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Turks face integration challenges in Germany

| Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010

BERLIN -- In the vestibule of Germany's largest mosque, identity is complicated.

Zehra Yilmaz says her German passport will get her into a voting booth on election day, but her Turkish name and Muslim head scarf kept her out of apartments she tried to rent. She has lived in Germany since she was 2, but her home has been in Turkish enclaves segregated from the rest of Germany by language, culture and a mutual belief that one day the foreigners would go home.

"I'm not really Turkish, and I'm not really German," says Zehra Yilmaz, 46.

Inside the European Union's most populous country, a parallel society has grown. Muslim immigrants, mostly Turkish, flooded into Germany beginning in the 1960s, recruited by companies to augment the post-war work force. Yilmaz's father planned to stay five years, enough time to save enough for a car and washing machine. The government granted them entry as guest workers.

"The first generation came at a time when the economy was booming, and they expected to make money and go back. That hasn't happened," said Jochen Hippler, a political science and Middle Eastern studies professor at Duisburg-Essen University.

Clustered in neighborhood enclaves, such as Marxloh in Duisburg and Kreuzberg in Berlin, the children and grandchildren of that first immigrant wave grew up in Germany without ever attaining citizenship. Until 2000, German law defined citizenship by ethnicity, rather than a person's place of birth.

Integration efforts began in earnest only recently, after the third generation of immigrants was born. Hampering those efforts is a distrust of Muslims heightened by the 9/11 attacks, an ethnic German population that abides foreigners warily, and an unwillingness among many in Turkish communities to break with their families and give up Turkish citizenship to become legally German.

Kreuzberg's central market is emblematic. On Fridays, the Muslim holy day, the market bustles with Turkish-speaking shoppers. Small Turkish flags flutter from an apartment window above Kaiser Market, a grocery store. Deli signs are written in Turkish.

"You think, 'Am I in Istanbul?' " said Marcus Ferman, 35, of Berlin. It's not German, he said, and it worries him. "When you come to a country, you should not keep all of where you came from. ... There are (children) going to school who cannot speak a word of German. This is very troubling."

The communities are insulated, with unemployment rates twice the national average and lower levels of education. They are home to people who feel unwanted by the country in which they live. It's the sort of thing that makes counter-terrorism experts nervous. Though none of those who planned the 9/11 attacks were Turkish, the core group -- the Hamburg Cell -- plotted from an apartment in Germany.

"We must consider extremists from visa-waiver countries, who are merely an e-ticket away from the United States," FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Council on Foreign Relations in February.


Much of Europe struggles with its growing Muslim population. The reactions have been sporadic. Switzerland amended its constitution in November to ban construction of minarets. Riots in French Muslim communities erupted in 2005. British academics warn some universities and neighborhoods have become breeding grounds for extremism.

Turkey's candidacy to join the European Union encountered staunch opposition, including from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Some see it as a challenge to the traditional notion of Europe, just as the Kreuzberg market seems un-German to Ferman.

Defining what constitutes German, however, gets tricky, Hippler said.

"A German banker in Frankfurt, neo-Nazi skinheads in East Germany, punk bands in Berlin, liberal academics in German big cities, ... Pope Benedict, and so on. They are all German. What exactly is it they have in common culturally• And the truth is, I couldn't tell you, besides the language," Hippler said.

Germany has been spared the clashes that happen elsewhere in Europe. Local disputes over the building of mosques in places such as Cologne and East Berlin have not coalesced into an organized national opposition to Islam. German culture accounts for some of this, Ferman said.

"Germans are not the type to take to the streets," he said. "But it is in their hearts."


The state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which encompasses Duisburg and Merkez Mosque, has handled integration better than most places in Germany. Its history helped. Here, in the former center of Germany's steel and coal industries, immigrants seeking work came from Poland and Italy, as well as Turkey.

The state's officials were among the first to allow public schools to teach courses on Islam alongside those on Christianity and Judaism. Preschoolers can take free German language classes. A neo-Nazi protest of Merkez's October 2008 opening was greeted by a far larger counter-protest led by the Catholic and Protestant churches.

About 70 percent of the country's 4 million Muslims came from Turkey, a secular country.

"You have people here who are Muslims, but who are Muslims (in a similar way) to being Protestant or Catholic here," Hippler said. "They are technically members of a religion, but they are not very interested in practicing that."

Religious debates distract people from the harder, costlier changes the country needs to make, he said.

"Jobs and housing and education and language (classes) cost money. Talking about religion is cost-free," Hippler said. "Framing migration policy in terms of religion is not a smart thing to do in a secular country. If you want to talk about migration, talk about migration. Don't talk about God."


Children born in Germany since 2000 have an automatic right to citizenship, but they must decide between ages 18 and 23. If they choose to be German, they must give up citizenship in their parents' country.

Ken Eis, 23, is caught in the middle. Born in Nigeria to a German mother and Nigerian father, his mother's citizenship gives him the option to be German. But the Kreuzberg resident, who has lived in Germany since he was 14, doesn't plan to stay much longer.

"This is one of the few nations that still holds on to its nationalism," said Eis, who is unemployed. He plans to return to Nigeria to try to find a job. "I don't see a future for me in Germany."

Yilmaz knows the feeling.

"When I was 14, I was crying in my pillow at night, 'Why am I not German?' The Germans didn't accept me as a whole German girl. I didn't wear a head scarf at this time. I wore normal German clothes. But I have a foreign name. I am a foreigner for them," she said. In her frustration, she vowed to return to her family's roots.

Then she visited Ankara, her family's ancestral city, and saw how different gender norms affected the country's women.

"They are not like me," Yilmaz said. "In Turkey, I have no rights as a woman. I can't be active as a woman. ... My home is in Germany. It is in Duisburg."

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