Educated migrants have edge as Germany aims for integration

Germany now is taking a more proactive stance toward better educating and integrating its more than 1 million newcomers

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Wafaa Askar arrived in Germany barely a year and a half ago from her Syrian homeland, but she already speaks German fluently and counts more Germans than Syrians as friends. Orhan Sahin arrived from Turkey more than three decades ago, but still feels like a foreigner and speaks in broken German.

The difference? Education.

Based on previous waves of immigration, experts say that the best indicator of whether someone will fit into society is their level of education — the higher, the better. That trend bodes well for many of Europe’s newest residents even as many arrivals from long ago struggle to integrate.

Germany now is taking a more proactive stance toward better educating and integrating its more than 1 million newcomers, something it neglected in the past with the millions of Turkish guest workers.

“It’s really the skills of the migrants that make the difference,” said Wolfgang Lutz, director of the Vienna Institute of Demography, who is studying the most recent surge of immigration.

“There seems to be an indication that this wave was better-educated. I see some potential for integration, and it’s clearly going to be the case that if they decide to stay in Germany, the better-educated will be more easily integrated.”

Syrians were the largest single group of the estimated 1.1 million asylum seekers who flocked to Germany last year, many of them university-educated like Askar, a 41-year-old microbiologist, and her husband, a dentist.

They fled their Syrian hometown of Daraa in December 2012 and made it to Berlin in August 2014, after stops in Lebanon, Egypt and Libya. The couple are trying to get their university degrees recognized in Germany and find jobs, while their three children — sons aged 12 and 7 and a 4-year-old daughter — are already so comfortable with their new language that they speak German with one another.

“My sons are doing so well in school. I’m very proud,” Askar said, noting that teachers had told her that both sons sounded close to native German speakers. And her daughter, in kindergarten, was already speaking a little too much German for her taste.

“I have to tell my daughter not to answer back to me in German. When they talk to their parents they should speak in Arabic so they won’t forget that,” she said.

For many of the 3 million or more Turkish ethnic minority, with decades of roots in Germany, striking a cultural balance remains a struggle.

When Sahin arrived as a 19-year-old in Berlin more than three decades ago, he was dreaming of becoming a chemist. But he came from a poor family in rural Turkey and had to work hard every night distributing newspapers to pay for his German classes during the day. He managed to enroll for a few semesters in university, but once he married and had three little children, he could no longer afford his studies.

“I wish Germany would have helped support my studies,” Sahin said in heavily accented, broken German. Instead of becoming a scientist, Sahin worked long hours at a kebab store for a decade before he became a taxi driver in 2005.

“Germany is my home, I lived here for the longest part of my life and if I take my kids to Turkey on vacation, they become homesick for Germany after a few days,” Sahin, 55, said as he maneuvered his cab through Berlin’s bustling Turkish market along the Landwehr canal. “Still, most Germans refer to me as a foreigner. It’s really upsetting.

“I’ve lived and worked here all my adult life — why do they still look at me as a stranger?”

Kazim Erdogan, who came to Germany from an Anatolian village in southeast Turkey in 1971, says many of his fellow Turks remain isolated, speaking a different language and following different religious and social customs. He says this reflects how Turks were invited to post-war Germany as “guest workers” who were not encouraged to settle for the long term.

Erdogan, a 63-year-old community leader in Berlin’s lively Neukoelln immigrant neighborhood, said the “guest worker” attitude fueled an “us and them” outlook between Germans and Turks that persists in some quarters.

The stark gap between Germans and Turkish immigrants still shows in school and on the job market.

A third of Germany’s students under the age of 20 have immigrant roots — mostly of Turkish origin — but they are under-performing. Ten percent of immigrants drop out of school without a degree, compared to 2 percent of Germans, according to recent studies.

The discrepancy is also evident on the job market — unemployed immigrants tends to outnumber jobless Germans by 2-1. Immigrants are also vastly underrepresented in academia, the media, as teachers and other jobs that require university degrees.

Germany has never — and still doesn’t — encourage multiculturalism.

Chancellor Angela Merkel famously said in 2010 that multiculturalism had failed in Germany. While many Germans have moved away from demanding outright assimilation, mainstream society clearly still expects migrants to embrace the nation’s culture, values and language. Strong cultural and religious ties to the old homeland are often eyed with suspicion.

Nonetheless, the Turkish influence is felt almost everywhere in today’s Germany, where minarets dot the landscape next to medieval church steeples, and the doner kebab with garlic sauce is considered as much of a German culinary staple as the bratwurst or schnitzel.

Turks are the most visible among an estimated 16 million people — some 20 percent of Germany’s population — who claim immigrant background. They include 400,000 refugees from the 1990s Balkans wars and 2 million ethnic Germans from Russia and other Eastern European countries who arrived following the end of the Cold War with little knowledge of German language or customs.

But the Slavs and Eastern Europeans tended to be better educated and “were very quickly absorbed by German society,” Lutz said.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has complimented Germany for improving access to the labor market for asylum seekers but says it should lower barriers further.

“Refugee children and youth should be included quickly within the regular compulsory education system to avoid segregation and the standard curriculum should be supplemented with German language training,” the OECD said in an April report.

The government unveiled plans to do just that, proposing better access to the labor market and integration courses along with increased expectations to learn German. It is also working to more quickly send home migrants who don’t qualify for asylum.

Still, some Germans are responding to migrants with intolerance and violence.

Germany is experiencing a growth in attacks on refugee shelters, and rising popularity for far-right extremist groups and a new populist party, the Alternative for Germany.

But most Germans appear to be drifting away from the long-held belief that German citizenship requires a bloodline to previous generations.

“It’s going to be a slow process, but I think it’s inevitable through the fact that so many international people are living in Germany it will have to move to a more multicultural identity,” Lutz said.

For Berlin-born Ozgur Cengiz, a psychologist whose Turkish grandparents came to Germany as guest workers, this can’t happen quickly enough.

“Sometimes I wonder how many generations need to pass before one is no longer considered an immigrant in this country,” said Cengiz, who noted how younger cousins barely speak any Turkish — and struggle to communicate with their own grandparents.

The Askar family credits German neighbors with helping them to find an apartment and fit in socially. But the mother’s impressive fluency with German offers testimony to their own commitment.

“By now we have more German than Arabic friends,” she said.

She said her husband frets that their children may become too German and lose their Syrian roots, but she thinks her kids will enjoy “the best of both worlds.”

“It will be an advantage for them to speak both languages and feel at home in both cultures,” she said, “the German and the Syrian.”

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