‘What does it mean to be German nowadays?’: Yazidi activist on integration and refugees

The genocide of Yazidi communities by Islamic State turned journalist and filmmaker Düzen Tekkal into a human rights activist. She wants to empower survivors and call out racism, as well as extremism in Germany.

'What does it mean to be German nowadays?': Yazidi activist on integration and refugees
German Chancellor Angela Merkel meeting Yazidi survivors in Germany with Düzen Tekkal. Photo: Bundesregierung/Harwar.Help

When Düzen Tekkal announced that she was going to Iraq in 2014, almost nobody could understand why.

SEE ALSO: IS-abused Yazidi women find sanctuary in Black Forest

It was just after American journalist James Foley was brutally beheaded in Raqqa, Syria by Islamic State (IS) jihadists, further confirming that this region was one of the most dangerous places on earth.

But Tekkal felt she had to be in this part of this world – because she wanted to tell the stories of her people.

“I went there as a journalist, became a war writer overnight and came back as a human rights activist,” Tekkal, 40, tells The Local.

'ISIS made us popular in a bad way'

Tekkal was born and raised in Hanover, Lower Saxony, with Kurdish/Yazidi roots. Her parents came from Turkey as Gastarbeiter –  migrant workers who moved to West Germany as part of the guest worker programme – and for religious and political reasons.

When Tekkal was young, she can remember her father saying she should become a politician or journalist.

“I asked him why, and he said: ‘because you have to tell the story of your religion.’”

Tekkal did just that. She studied and forged out a career in journalism, and wrote about the Yazidi religion and its people. But no-one was interested at that time, she says.

SEE ALSO: Nobel peace prize winner who found refuge in Germany honoured

In 2014 when IS came to Yazidi towns and villages in northern Iraq, expelling and massacring civilians, and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery, everything changed.

“ISIS made us popular in a very bad way,” Tekkal says. “From that moment, everybody was interested in the Yazidi story.”

There was only one person who understood why Tekkal wanted to go to Iraq: her father. “Therefore we went there together,” she says.

Tekkal founded an NGO called Hawar.Help which aims to build a peaceful world “out of the ashes of genocide”. Hawar translates to 'genocide' in Kurdish.

Through documentation, women’s empowerment projects and educational initiatives the NGO aims to stop this kind of atrocity from happening again as well as give back control to survivors.

Yazidi projects in Germany

During Tekkal’s frequent trips to Iraq, she spoke to families and women affected by the genocide. One of those women was Nadia Murad, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize last year jointly with Congolese physician Denis Mukwege. They were given the award for their work and tireless campaigning against sexual violence in war.

In 2015 Murad had come to Germany as part of a special project for female victims of violence offering physical and emotional care.

Düzen Tekkal with Angela Merkel and Nadia Murad. Photo: Bundesregierung

She was one of more than 1000 women and children to benefit from the refugee programme of the state government in Baden-Württemberg.

Tekkal had pushed for the initiative – and she has also recently managed to campaign successfully for another German state to allow Yazidi survivors to live there.

Earlier this month Germany's Interior Ministry approved a reception program for Yazidis from Iraq in the eastern German state of Brandenburg. The project aims to provide shelter for Yazidis who were persecuted by IS and who suffered traumatic experiences at the hands of the terror group.

“We fought a lot for that, to raise awareness,” Tekkal says. 

'We need a new way of migration'

But Tekkal believes Europe should do even more for refugees.

“Some Yazidi people from Iraq are not accepted by the government to stay here,” says Tekkal. “What I try to say is: this genocide is not as far away as you think. The people who killed our people are dangerous for the whole world.”

Tekkal says we have to “create a new way of migration, integration and asylum”.

“I see myself as a translator between worlds,” she adds. “I have experiences in Iraq, Kurdistan and Syria and then I come to Germany and say what’s happening.”

Tekkal also meets other humanitarian workers and organizations to discuss how to take action. She gave a speech and came together with a range of activists at the Aurora Dialogues, which was held in Berlin in December.

“It was very interesting,” Tekkal says. “It was the first time I had met the Rohingya people for example. On the one hand it’s unsettling, but on the other hand it’s good to stand together.”

There is also a lot of work being done on the ground.

Düzen Tekkal with Yazidi communities in Iraq. Photo: Harwar.Help

“We have a women empowerment centre in Iraq, we are doing that together with the German development minister and we will take care of 840 women who were in the hands of the IS in the next two years.”

The aim is to allow women to gain power and control back through different educational courses and groups.

“When we are saying we can’t take everyone in the world to Europe, we have to make their situation better,” says Tekkal, pointing out why there must also be European projects in war-torn regions. “We need new solutions.”

'We have to take care of the evil twins'

When it comes to integration in Germany, Tekkal says there is a huge problem.

SEE ALSO: Sharing stories of everyday racism, #MeTwo takes off in Germany

“As a Yazidi women I always saw the problems from both sides — from the right wing and racism side but also from the religious extremist side,” she says. “We have to take care of both things, I call them the evil twins.”

Tekkal has one way of addressing the “evil twins”: by focussing on the #GermanDream. Tekkal launched a social media campaign with this hashtag, in a similar vein to the #MeTwo campaign which was started by author Ali Can, highlighting Germans with a migrant background.

But Tekkal says the hashtags are more than just a gimmick.

“We are all the GermanDream!”

She plans to go to schools in Germany and talk to pupils about their own personal “German dream” and how everyone shares the same values, whatever their roots are.

“What does it mean to be German nowadays? I want to make clear that everyone who is part of our values and was born here with different roots is part of the German dream,” she says.

When Nadia Murad won the Nobel prize it was a special moment for Tekkal.

“Nadia for me is a German dream,” says Tekkal. “She gets asylum here, she gets a chance here and then she became the voice worldwide.”

She remembers the first time she spoke to Murad, in a small tent on the frontline of war-ravaged Iraq. 

“I’m so proud that she got this because of her braveness to talk about what happened to her,” says Tekkal. “She broke the silence.”

Tekkal says there are a lot of Yazidi women out there who, like Murad, want to speak out and get justice.

“It’s my job to empower these women,” says Tekkal.


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What Germany’s plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

To tackle its ever-widening skills gap, Germany wants to encourage talent from aboard to move to the country by introducing a points-based immigration system. Here's what foreigners need to know about the changes.

What Germany's plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

What’s a points-based system?

A points-based system is an immigration model where foreigners have to score above a certain threshold of points in order to obtain a residence or work permit in a country. The exact scoring system is set by the government, but can include factors like language skills, family connections to the country, specific qualifications or work-related skills, or the amount of money in your bank account. 

Points-based systems can also be known as “merit-based systems”, because there tends to be a pretty big emphasis on what you can offer a country in terms of education or skills. 

The model was first introduced in Canada way back in 1967 as the country tried to move past a system based on race and nationality to one that favoured language fluency, youth and educational or vocational background. A similar step was taken in Australia just a few years later in 1972 and, since Brexit, the UK has also introduced its own points-based model. 

How does this relate to Germany?

When the new ‘traffic-light’ coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) took office last December, the parties pledged to reform Germany’s immigration system and bring a fresh cohort of workers into the country.

“In addition to the existing immigration law, we will establish a second pillar with the introduction of an opportunity card based on a points system to enable workers to gain controlled access to the German labour market in order to find a job,” the coalition agreement read.

This would apply to third-country nationals who don’t otherwise have the right to live and work in the country. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What Germany’s new government means for citizenship and naturalisation

German language course poster

A sign advertising German courses. Language skills can count towards points in a points-based system. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Bernd Wüstneck

FDP migration specialist Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch, who is working on these reforms, says the policy is driven by Germany’s desperate need for workers. 

“The Liberal Party (FDP) is convinced that we need more labour migration,” she told The Local. “We do have a lot of options for coming into Germany as a labour migrant – but it’s a bit complicated – and if you want to come to Germany to search for a job and you don’t come from an EU country, it’s much more difficult.”

That’s why the coalition is aiming to offer a second route for people who don’t have job lined up in Germany, but who otherwise have the skills or talent to find one. 

What will this look like?

The plans for the points-based system are still at an early stage, so the exact criteria haven’t been worked out yet.

What’s clear at this stage, however, is that the points-based option would run parallel to the current model, which generally permits people with a concrete job offer in a skilled profession to come and work in the country. 

“It’s about (people having) a good opportunity to come to Germany when they have either a job offer in sight or a direct job offer,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) said in response to parliamentary question in January. 

“Next to that, we want to achieve a further possibility for talent – for qualified men and women whose skills we need in Germany, who still don’t have a work contract but, if given access, could use that opportunity. That’s what we’re talking about with this Canadian points-based system. It shouldn’t replace our current system, but rather improve it.”

In short, that means that people with a job lined up won’t be disadvantaged – but there will be alternative routes for those without them. It also won’t affect the EU blue card scheme

READ ALSO: ‘I finally feel at home’: How Germany’s planned changes to citizenship laws affect foreigners

Will people need formal qualifications? 

Probably not – though it will obviously depend on the sector someone works in and their level of experience in their chosen field.

“I personally am convinced that you shouldn’t place too much emphasis on formal qualifications, because it’s very complicated getting your formal qualifications recognised in Germany,” said Jurisch.

“A medical doctor, for example, is one where you can’t say, ‘Okay, you’ve got some experience so we don’t need to see your papers.’ But there are a lot of other jobs which do not have this restriction and they are not formalised but rather based on practical experience.”

Carpenter wood

A carpenter sands down a block of wood in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

The issue of recognising qualifications is also a problem that the traffic-light coalition has set their sights on solving during their time in office.

At the moment, the process of getting qualifications officially recognised in Germany is done on a state-by-state basis, so somebody who gets their degree recognised in Brandenburg may have to redo the entire process again in Bavaria, for instance.

According to Jurisch, there have already been conversations between the Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education on the issue, and Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) has also promised to take steps to solve it.

But, she said, it’s complicated: “I’ve started to dive into this issue, and the more I dive into it, the more complicated it becomes – so there are no silver bullets.” 

How many workers are needed – and where? 

In order to plug its labour shortages, Germany needs around 400,000 new workers every year, according to the Federal Employment Agency. In 2020, Germany’s net migration was just 200,000 and 150,000 people of working age entered retirement – which means the country is currently falling well short of its targets. 

“We have shortages everywhere,” Jurisch said. “We need 400,000 new workers every year, and these people won’t be born in Germany – or if they are, they won’t grow up for another 20 years.

“We haven’t managed to get more women into the labour market, or they work part time, so I don’t think this will make a big difference, and I don’t think we will close the gap by training people.”

In this sense, it seems that immigration is the only option for filling major staff shortages in almost every profession. 

“Whoever I talk to, be it nurses, nannies, IT workers, industrial workers, teachers, lawyers – everywhere we have a shortage,” Jurisch said.

staff shortages Germany

A sign outside a restaurant informs customers of a closure due to staff shortages. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

When will the points-based system be introduced?

Unlike with the plans to reform citizenship, which the SDP-led Interior Ministry wants to achieve by the end of the year, there’s no firm timeline in place for the points-based system.

However, the FDP is fighting for the policy to be given higher priority and would like to introduce the new visa system before the next federal election in 2025. 

“I hope it will be done in this legislative period,” said Jurisch. “I’m pushing to get it a little bit higher up on the agenda.” 

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: ‘Changing German citizenship laws is a priority’