisputable to him. "In my heart, I am German," he says. But that has caused problems for him, too. He has no former life. But he doesn't have a new life yet, either.
For example, Eke has been in Istanbul for more than three months, but he has yet to explore much of the city. He rarely goes into downtown Istanbul because, as he says, it's too dangerous there -- too many thieves and swindlers. He's noticed that the kebabs are drier than they are in Germany and that they have "less meat and less lettuce." Likewise, Eke finds it hard to deal with the Turkish mentality. The Turks are stingy and unfriendly, he says -- though he'll admit that this impression might have something to do with the fact that he doesn't speak Turkish. At any rate, he says, the best place in Istanbul is the airport. "There's Internet here, so I can distract myself," Eke says. "And everything is monitored."
From Would-be Deportee to Refugee
In October 2002, German officials refused to extend Eke's residence permit, which meant that he was now legally required to leave the country, as were his parents and siblings. The first attempt to deport the family came in April 2005. It failed, because the parents weren't home that day; instead, they were at a family gathering in Bremen. After that, the father disappeared for several months. The mother was overwhelmed, and the immigration office obtained a court order to appoint a guardian for her six underage children. The authorities were closing in.
On Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2005, police surrounded the house again. This time, though, everything went according to plan. The parents and the younger siblings were taken into custody and deported to Turkey. By chance, however, Mohammad had spent the night at the house of his older brother. The next morning, he came home to an empty house. His family was gone.
Frightened and confused, Eke thought about his options. The good news was that he was still in Germany. The bad news was that he was 17-years-old and, as of a few hours, parentless. He decided to go to the immigration office, where he expected them to be waiting for him. And perhaps, he reasoned, they would give him a chance because he had missed his family's deportation and somehow stayed behind, because he was born in Essen, after all, and really just a German boy. At least that's the way he saw it.
At the immigration agency, Eke and his court-appointed guardian were sitting in the office of a clerk when they were told that he could not be deported -- at least not right away -- because he was a minor and his parents' exact whereabouts were unknown. Instead, he would be placed in Essen's Hermann Friebe House, a home for refugees. Now he would be Mohammad Eke, institutionalized child.
At that point, says Stratenwerth, the head of Essen's immigration agency, nothing had been decided. Nothing at all. Under certain conditions, though, Eke could have stayed in Germany. But that's not how Eke sees it. "Of course," he says, "he was more or less required to leave the country. That much is completely clear."
But, after spending his entire life in Germany, wasn't Eke really a German, a de facto native, so to speak? Were 17 years not enough?
Stratenwerth shakes his head. It's claiming a false identity, he says. And under German law, Stratenwerth explains, Eke can be held responsible for his parents' lie.
This is the point at which Eke's story becomes a legal matter -- and even a matter of government policy. The life of Mohammad Eke is now measured against the "public interest to regulate the immigration of foreigners," to quote a later court decision on the Eke case.
Stratenwerth flips through the file. He has never met Eke but in the end, he says, his is nothing more than a run-of-the-mill case. There are about 1,800 similar cases in Essen alone, he adds, of Turkish parents falsely claiming that they were Lebanese when they first entered the country -- and of children who grew up in Germany and spent their first 10, 15, 20 years in the country. Each of these cases ends with the question: Can they be allowed to stay, or do they have to go?
Stratenwerth says that everything depends on what he calls "integration achievement," which he sees as the intent behind Germany's Residence Act. "The more someone is integrated," he says, "the greater his or her changes are." In cases where individuals are well-integrated, deportation can be classified as legally unacceptable. It is a discretionary decision, though, and one with which immigration authorities have a certain degree of latitude.
In the end, this meant that Eke had to take an examination of sorts -- an integration test, so to speak. But it was a test he wouldn't be able to pass.
Granted, Eke has a few legal blemishes on his file. He had driven without a license; he had illegally altered a moped; and he had been convicted for theft and embezzlement after selling a borrowed Playstation for €70 ($104). But none of these were all that shocking or more than your average youthful indiscretions. And as Stratenwerth says: "None of this stood in the way." Instead, Eke was told to abide by his guardian's instructions. He was instructed to live at the refugee facility and go to school. By doing so, the authorities reasoned, he would be demonstrating his "integration achievement."
The Final Hurrah
After a few days, officials at the Hermann Friebe House reported that Eke was missing. As he puts it, he didn't want to be an institutionalized child. After that, he did what he was told and participated in a program called "Training and Employment for Adolescent Asylum Seekers." But he stopped attending after six months, and he also broke off contact with his guardian. On June 9, 2006, a few days after his 18th birthday, the immigration office noted that his whereabouts were now unknown and issued a warrant for his arrest. He was now a legal adult, but one that was illegal and eligible for deportation.
In retrospect, Eke admits, it might've been a mistake. But, at the time, it seemed like his only option. He didn't trust the immigration authorities, the same authorities who had deported his parents and siblings. And he didn't trust his guardian, either.
For the next two years, Eke stayed off the radar. He lived with friends in Essen and then moved in with his sister in Bremen, who has a German passport. He played football in various clubs and earned a little money by giving lessons to children. He likes to tell the story of how he played professionally with Rot-Weiss Essen, a local football club, with Mesut Özil -- a fellow Turk and a member of the German national team today.
In the late afternoon of Nov. 7, 2008, Eke gave up. The police had surrounded his brother's auto repair shop in Essen. Eke ran to the emergency exit hoping it would be his last chance to get away. But when he opened the door, there were two police officers waiting outside with weapons drawn.
"I was almost glad when they caught me," Eke says. "I thought: Now everything will be straightened out. I really thought they would say: 'It was our mistake' and 'Of course you'll get another chance.'"
What Exactly Constitutes Integration?
In fact, Eke still seems surprised. He opens his bag and pulls out a few documents: references from the German football clubs he had played with, a letter from the petitions committee of the state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia, a certificate showing that he had attended an industrial placement program at BMW facilities in Essen, and the boarding pass from his August deportation flight. The documents are now little more than yellowing pieces of paper, testaments to his unsteady German life.
Eke left secondary school after ninth grade. His parents hardly speak any German, and they paid little attention to the education of their 11 children. When Eke is asked what his parents did for a living, how they made money, he says, "with nothing." It was a large family that survived on welfare. Under these conditions, how could Eke be expected to score well on any "integration achievement" test?
When asked whether he believes that he's integrated, he says that he doesn't exactly know what the term means. Still, the fact is that, in Germany, no one really knows what it means. Can integration really be measured? Eke speaks German like a German. He isn't a criminal, and he isn't a bad guy. That, so to speak, is his integration achievement. Is it necessary to ask more of him? Or is there also such a thing as a German integration achievement? Is there a level of responsibility that someone must achieve after having lived in Germany for 21 years?
On Nov. 8, 2008, Eke was taken to the deportation center in Büren. He spent the first few weeks in a six-man cell with three bunk beds. After two months, he was permitted to work as a cleaner in the detention facility. He was having trouble sleeping, so the in-house doctor wrote him a prescription for antidepressants. When his hair occasionally fell out in dark clumps, both the doctor and Eke attributed it to stress.
Arguing His Case in Court
Twice during his nine-month incarceration, Eke was taken to the Turkish Consulate. But, on both occasions, he refused to apply for a Turkish passport, arguing that he was "born in Germany and am therefore a German citizen." His sister in Bremen hired attorneys, who filed a lawsuit against the government's deportation efforts. At this point, he was hoping that the German courts would come to his rescue.
But that wasn't in his cards. In a tersely worded ruling dated Jan. 14, 2009, an administrative court in Gelsenkirchen, near Essen, wrote: "The claimant's consciously illegal stay in Germany after his disappearance already suggests a lack of integration because it shows that the claimant intends to make his integration into the German legal order dependent on his interests." The judge also ruled "that it is in keeping with the need to fairly balance the public interest in regulating the immigration of foreigners against the claimant's private interest in remaining in Germany that the claimant return to Turkey."
Subsequently, Eke's lawyers filed an appeal with the administrative appeals court of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. On June 5, the appeal was denied. The judges argued that there was no evidence of Eke's being rooted in "German society" to a degree that would "make deportation to Turkey seem unacceptable." Besides, the judges wrote in their decision, "through his illegal presence in Germany since June 2006, the claimant has demonstrated his ability to cope with difficult living situations."
Eke had run up against a wall. He filed an appeal with a commission responsible for adjudicating hardship cases, but it also was denied. On July 9, the Federal Constitutional Court, Germany's supreme legal body, decided not to hear Eke's constitutional complaint. Now 21, Eke had exhausted his legal options in Germany. The only people left who could have prevented his deportation were Jörg Stratenwerth and the immigration officials in Essen. But they didn't.
Stretching the Boundaries of Reasonable
Stratenwerth closes the Eke file. He has been working for the immigration authority for almost 15 years, and he has witnessed all of the German debates on integration, abuse of asylum privileges, Turkey's accession to the European Union, double citizenship, a German green card and mainstream culture. These days, Germany defines itself as a country of immigration. This perception might reflect reality -- and it might just be little more than wishful thinking. Stratenwerth isn't sure. He doesn't make the laws, he says, he just enforces them. He did his job correctly, he adds, as he looks out the window at the fall foliage.
"The chance was there," says Stratenwerth. "His mistake was to drop out of the training program and disappear. Now he has to deal with the consequences."
If you follow the logic, it would seem that Eke failed to live up to an expectation that he grow up more quickly than normal -- something which a German youngster from a similar background would never have been expected to do. Moreover, that German youngster would certainly not have suffered the same consequences as Eke for failing to pass the test.
Stratenwerth is open to discussing most issues, including the question of who is responsible for Mohammad Eke. Is it Germany, the country where he was born, or Turkey, a country he had never even visited beforehand? "Legally speaking, Turkey is responsible for him," says Stratenwerth, who holds a legal degree. "From an emotional standpoint," he adds, "perhaps he belongs in Germany. But under international law, he's Turkish."
Perhaps Eke could get a job, Stratenwerth suggests, in an attempt to look on the bright side of things, as if that would make everything better. "With his language qualifications, his German and Arabic," Stratenwerth says, "he has excellent job prospects in Turkey." A return to Germany, on the other hand, could be difficult. He could marry a German woman or someone with the right legal status. "But before returning to Germany," Stratenwerth adds, "he would have to pay back the costs incurred by his deportation." In Eke's case, these costs could be quite steep. There's the nine months he was in detention. And then there was the airfare for himself, the two police officers and the doctor. And then, of course, the costs of the medical reports. "It'll certainly come to about €20,000 ($30,000)," Stratenwerth figures.
Foreign at Home
Mehtap Sabah, Eke's 23-year-old girlfriend, says she would be willing to marry him. She is a petite girl with a German high-school diploma, Turkish parents and a German passport. "€20,000?" she asks. "How are we supposed to come up with that kind of money?" Sabah is in her second year of an apprenticeship to become a tax accountant's assistant. In August, shortly after Eke was deported, she went to see him in Istanbul. It was a strange visit. As they walked through the streets, she served as his interpreter. She also talked about the beauty of the city, the sea, the warm climate -- and soon she felt like his Turkish tour guide, as well. But all Eke could say was: "I feel lost here."
Eke is her first love. She could join him in Turkey, but she doesn't want to live there. Germany is her home, she says. Sometimes, when she compares his life with hers, she sees no difference between the two. Both of them were born and raised in Essen. But she received a German passport at some point, while Eke was deported.
At moments like this, despite the fact that it is her home, Germany must seem like a mysterious, inscrutable country to someone like Sabah.
Back at Istanbul's airport, Eke is thinking about where he'll sleep tonight. He has spent the last few weeks in Esenyurt, a neighborhood in Istanbul where he had been working at a small bakery during the day, dusting off the flour from pita bread. He lived in the apartment of Shekmus, a baker who spoke a little Arabic. It was musty and dark in the apartment, and they slept on dirty mattresses. But it wasn't bad, Eke says. At least he had a place to stay. But then he was told that the bakery was going to close soon because sales were poor. Perhaps it was true. Or perhaps they just didn't need an employee from Germany to dust off the flour from their pita bread, particularly one who didn't even speak Turkish.
Eke hasn't spoken with his parents since they were deported in September 2005. He can't forgive them for lying. For practical reasons, he now has a Turkish ID card. But he doesn't have a Turkish passport. As he sees it, doing so would mean taking another step into a Turkish life, a life he has still successfully managed to keep his distance from.
If marriage is his only option for returning to Germany, Eke says he'll do it. Marriage, at 21-years-old, just to return to the place where you've always lived.
He gets up. It is almost midnight, and he is thinking about spending the night at the baker's apartment. "It takes about two or three weeks to get to know Turkey, to see all the sights," says Eke. He sounds like a tourist.
He walks through the arrivals hall at the airport, not quite sure where he's going. He's a young man with a bag in his hand.