Still a foreigner after 44 years in Germany

Twenty per cent of the country's population are Muslim immigrants, mostly from Turkey, but Islamophobic vitriol is still rife on the streets.

Twenty per cent of Germany's population are immigrants, mostly from Turkey, but Islamophobic vitriol is still rife on the streets. Many complain of everyday abuse directed at their clothing and religion.
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BERLIN // Being on the receiving end of obscene verbal abuse from passers-by is part of everyday life for Zehra Yilmaz, a Turkish-born teacher who has lived in Germany for 44 years and wears a headscarf.

"I get people spitting on the ground at my feet as they pass me in the street. Sometimes they call me '**** Turk'," said Mrs Yilmaz, 46, who lives in the industrial western city of Duisburg. "The people who do that are totally normal Germans. A few months ago I was taking my daughter to school and an elderly man came past me and said, '**** headscarf'. "How are you supposed to respond to something like that when your daughter is there? She was really shocked and said 'Mummy, why did he say that?' I tried to explain, but I don't know if an eight-year-old girl can understand it."

Mrs Yilmaz, who runs adult education courses and gives tours of Germany's largest mosque, the Merkez Mosque in Duisburg, is one of around four million Muslims living in Germany. The challenges they and almost 12 million other immigrants face are highlighted in a government report on integration published this month that reveals a stark inequality of opportunities. Mrs Yilmaz came to Germany with her parents when she was two. She has a university education and German citizenship, and speaks flawless, accent-free German. It is her headscarf that makes her what Germans call a "foreigner", even after all her years of living there.

"I don't dare go out on the street at night because I'm visible as a foreigner," she said. "Discrimination is part of everyday life for Muslim women wearing headscarves here." On a positive note, she said it was good that children are allowed to wear headscarves in school. "And no one is seriously talking about banning the burqa here, like in France and Belgium," she added. Duisburg, located in the industrial Ruhr region, is an ordinary, workaday German city. Turks started arriving to work in the factories of the Ruhr and other parts of the country half a century ago as "guest workers" invited by the West German government.

They were urgently needed to make up for a shortage of manpower after the Second World War. Turkish labour helped to create West Germany's economic miracle. Hundreds of thousands settled here, and Germany has about 2.8 million people with Turkish roots. Many of them feel German and showed their patriotism by waving the flag for the national football team during the World Cup. The squad was feted at home and around the world as an indication of how open and multicultural Germany has become. A total of 11 out of Germany's 23 players, including its star midfielder Mesut Özil, who is of Turkish descent, come from immigrant backgrounds.

But the daily experience of Germans like Mrs Yilmaz, and statistics on education and unemployment, tell a very different story. The government report showed that the jobless rate among people with an immigrant background was twice as high - 12.4 per cent - as among Germans with local roots in 2008. The proportion of immigrants leaving school without any qualifications was also double, at 13.3 per cent for pupils aged 15-19.

One illuminating statistic is the length of time it takes people to find an apprenticeship after leaving school - an average 17 months for those with immigrant roots and three months for those of German origin. That ties in with complaints that job applications from people with foreign-sounding names often land straight in the bin. "We still don't have equal opportunities," the German minister for integration, Maria Böhmer, said at the presentation of the report.

"In education and training in particular, the situation of many immigrants remains dramatic." Ms Böhmer called on schools to recruit more teachers with the training and background to administer to the needs of the children of immigrants. She also said the government was increasing funding for so-called integration courses, which teach German and provide a basic grounding in the legal and social system, by ?15 million to ?300 million (by Dh71m to Dh1.4 billion) next year.

Successive German governments ignored the blatant lack of equality. But in recent years, awareness has grown that by not addressing these issues, Germany is simply storing up serious problems for later . Out of a population of 82.1 million in 2008, 15.6 million, or 19 per cent, have an immigrant background. A total of 8.3 million of them have German citizenship. The percentage of immigrants is rising every year as a result of their higher birth rates, and 34.4 per cent of children five years old and under are of immigrant descent.

If they are not properly educated and integrated, a country that relies so heavily on skilled labour for its world-class industries will be putting its prosperity at risk. "Integration is a matter of fate for our country," Ms Böhmer said. Since 2005, the government has stepped up efforts to boost education standards and job opportunities for immigrant children. But many Germans have yet to embrace the notion that they live in a multicultural society.

"Immigrants have become increasingly willing to adopt a German national identity, as their vociferous support for the national team in the World Cup showed," Mrs Yilmaz said. "But I don't think German acceptance of immigrants has increased."