The streets of Neukölln: Has integration failed?

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16 Sep, 2010 Updated Thu 16 Sep 2010 18:51 CEST
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Thilo Sarrazin’s controversial book has sparked a heated debate about immigration. But what’s it really like on the streets of Germany’s integration flash points? David Wroe and Ruth Michaelson report from Berlin’s Neukölln district.

Ersun Karaduman’s life just doesn’t jibe with the statistics so often cited by Thilo Sarrazin.

The outgoing Bundesbank board member Sarrazin claims in his inflammatory new book that unintelligent Muslim immigrants are largely incompatible with German society, but Karaduman says with some pride that his German is better than his Turkish.

Born in Berlin, the 20-year-old still helps out at his father’s store on Neukölln’s Donaustrasse while finishing his degree in international marketing. And though he does not yet have German citizenship, he plans to apply for it soon.

His father may fit the stereotype of the small retailer which the now disgraced Sarrazin used to dismiss many Arabs and Turks as being good only for selling fruit and vegetables, but Karaduman is happy to have inherited his father’s aspirational drive.

“My father is my hero … He had nothing when he came from Turkey. Eight years later he was married to my mother, he worked every day, we had food and clothing and a home,” he says. “He’s shown my brothers and me what is possible, and my mother reminds us all the time that we can’t risk everything he’s done for us.”

Of Sarrazin, Karaduman says: “He doesn’t know Neukölln; he doesn’t know us.”

Neukölln, the heavily Turkish and Arabic district in southern Berlin, is the area that Sarrazin and other integration critics most often point to when the subject of Germany’s immigration problems arise. Roughly one in five Neukölln residents is unemployed and that figure rises to 30 percent when restricted to the immigrant population.

Social problems are reportedly twice as high as in Berlin on whole, and some 40 percent of youths there have no post-high school education, even vocational training.


The district’s mayor, Heinz Buschkowsky, is blunt in admitting the challenges he faces.

“Our society is hurtling towards a massive problem and we can no longer afford to rely on powers of persuasion,” he told Berlin daily Tagesspiegel recently. “We are sleepwalking into a crisis.”

Nobody denies there are problems in Neukölln, but people who spoke to The Local on the streets, in the shops and on the housing estates of the district this week were adamant that there is as much cause for optimism as despair. Sarrazin and his numerous supporters among ordinary Germans are wrong to claim that immigrant communities are not interested in integrating with mainstream society, these people say.

This view was poignantly illustrated in June by the harassment of Ibrahim Bassal, an immigrant Neukölln shopkeeper who proudly hung up a 20 metre-long German flag during the football World Cup to support the country’s national team only to have it torn down by leftist extremists.

Indeed, there are many people working and striving to lift these communities out of the welfare traps, the education failures, high crime rates and cultural gulfs that now beset them.

A new role model

Eighteen-year-old Merve, a tall woman of Turkish descent, and remarkable maturity and poise, has a hard-headed and unvarnished view of the problems facing her district. There is too much dependency on Hartz IV welfare benefits, she says. Parents are failing as role models and children are growing up with no expectations.

“Hartz IV is very comfortable for their parents,” she says. “The children see their parents unemployed and they think that is life – ‘I’ll be unemployed too.’ They turn to stealing, to graffiti, to making weapons. Even I get offered drugs ... and I wear a headscarf.”

But Merve herself is an example of her young generation’s potential. Despite not having the crucial Abitur school qualification that allows entry to university, she is doing a special two-year early childhood development course to become a kindergarten teacher.

“Things have to change and that’s why I want to become a kindergarten teacher,” she says. “Parents need to motivate their children and push them more. But also politicians and businesses need to help – they need to focus on getting the youth into jobs and make sure there are enough apprenticeships.”

Sezen Tatlici is a member of Deukische Generation, a young German-Turkish group that advocates integration. She agrees that having better role models is vital for immigrant youths in Neukölln, because many are growing up without any pressure to succeed.

“When you have low expectations of people, those people will live down to those expectations,” the 27-year-old says, explaining how she was told by a teacher she wouldn’t achieve Abitur or make it to a university-track high school. “Some teachers think the Turkish and Arabic kids are not as intelligent as the other kids. A lot of kids don’t have the self-confidence to get over that.”

Hopes dashed

Moussa El-Ghazi, a 20-year-old of Palestinian background who works at a fast-food chicken restaurant on Neukölln’s Sonnenallee, is one of those who feels rejected and disenfranchised. El-Ghazi says he sent out 80 applications to get a vocational training place after he finished school and was either turned down or heard no answer at all.

“I feel like shit about it,” he says. “You don’t want to write any more (applications) after that. You don’t have any confidence and motivation after 80 people turn you down. I had the qualifications, so I have to think it was prejudice.”

There are figures to back up his suspicions. In February, researchers at the Bonn-based Institute for the Study of Labour (IZA) found that Turkish job applicants were clearly discriminated against. Job applications bearing German-sounding names were 14 percent more likely to receive a phone call response from an employer, and 24 percent more likely in the case of smaller firms – evidence of “statistical discrimination,” the researchers said.

A fearsome reputation

El-Ghazi went to Neukölln’s infamous Rütli School, which made headlines in 2006 when teachers wrote a letter to the city government saying the school should be closed because they could no longer control the violent students.

There was, no doubt, a serious problem. But a security guard – a native German – outside the school this week said he talks to the students every day and they are, for most part, good kids. He subscribes to the widely-held view that some tabloid newspaper reporters paid students to behave violently during the media frenzy over conditions at the school.

Indeed, the question arises as to what extent Neukölln deserves its reputation. Many people in the area say the area has been unfairly written off and that politicians like Sarrazin, along with sensation-seeking journalists, come down hard the moment something goes wrong, when in fact there are problems all over Berlin as with any big city.

Certainly, Neukölln’s problems, particularly when it comes to crime and public safety, are modest compared parts of London or Paris.

British librarian Mark Ellis, 46, who moved to Neukölln from the notoriously tough east London suburb of Stepney nine months ago, says he’s aware of the reputation of the area, but thinks it is overblown.

“I do understand there are problems here,” said Ellis, who was drinking in a pub near the Neukölln town hall. “I had my lunch in the park the other day and there was this guy circling in front of me, just going back and forth until he finally came over and said, ‘Are you the police?’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about? I’m a librarian eating my sandwiches.’

“But after five years of living in Stepney, I don’t feel in the least bit scared or intimidated in Neukölln.”

Integration from the grass roots up

Tatlici from Deukische Generation says the single most important thing that can be done to overcome the problems in Neukölln is German language education from a young age. She also shares the view of Mayor Buschkowsky that day care should be firmly enforced from a young age.

That way, immigrant children are speaking German and mixing with German children even as toddlers – a crucial step to improving their language skills and thereby their education prospects. It’s a view shared by a majority of education experts.

“People say (the youths) speak Turkish instead of German,” she says. “But you should hear their Turkish – it’s not good either. They’re between two identities.”

Until such a policy is put in place, Neukölln residents are doing some of the work themselves. On the ground floor of a building on a rather grim housing estate building on Morusstrasse, a group called Kinderclub Rollberg, part of the Arabic Culture Institute, runs integration programs for children and families.

“We speak German here … language is the important first step,” explains Mohammad Jamil, a Palestinian who helps run the project. “The kids speak German to each other. We don’t talk about religion and politics – those are fine, but we leave them at home. We don’t want the kids to feel like outsiders.”

Instead, the project encourages children from all backgrounds to join in sports, art, music and recreation activities. It offers language and integration courses – some for women only – and holds events where officials from the police or the city’s youth services officials come to explain how these institutions work.

It’s hard for the likes of Jamil and co-worker T.N. Gunaratnam, a Tamil from Sri Lanka, to stomach the sweeping statements by commentators like Sarrazin that immigrants in Neukölln don’t want to integrate.

“We want to integrate with the German people,” he said. “Not for Sarrazin or Angela Merkel, but for ourselves.”

David Wroe/Ruth Michaelson ([email protected])



2010/09/16 18:51

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