Three million Turks are already living in Germany. And not all of them are embracing the new wave of Syrian refugees.
- By Sumi SomaskandaSumi Somaskanda is a freelance journalist living and working in Berlin.
BERLIN — On a recent Wednesday evening, a queue of families bundled in faded parkas and scarves shuffled into a bright gym in Berlin’s Moabit neighborhood. Many had spent the afternoon outside Berlin’s State Office for Health and Social Affairs, waiting in the relentless rain to register as asylum-seekers.
Tin plates of rice with hot meat stew and thin cups of syrupy sweet tea awaited them in the gym. Imam Abdallah Hajjir comes here most evenings. His mosque and community association, called the House of Wisdom, helps to run this emergency overnight accommodations center. The imam sees it as a civic and religious duty to help fellow Muslims and anyone in need — especially now. “At a time when a lot of people consider Islam a burden, we wanted to show that we’re also part of the solution,” he said.
Hajjir, who arrived in Berlin from Jordan in 1978, isn’t alone. Of the volunteers who have fed, clothed, and tended to refugees across the country, many — some 30 percent, according to a study from the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research (BIM) — have an immigrant background themselves.
But in a country where issues of integration and identity are fraught, and where anti-foreigner sentiment is on the rise, there is also growing uncertainty, and even fear, among Germany’s immigrant communities over the uninterrupted flow of asylum-seekers. In a November 2015 study conducted by the market-based research company YouGov, 40 percent of Germans with an immigrant background said they believed Berlin should take in fewer refugees. Nearly a quarter said it was time to stop all refugees from entering entirely.
Around 91,000 asylum-seekers arrived in January of this year, and more than 1.1 million entered the country in 2015. Even if the grand bargain between the European Union and Turkey that the German government helped negotiate puts a dent in those numbers, many Germans feel that Chancellor Angela Merkel failed to prepare for the cultural and economic consequences of her open-door refugee policy.
But the disillusionment in Germany’s established immigrant communities has taken on extra dimensions. The refugee crisis has led to a surge in xenophobic violence by populist right-wing groups that make few distinctions between established immigrant communities and new arrivals. The Central Council of Muslims in Germany reported a spike in threatening phone calls and hate mail, following the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne, calling it a new dimension of hate, while the Turkish Community in Germany (TGD) says dealing with vicious emails has become a daily occurrence.
It’s not just the prospect of right-wing violence that has triggered concerns, however. Wolfgang Kaschuba, director of BIM, says Turkish, Arab, and African groups often still live on the margins of society and the outskirts of big cities — exactly where refugees end up settling. The competition for affordable housing, low-skilled employment, and jobs in the broader immigrant economy is already stiff, and it looks likely to get even stiffer in the near term.
“The old guard is not amused by the new guard,” said Gilles Duhem, who runs a nonprofit focused on integration and education in Berlin’s heavily immigrant Rollberg neighborhood. “Absolutely not amused. Nobody will tell you that, of course. But there will be a battle for apartments, jobs, social benefits, and schools.”
Immigrant associations like TGD, mosques like the House of Wisdom, and various civil society groups have been on the front lines of the effort to assist refugees in shelters and schools, and officially, they lobby the government for pro-refugee policies. But those who work within immigrant communities say the rhetoric on the streets can be very different. “Not every migrant here says, automatically, ‘You’re a migrant as well. I will help you,’” said Kaschuba. “They’re worried about the positions they’ve just managed to win themselves.”
The troubled history of Germany’s Turkish community, the country’s largest immigrant group, has inflamed the “us vs. them” narrative. Waves of Turkish guest workers first began arriving in the 1960s and 1970s to help fuel the postwar boom in West Germany. They were expected to return home after their labor schemes expired, but they put down roots instead. They brought over their families and all the trappings of Turkish culture, setting up mosques and grocery stores and bakeries. It took decades for Germans to realize they were here to stay.
Today, some 3 million people of Turkish descent live in the country. The debate surrounding their failed integration runs deep and fierce. A 2009 study from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development ranked Turks as the immigrant community least integrated into German society, particularly in education and the labor market. And according to a report compiled by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in 2010, one in five Turks reported having poor German skills, and 50 percent said they had little contact with Germans. German politicians have accused Turks of building parallel societies while refusing to embrace the language and way of life; Turks insist they were never welcome in the first place. Systemic racism and alienation have been a barrier to integration, and even second or third generations are not considered German.
Their struggles have taken on new dimensions now, as the German government has rolled out measures to help integrate the newest wave of arrivals. There are free language courses, welcome classes designed for refugee children, special university enrollment programs, and initiatives to open access to the labor market.
Many Turks, meanwhile, recall having to claw for everything. While they represent the largest and most influential immigrant group in Germany today — populating posts in ministries and think tanks and big business — they received little support and often had to overcome many hurdles, including discrimination, to get there.
For some, like Gulcan Kiraz, years of witnessing her parents struggle to grasp German, and watching as her brother was downgraded in school despite bright academic abilities, drove her to make the path smoother for other newcomers. Kiraz, now an integration officer in the city of Werdohl in western Germany, helps refugee children in Werdohl’s schools to integrate seamlessly into society.
“For the last 20 years, my criticism has always been that integration wasn’t thought through. It’s good to see that they’re learning from mistakes, that refugees can directly take part in language classes right away,” she said.
But Kiraz adds that she is also aware of a growing wariness among immigrant families over the influx of so many new people. Studies indicate that immigrants still face significant discrimination in finding jobs, regardless of whether or not they were born in Germany. Now the country must absorb an estimated 300,000 working-age refugees into the labor market — mostly in the shrinking low-skilled sector.
Ersin, a 35-year-old German of Kurdish origin who owns and operates a successful internet cafe and shop in Berlin’s Schöneberg neighborhood, says that he has heard those concerns echoing among his circle of friends and family.
“I think it’s the people who are not as well integrated themselves who are thinking about it,” said Ersin, who declined to give his last name. “I’m not worried because I speak German and other languages as well, but the people who aren’t as well educated or who don’t have good prospects, they’re the ones who are uneasy.”
At an intersection near Ersin’s shop dotted with Turkish grocery stores and social housing, a portly, graying man who also only gave his first name — Ozturk — says he barely makes ends meet with his cramped convenience store. Ever since he arrived from Istanbul 20 years ago, he has watched jobs and wages steadily dwindle. The only options now are in the cleaning industry or creating businesses like his, he says. “For normal people who live here, there’s no work,” he said with exasperation. “What about the refugees?”
Ironically, these latest tensions come at a time when the heated discourse surrounding Germany’s Turkish community in particular might be growing obsolete. Second and third generations of Turkish families, born and raised here, have started to build successful businesses and establish a foothold in media, politics, and academia. Today, the government is increasingly turning to Turkish leaders for advice and aid in integrating the refugees.
“We’re the ones who have been living in Germany for more than 50 years and have experience with integration,” said Gokay Sofuoglu, the TGD’s chairman, a German of Turkish origin who has lived in the country for 36 years. “We know all the mistakes that were made, and we also know how to do things right here.” Language and education are the most essential tools, says Sofuoglu, but cultural and social integration — understanding the laws and ways of the land — is crucial.
The influx could also open opportunities to reshape identities for many of those with an immigrant background. Turkish and Arab Germans who live and work here, and speak the language, no longer appear so foreign, at least not compared to the Syrians and Iraqis now arriving. Like concentric circles, the newest occupy the outermost rungs of social order, and those who have been in the country longer move toward the center, said BIM’s Kaschuba. He has seen it in practice already, in the way established immigrants are discussing Germany’s policy on the refugee crisis among themselves and with broader society.
“You have the situation today where you have a taxi driver of Turkish descent or from an Arab family, and they ask, ‘What are we [Germans] doing?’ They’re saying ‘we.’”
Meanwhile, community leaders are urging Germans from an immigrant background to maintain compassion and empathy toward those trying to adapt to a new country and culture, even amid tensions. In an atmosphere increasingly poisoned by xenophobia and hate, now is not the time to allow media to portray refugees as threats, said Sofuoglu.
“We can’t allow two societies to be created among immigrants — those who came 50 years ago and the refugees coming now,” he said. “We can’t let ourselves be divided.”
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