Equity & Diversity

Identity Blurred for Many Immigrants

May 10, 2005 2 min read
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The Great Divide

National identity can be tricky for immigrants in Germany, even those with German passports like the Celikkol family of Berlin.

“I personally believe that I belong here,” says Nilgün Celikkol, who left Turkey with her family at age 7 and attended Berlin’s E.O. Plauen Elementary School in the 1970s. “I don’t feel like I’m a guest-worker child; I feel like I’m an immigrant.”

That doesn’t mean Celikkol, who is married with two school-age daughters and is a university-educated teacher’s assistant, thinks of herself as German.

In her Berlin bedroom, with its poster of U.S. actresses Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Ilke Celikkol plays the violin.

“If someone asks me, I say I’m a Berliner,” she says one day in her comfortable flat, over a classic Turkish breakfast of feta cheese, olives, Turkish tea, various breads, Turkish sausage, and other fare.

She and her husband, Ibrahim, an electrical engineer also born in Turkey, believe that some Germans still have a hard time accepting Turkish immigrants, even those who speak excellent German and seem fully integrated, like this family.

Referring to their German passports, Ibrahim Celikkol says: “That doesn’t mean much to the Germans. It’s just a piece of paper.”

He tells of his building’s maintenance man, a “very average German” who for a decade lived one floor above the family.

“For 10 years, he never said hi to us,” Ibrahim Celikkol says. “He didn’t even look at us.”

Finally, the family moved to his floor and made an extra effort to get to know him. Now, they’re on friendly terms, and the maintenance man even brings the family gifts at holiday time.

“It only took him 15 years,” Ibrahim Celikkol says.

Sitting in a classroom at Hector Peterson comprehensive school, a group of 15 students share their feelings about identity. Nearly all were born in Berlin, though most of their families come from abroad, especially Turkey.

None of the students from immigrant families calls himself or herself German.

“I don’t feel like a German because since I was young, I grew up as an Arab,” says Iman Mesallam, a 16-year-old whose father hails from Jordan, her mother from Syria. “The upbringing is totally different.”

For instance, “you’re not supposed to have a boyfriend,” she says. “It’s not supposed to be that way with Muslim girls.”

For Goran Obradovic, an 18-year-old, the immigration came a generation earlier. His parents, like him, were born in Berlin, but his grandparents came from Yugoslavia.

Even two generations in Berlin aren’t enough for Obradovic.

“I feel Yugoslavian,” he says, “not German.”

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Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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