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Turks in Germany More Integrated Yet Still Face Challenges - 2003-10-22

More than 200,000 Turks live and work in Germany’s booming capital city. Many can be found in the ethnically diverse district of Kreuzberg – a place locals call little Istanbul.

Ozcan Mutlu is a local government leader representing the Kreuzberg district. He is visiting a state-supported learning center that trains disadvantaged young people and unemployed adults. Many of the students learning about cooking, hair styling and metalwork were born in Turkey. So was Mr. Mutlu.

“Since Germany is not an immigrant country by law,” he says, “they have no programs of integration or language education. That is what we are lacking most. This government tries to establish immigration laws but unfortunately because of the political circumstances, we have not done so yet. This new law will support them at the beginning when they arrive in Germany as immigrants. We have not done that for the last 50 years.”

Mr. Mutlu says Germany never intended to become a melting pot of cultures. “Since Germany didn’t accept the reality of the country and didn’t invest anything in the immigrants,” he says, “they built their own infrastructure. We have people who believe that German is not needed at all. They have everything - their own doctors, banks and grocery stores. This is one of the biggest problems I am fighting against because if you live here and if you want to achieve anything in this country, you have to at least speak the language.”

Mr. Mutlu says the immigration law currently under debate would require the state to provide minimum services to newcomers for the first time. This will create both new rights and new duties for immigrants. For example, foreigners who want to live permanently in Germany will have to acquire minimal proficiency in the German language and culture. But the state will provide free classes in these subjects. The new law will also add an incentive – passing a German language exam will speed up the process for German citizenship. In the past, many immigrants spoke very little German and found it nearly impossible to become citizens.

Back in Kreuzberg or little Istanbul, the director of the learning center, 45-year-old Mr. Nihat Sorgec has become a role model for young Turks in Germany.

He arrived as a machinist in 1972. Like most guest workers, he only spoke Turkish. But he soon realized to get ahead he had to master the German language. Despite cultural barriers, he taught himself German and became a successful entrepreneur:

“It was not very easy, but it was very effective,” he says. “So I try to give the young people the opportunity. I try to show them the better way. They come to me and say, in the beginning we didn’t like you but now we want to thank you.”

Learning centers like this one are helping many newcomers. But unemployment among immigrants is almost twice as high as that of Germans. Nearly half of young immigrants are jobless. Without comprehensive German language skills, many of them receive only a basic education, while about 30% drop out of school altogether. Crime rates are also higher among Turkish immigrants.

Marie-Louis Beck, the German government’s commissioner for minority rights, says integration means her society must be willing to learn about foreign cultures and deal with them. Too many immigrants, she believes, still feel like outsiders – particularly the Turkish. Their assimilation is one of the biggest challenges facing Germany. She says the problem is made worse by Germans’ lack of knowledge about the Islamic religion.

“We know that within Turkey,” she says, “the amount of women who are teaching in University and who are in higher positions is far larger than it is in Germany. But we still have the feeling ‘those Muslim people, they really are backward.’”

Ms. Beck says discrimination against immigrants is still a problem. Despite the ongoing difficulties, she says recent surveys indicate many Turks living in Germany are satisfied with their lives and most Turkish parents take an optimistic view of their children’s future. Dual citizenship is now possible and more than half a million Turks are German nationals.

Sevil Ozan is a 20-year-old from Wurzburg, a small city nestled in the foothills of the southern state of Bavaria. Like many German youth, she plans to study at a university, travels often and enjoys listening to German pop music.

But her name – Sevil - and her olive-colored skin often prompt questions from others. She says many are surprised though not upset when they learn her father is Turkish. “My mother comes from a small village – it’s called Dettlebach,” she says. “It was absolutely new for them that a German woman is going to marry a Turkish guy. That was really strange and weird for them and they just needed some time to accept the fact. Now in Dettlebach many women are marrying Turkish guys, there is no problem anymore. But at that time it was a really new thing.”

Sevil says that her family received some threatening phone calls when she was young, but eventually they stopped. The attitude of many Germans - particularly the younger generation - is more accepting of Sevil’s parents and other mixed couples. But some of the older generation in Germany still frowns upon mixed dating. She says successful integration needs cooperation from both Germans and immigrants:

“The government has the responsibility to give the possibilities to integrate them,” she says. “But the immigrants have to really want it. The parents must say we really want our kids to stay here. We really want to stay here and we have to do our best to integrate here. Integration does not mean they will lose their identity or Turkish culture, but they will be living a German daily life.”

Many analysts believe relations between Germans and Turks have improved remarkably over the last few decades. Professor Klaus Larres, a specialist on European affairs at London University, says the longer immigrants live in a country, the more accepted they become. Take the example of people from the Indian sub-continent in Britain.

“I think the people from the Indian sub-continent are much better integrated into British society than Turkish people and similar ethnic minorities are in German society,” he says. “One reason is more Indians have been living for a longer period of time in Britain than Turks have been living in Germany. I think the time factor is very important.”

Immigrants have been coming to Europe in significant numbers since the end of the Second World War. Yet today their numbers are increasing at a time when much of Europe is experiencing economic hard times. Many European countries are turning to watch how Germany is handling its immigrants during an economic crisis. The German parliament is expected to soon pass the new comprehensive immigration law that analysts say will signal the first time Germany truly acknowledges itself an immigration nation.