Inside Germany’s Successful and Broken Integration Experiment

Five years after the arrival of more than a million refugees, one city in western Germany is emblematic of all that’s gone right—and wrong.

By Emily Schultheis, a freelance journalist based in Berlin.
Christina Kampmann, then-family minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, speaks with two children from Syria in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, on Oct. 26, 2015.
Christina Kampmann, then-family minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, speaks with two children from Syria in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, on Oct. 26, 2015. Maja Hitij/picture alliance via Getty Images

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany—Nearly five years ago, when Mohamad Akkour arrived in this city of 260,000 in Germany’s western Ruhr region, he was so eager to learn German that he enlisted anyone he could to help him: teachers, friends, and even strangers on the street—with whom he conducted mock interviews to practice the language and build up vocabulary. Then just 15 years old, Akkour had fled his hometown of Aleppo and made the at-times harrowing journey through Syria, Turkey, and the Balkans to reach safety in Germany.

Today, at 20, Akkour is thriving. He graduated from high school this spring and scored higher on his German exams than many of his German peers. Now, he hopes to study medicine—following in the footsteps of his older sister, who remains in Syria. And in this fall’s local elections in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Akkour ran—unsuccessfully—for a seat on Gelsenkirchen’s integration council for the center-left Social Democrats.

“School was different here, the language was different—everything. And I accepted that,” Akkour said. “I’ve gotten to know the culture, I know now how Germans behave, which values they represent, and I’m thankful for that. And because of that, I feel integrated.”

“People always talk about integration, integration, integration—yes, many of us are integrated, many have made it,” he added. “Many work, many pay taxes. It’s working.”

In 2015 and 2016, Gelsenkirchen took in thousands of refugees like Akkour. It was one of many cities and towns to do so: At the time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously declared, “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do this”), a statement that became a proud refrain for Germany’s decision in 2015 to accept more than a million refugees, primarily from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Five years later, immigration and integration remain deeply divisive issues in the country and have helped fuel support for the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which in 2017 entered parliament for the first time. As Germany contemplates the legacy of its 2015 arrivals—and considers if and how it will accept newcomers going forward—many observers are asking whether Merkel’s affirmation held true: Has the country indeed risen to the challenge of integrating its many immigrants? But this question can’t be answered without first pondering another: What does it mean to be fully integrated, and who is ultimately responsible for fostering the integration process?

Local politics in Gelsenkirchen demonstrate why the answer to those queries can be so inconclusive and complicated. That’s in large part because the town is an exception to the norm; in Gelsenkirchen, locals started debating integration in 2014, not 2015—a year before the topic became politically salient in the rest of Germany. Gelsenkircheners’ initial qualms about migration were also directed at fundamentally different actors: Anxiety arose out of Romania and Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union—and Romanians and Bulgarians’ consequent residential freedom in Germany.

In the Ruhr in particular, which struggles with high unemployment and poverty, officials were concerned that the region’s low cost of living would make it attractive to lower-skilled workers coming from Eastern Europe, only compounding existing problems. Add to that other asylum-seekers who’ve arrived in recent years—many from Africa—and you’ll find in Gelsenkirchen a complicated mix of nationalities, cultures, and challenges.

Integration can mean different things for different communities.

There are success stories like Akkour and the many others who’ve worked tirelessly to build new lives for themselves; there are some who seemingly don’t want to integrate; and there are others for whom the system makes integration—even if desired—difficult to achieve. But integration can mean different things for different communities—and the sorts of resources one receives to help with the process are dependent on where they’re from and why they came to Germany.

“You need time. You have to have patience. You need personnel and money. [Integration] doesn’t work any other way,” said Melek Topaloglu, the head of the Gelsenkirchen integration council. “Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work. But challenges are part of the process, and there’s no magic formula to make everything work out perfectly.”

While Gelsenkirchen has always been diverse—during the Ruhr’s heyday of coal and steel, it drew guest workers from across Europe as well as Turkey and northern Africa—the influx of newcomers in the last six years has put new stress on the city’s long tradition of harmonious multicultural existence. Today, approximately 36 percent of the city’s residents have what in Germany is described as a “migration background,” meaning they or at least one of their parents was not born here; non-German citizens make up 20 percent of the total population. Of those non-citizens, about a third have Turkish roots, 12 percent are from Syria, and 9 percent from Romania.

Gelsenkirchen has another claim to fame that has made it relevant in Germany’s debate about integration: It’s the hometown of Mesut Ozil, the German soccer star. Back in 2018, Ozil, who was born in Gelsenkirchen but whose family has Turkish roots, came under fire after posing for a photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He quit the national team shortly thereafter, saying he’d faced discrimination from teammates and coaches. “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” Ozil wrote in a statement on Twitter.

The city is also struggling economically. The very factors that once made Gelsenkirchen an ideal home for refugees and an attractive destination for immigrants from southeastern Europe—its many empty apartments and low cost of living—also mean that fostering intercultural harmony can be difficult. Financially strapped, the city has struggled to create quality jobs and provide services to all who need them. Today, its residents have the lowest per capita incomes in all of Germany in addition to the country’s highest unemployment rate and proportion of child poverty.

Financially strapped, the city has struggled to create quality jobs and provide services to all who need them.

As a result, immigrants are often broadly blamed for the city’s ills, and discussions about integration and the problems created by immigration often fail to differentiate between people for whom integration is working and those for whom it isn’t. These issues have helped contribute to the relative success of the AfD in Gelsenkirchen: Although the party is strongest in eastern Germany, it performs better here than anywhere else in western Germany. The AfD won 17 percent of Gelsenkircheners’ votes in the 2017 federal elections, compared with 12.6 percent nationwide; while its support slipped to 13 percent in this fall’s local elections, it was still the party’s best result anywhere in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Enxhi Seli-Zacharias, a newly minted city council member for the AfD who moved to Germany from Albania when she was 6 years old, said she understands firsthand how difficult integration can be. At the same time, precisely because of her own experience, she has little patience for those who don’t make the same effort she did to integrate into German society. The AfD, for its part, has a narrow view of integration that’s more akin to assimilation: It expects not only that immigrants speak German and find a place in society but also that they fully embrace German culture, values, and traditions.

“One of the most influential things I’ve heard in my life was when my mother told me at the start of first grade, ‘Listen, child, here we speak German,’” Seli-Zacharias said while manning an AfD information stand in Gelsenkirchen. “That was good for me—difficult, of course, but it should be difficult.”

“Immigrants need to see integration as a requirement,” she continued. “We can’t simply follow the motto, ‘The doors are wide open. Everyone is welcome.’ There needs to be a give-and-take, and integration can only work when that balance holds.”

Seli-Zacharias’s party has focused much of its recent messaging on the challenges of integrating immigrants—especially those from Romania and Bulgaria, many of whom come from Sinti and Roma communities and started moving to Gelsenkirchen in droves after 2014. When people in Gelsenkirchen talk about the problems with integration, they’re usually referring to immigrants from southeastern Europe, not the Arabs or Africans who more often populate media discourse: Whereas refugees typically have access to language and integration courses as well as financial help, those coming from within the European Union don’t receive the same kinds of resources.

Many Sinti and Roma face systemic discrimination in their home countries, so they tend to be less educated and are often skeptical of state authorities. As a result, many remain in fairly closed communities, learning little or no German and not always following requirements to send their children to school. And, in a country where order and rules are culturally important, some residents complain that they throw their trash on the street or even out their windows.

At Lalok Libre, a community center that works with refugee and immigrant children and youth—including many Sinti and Roma—Venetia Harontzas deals with these challenges every day. She called the center’s work a “Sisyphean effort,” adding that adjusting long-held cultural norms and experiences to a new society, while possible, takes far longer than many politicians are willing to admit. “Eventually it will work,” she said. “Maybe in the second and third generations.”

To Harontzas, successful integration doesn’t mean assimilating into German society but rather finding a balance between retaining cultural traditions and norms from one’s old home and adhering to the rules and expectations of one’s new home.

“The things you’ve learned from your family are things you should hold onto, but you live in a different system, and you need to follow the rules of that system,” she said. “Integration isn’t a one-way street. I need to make an effort, but you need to take me as I am. We need to meet in the middle.”

That sort of recognition—that integration takes effort on both sides—has been a huge help to Alla Ibrahim, a 25-year-old woman from Syria. When she and her family arrived in Gelsenkirchen in 2015, they were given an apartment in a building on the city’s main street, where their neighbors made a concerted effort to make them feel welcome, help them with German bureaucracy, and served as an informal support system.

“At first, I always thought I had to keep a bit of distance and just say hello and goodbye,” Ibrahim said. “But our neighbors showed us something different: They were friendly. They always helped us. They always greeted us with a smile. They’re truly my best friends here—they’re the best people in Gelsenkirchen.”

Wilma Mittelbach, one of Ibrahim’s neighbors who has worked to help arriving refugees get settled, said residents need to be patient with the city’s newcomers—and recognize that people with different cultural norms or backgrounds aren’t immediately suspect. Moving past preconceived notions many longtime residents have of refugees is slow but necessary work.

“We always say, ‘Did the refugees take away your job or your apartment or make your rent go up?’ No—that’s someone else’s fault entirely.”

“There’s no other way besides making a real, patient effort at persuasion,” she said. “We always say, ‘Did the refugees take away your job or your apartment or make your rent go up?’ No—that’s someone else’s fault entirely.”

Refugees from elsewhere, including those from countries in Africa, face significant hurdles to integrating in Germany—or even making it out of refugee camps and into communities where they can thrive. Alassa Mfouapon, a 31-year-old from Cameroon, first came to Germany as a refugee in 2018 after a long and difficult journey through Libya, across the Mediterranean, and, finally, Italy. But after he protested against deportations in a refugee camp in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg, Mfouapon was deported back to Italy under the EU’s Dublin rule; he waited patiently, sleeping in a train station there, until he was allowed to return to Germany six months later.

These days, Mfouapon is starting his second year of a training program in media in Gelsenkirchen and helps run an organization advocating for the rights of his fellow refugees. He said the vast majority of them want to work and contribute to their local communities but aren’t given the chance to do so; in turn, they are then castigated as being unwilling to fully integrate.

“They say, ‘The refugees we receive don’t want to be integrated,’” he said. “The refugees who are here, they are willing to work … but [the German government] didn’t give them the chance to go to school, didn’t give them the chance to work, didn’t give them the chance to do vocational training. And then they say, ‘The refugees are jobless.’”

Perhaps the best way to push back against those stereotypes is with the efforts and achievements of refugees and newcomers themselves—and their desire to help make the city a better place. Akkour, the 20-year-old from Aleppo, sees it as his and other refugees’ responsibility to give back however they can: After succeeding in his own efforts to get a good education, Akkour says he wants to help motivate and support other young immigrants to do the same.

“We as refugees, as new residents here in Gelsenkirchen, need to show that we are also doing our part to help this city,” he said. “We don’t want to burden the city—exactly the opposite. We also want to achieve something and do some good here.”

Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, where she writes about European elections and the rise of populism.