Equity & Diversity

The Great Divide

May 10, 2005 14 min read
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Steps away from where a concrete wall once divided this city east from west, a group of Muslim 1st graders at E.O. Plauen Elementary School sing a phrase that’s unfamiliar to most German ears.

Sumayla Najjar, a mother of four, escorts her daughter to E.O. Plauen Elementary.

Alhamdulillah, Alhamdulillah,” or “Praise to God,” the children intone in Arabic as a light snow falls outside this imposing century-old building in Kreuzberg, a section of Berlin nicknamed Little Istanbul for its high concentration of Turkish immigrants. The 16 pupils, led by teacher Yasar Özcelik, switch to German as the song proceeds.

“For the eyes, God be thanked,” they sing on this mid-March day. “For the ears, God be thanked.”

Though the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches have long provided voluntary religion classes in Berlin schools, only recently have the courts allowed an Islamic organization to enter the schools. But many German people remain suspicious of the Muslim group that waged the 20-year legal battle to offer the classes. The Islamic Federation of Berlin, in their eyes, promotes a radical form of Islam—one that discourages integration into German society—and has no business molding young minds.

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Identity Blurred for Many Immigrants

Distrust of that group is emblematic of a broader problem, in society and in the schools. The Wall, in fact, may have crumbled, but a divide of another kind seems to be growing here. Concerns are mounting in Germany and across Europe about the integration of immigrant families, especially the continent’s rising Muslim population—more than 3 million in this country, second only to France. Some Europeans speak with alarm of enclaves in Berlin, Amsterdam, and other cities, where the native European language is barely spoken and Western values sometimes are pushed aside.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States, the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, and other violence thought to be the work of Muslim extremists have inflamed tensions. So has the recent murder in Berlin of a 23-year-old Turkish woman, allegedly an “honor killing” by family members who believed she had tarnished her Muslim family’s reputation. It was reportedly the sixth such killing in Berlin in six months.

“There is a widespread feeling that Muslims cannot integrate, that they cannot be democrats and Muslims at the same time,” says Barbara John, Berlin’s former commissioner for integration and migration. “There is prejudice building up,” she laments. “ ‘Muslim’ has become synonymous with ‘nonintegrating.’ ”

The anxiety is reaching into the schools. Some German states have recently passed laws barring teachers from wearing headscarves in the classroom. Educators express concern that an increasing number of Muslim families prevent their daughters from school experiences such as field trips. And many children of immigrant families speak poor or little German, even though they were born here. What’s more, international test scores suggest that Germany, long lionized for its academic prowess, is raising a generation of immigrants who are far behind the achievement curve.

Efforts are under way to address the situation. Experts here, however, suggest the country has a long way to go to meet the needs of immigrant students. “There is change, but a very slow change,” says John, now a professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University.

Guest Workers Plant Roots

Although immigration is nothing new to Germany, it’s been only very recently, and perhaps grudgingly, that the country has begun to consider itself an immigrant nation.

The country’s largely homogeneous face began to change noticeably when it brought in waves of gastarbeiter, or guest workers, mostly in the 1960s and early 1970s from Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere to help fuel an economic expansion.

For a long time, little effort was put into integrating those workers into society, in part because both the Germans and the laborers assumed the arrangement was temporary. It wasn’t. Although Germany tried to repatriate workers, many stayed and eventually brought their families into the country.

Yaser Özcelik leads 1st graders in an Islam class at E.O. Plauen Elementary School in Berlin. Gaining the right to provide the classes took 20 years.

The nation also has long been a favored destination for asylum seekers.

As of 2003, of Germany’s 83 million residents, 7.3 million people, or 9 percent, were legal foreigners. The largest number, about 2 million, were Turkish citizens; another 575,000 Turks have been naturalized since 1972.

German policy toward immigrants, long favoring ethnic German ancestry, has shifted since 2000. For the first time, many German-born children of foreigners have the automatic right to citizenship. Its first immigration law, a delicate political compromise, took effect in January. Critics say it seems largely aimed at deporting perceived threats, such as Islamic “hate preachers.” But the law makes it easier to recruit skilled workers. And it requires foreigners seeking permanent residence to take courses in German language, law, and other matters.

Islam Viewed as ‘Abnormal’

With the Wall dismantled, Kreuzberg is now in the heart of the reunited Berlin, a massive metropolis with a labyrinthine subway system, a thriving nightlife and arts scene, and a dizzying array of architectural contrasts—Baroque and neo-Renaissance buildings, the bulky Stalinist structures lining Karl Marx Allee, the glass-and-steel Sony Center.

Europe’s second-largest city, Berlin is a diverse, multiethnic capital with some 3.4 million people. It’s a place of extremes, about as typical of Germany as New York City is of the United States, which is to say, not very.

The city-state is socially progressive with a reputation for tolerance, and it has one of Europe’s few openly gay mayors. At the same time, nonwhites avoid certain neighborhoods in the east, fearing attacks by skinheads.

Kreuzberg reveals one of Berlin’s multiple personalities. A headscarf attracts no more notice than a ponytail in this area, packed with kebab shops and other Turkish stores.

German is a second language for about half of all students in the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district here. Across Berlin, the figure is one in four. More than half come from Turkish families; other nations of origin include Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, Russia, Poland, and Vietnam.

German Education 101

The main responsibility for education in Germany rests with the nation’s Länder, or 16 states. For that reason, the details of education policy and organization vary.

Generally, children may attend preschool (called kindergarten) from ages 3 to 6. Primary education typically runs from ages 6 to 10. (In Berlin and Brandenburg, it extends to age 12.)

Full-time education is generally compulsory from age 6 to age 15 or 16, followed by a few more years of compulsory part-time education.

After elementary school, students generally attend one of four types of schools, based largely on the recommendation of their primary schools, though in most states parents have the final say. Those options are:

Hauptschule: The lowest track, it provides a basic education and prepares students for vocational training.

Realschule: The intermediate track, it offers a more extensive basic education and typically prepares students to attend a higher technical or business school.

Gymnasium: The highest, most rigorous, track, it leads to a degree called an Abitur and prepares students to attend university.

Gesamtschule: This is a comprehensive school that offers all three tracks under one roof.

At E.O. Plauen Elementary, 90 percent of the 370 students come from non-German backgrounds, mostly Turkish; nearly all were born in Berlin.

Asked about one Turkish 7-year-old’s German-language ability, veteran 1st grade teacher Cleo Diehm replies: “For his age, it’s really bad. But for somebody who is here, it is normal to good level.”

Many children prefer to speak Turkish, and usually do on the playground, but Diehm doesn’t permit that in class except under special circumstances, such as to help a youngster with a tough assignment.

This morning, a blond Russian boy named Edgar has a special request. “He told me that he wants to learn Turkish,” Diehm says. “I guess it is so he can get in [conversation] with the Turkish kids. … He wants to write down five vocabulary words a day.”

Özcelik, a native of Turkey, says he also helps 1st graders learn German in his Islam classes. “My personal opinion is that when you live in Germany, you have to learn German.”

During the lesson this March day, Özcelik asks students to spell the German words for “eyes,” “ears,” and other body parts they sang about earlier. Nearly all the pupils called to the chalkboard need help.

Children get the basics of the Muslim faith in these classes, offered in 37 Berlin schools, says Burhan Kesici, a member of the board of the Islamic Federation of Berlin. The curriculum is crafted by the federation with approval from the Berlin education ministry.

Another goal of the classes is to show children they don’t have to hide their religion. “The Islamic religion is regarded in this society as abnormal,” Kesici says. “It leads to an inferiority complex.”

Some German officials and Turkish groups in Berlin distrust the presence of the Islamic Federation, which is under government surveillance, in the schools.

“I think it’s quite dangerous,” says Katrin Schultze-Berndt, a Berlin legislator from the conservative Christian Democrats. She believes the children get ideas that conflict with Germany’s constitution, and learn to view women as inferior.

Kesici strongly denies those charges, insisting his group has been unfairly maligned.

At E.O. Plauen, if there’s any controversy, it may well come from Muslim families themselves. “The religion teacher here is relatively liberal in comparison to other Turkish religious teachers,” says Principal Gerlinde Hohnhäuser, “and some of the parents have had confrontations with him.”

The Problems Are Repeating

To some extent, Germany’s immigrant education problems run in the family.

Of course, plenty of well-educated and -integrated immigrant families live here. But educators, especially in places like Kreuzberg, say they encounter many children whose parents are unemployed, poorly educated, and speak little German. “Kreuzberg is kind of a ghetto for Turkish kids especially,” says Dietmar Pagel, the principal of Hector Peterson Oberschule, a grade 7-10 comprehensive school. “As a kid, you can go through Kreuzberg without speaking a German word.”

Often, a student’s father may have long lived in Germany, Pagel says, but he will find a wife in rural Turkey who doesn’t understand Germany’s language and customs. “And so the problems of the children are repeating and repeating and repeating,” he says.

He tells of a Lebanese woman who came to enroll her child at Hector Peterson, which is named for a South African student shot in Soweto in 1976. “She had to sign somewhere, and she just made two crosses,” Pagel says.

Berlin is trying to remedy such problems. It provides language classes to about 6,200 immigrant mothers, in elementary schools. It also set up a pilot program combining language instruction for parents with information about the school system.

“They don’t know German schools, how the system works, what teachers expect from parents,” says Ulrike Grassau, who oversees immigrant programs in the Berlin education ministry.

PISA Panic

Germany went through something of a collective shock in 2001 after its weak showing on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. The nation ranked 25th out of 32 countries for the overall performance of its 15-year-olds. More recent results, issued in December, showed only slight improvements.

PISA shined a light on the poor performance of Germany’s immigrant and low-income children, which galvanized the news media, the public, and politicians like never before.


The publicity has spurred some action. All 16 states of the Federal Republic of Germany agreed recently, for the first time, on national education standards, no small feat since states jealously guard their control over education. But some experts say the standards are too vague to have much bearing on the classroom.

The PISA study helped spur new federal programs, including a five-year, 4-billion-euro ($5.1 billion) plan to extend the school day. Most schools operate on a half-day schedule.

In addition, the federal government last fall launched a five-year pilot with five states, including Berlin, to offer better language-acquisition support to immigrant children.

But school improvement is primarily state territory.

Berlin, while financially strapped, has recently made some changes. For instance, it intends to start compulsory education at age 5½, rather than 6, and is handing schools more autonomy. It also has begun testing the language skills of soon-to- enter elementary pupils. Those who fall short attend classes for several months before the school year begins.

Since 2002, the western state of Hesse, with an especially large immigrant population in Frankfurt, has administered similar language tests. Families must enroll their children in school almost a year in advance. If a child speaks little German, the state provides language classes for nine months, says Charlotte Mori, who directs Hesse’s immigrant education programs. More than 5,500 students are taking part this academic year.

‘I’m Very Angry’

Some educators worry about the message conveyed by Hesse’s government, which, since 1999, has been run by the Christian Democrats under Roland Koch, an outspoken conservative.

One teacher, Harald Freiling, describes a large poster in the education ministry headquarters that proclaims: “If you don’t speak German, you don’t get to attend the 1st grade.”

“I’m very angry about that,” says Freiling. Almost half the students in his secondary school near Frankfurt’s airport are immigrants. “I would prefer to have a poster saying: ‘You have problems speaking the German language? Please come to our school, and we are happy to help you.’ ”

Mori insists the message isn’t meant to intimidate. “Our minister of education,” she says, “doesn’t want to punish children. She wants to help children.”

Ingrid Gogolin, an expert on immigrant education at the University of Hamburg, supports the focus on early-language acquisition, but says deep problems persist with how immigrant education is handled.

For one, she says schools generally don’t respect the language “starting point” of students from non-German backgrounds. She argues that schools need to consider multilingualism in the classroom. Gogolin also says that students’ German-language needs should be better supported once they enter school, and that schools need to incorporate language instruction across the curriculum.

Muslim women shop in the twice-weekly open-air market in the Kreuzberg section of Berlin.

“There’s no tradition of that in Germany,” she says.

Also contributing to immigrant children’s academic inadequacies, observers say, is that with few exceptions, such as in Hamburg, teacher-training programs don’t prepare teachers to instruct them.

Nor do immigrant children tend to fare well in Germany’s hierarchical secondary school system, which separates students at age 10 (12 in Berlin and Brandenburg) into three types of schools, only one of which is geared toward college. Educators and researchers say immigrants are placed in lower-track schools in far higher proportions than ethnic Germans.

“Are Turkish kids dumber?” asks Özcan, a Green Party legislator in the Berlin parliament who was born in Turkey. “No, they’re not. But the school system is somehow discriminating.”

The Headscarf Debate

One of the biggest tensions has been over the headscarf. Increasingly, European officials say it represents separatist Islam. France now forbids the wearing of headscarves and other religious symbols in school, and several German states have barred teachers from donning headscarves.

Such laws aren’t just backed by conservatives. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who heads the nation’s center-left government, has voiced support for the headscarf bans, as have some leftist Greens.

“Teachers who are representing the state, the government, … have to be neutral,” says the Green Party’s Mutlu, who supported a ban passed here in January. He notes that neither students nor teachers can wear the headscarf at schools in Turkey, a secular Muslim state. Berlin’s law, he says, also prohibits teachers of other faiths from wearing symbols of their religion, such as a large crucifix or a Jewish yarmulke.

“The problem is that the headscarf became a symbol of radical Islam,” Mutlu argues.

A group of 10th graders at Hector Peterson, both Muslims and ethnic Germans, suggest the ban is wrongheaded.

“I myself have discovered that it’s difficult to find work when you wear a headscarf,” says Jalileh Othman, dressed in jeans, a black sweater, and a black headscarf. She recalls one time when a preschool didn’t want to hire her as an intern. “They just judged me from my appearance,” she says. “People who wear the headscarf are also perfectly normal people.”

Swimming Lessons and Field Trips

Pagel, the principal at Hector Peterson, says he would prefer to keep religion out of his school altogether. He worries about the cultural differences with Muslim immigrants, and whether they are barriers to integration.

“Sometimes, I want to say, ‘Let’s be tolerant,’ ” Pagel says, but then he sees or hears about incidents that give him pause, like an honor killing.

Gökalp Özalp, a 45-year-old social worker who came to Berlin from Turkey two decades ago, condemns such murders but also worries that the recent publicity on the issue is prompting a backlash against Turkish immigrants.

A majority of the children in Cleo Diehm's 1st grade class at E.O. Plauen don't speak German at home or on the playground.

“You should not start using it to stir emotions against a particular group,” he says. “Berlin also has many modern and open-minded Turks.”

And yet, Özalp, not a religious man, says that he, too, sees a move toward fundamentalism among some Turks who are jobless and feel unwelcome here.

“This worldwide process of Islamization had a big impact on Berlin,” he says, suggesting that some third-generation Turks are less integrated than the second generation. “Since they do not feel accepted by the German majority here, they return to their religious roots as a means of identity.”

Martina Kaltenbacher, who has taught in Berlin schools for some 20 years, says she is beginning to feel less tolerant on such issues as allowing Muslim families to keep their daughters away from school field trips and coed swimming lessons.

“It’s a symptom for an attitude toward women and men that I think we shouldn’t accept,” she says, recalling a high school field trip to London she organized a few years back. A 19-year-old Turkish student wanted to go, but her father resisted.

“She pestered him, … and eventually he agreed,” Kaltenbacher says.

When the father brought the young woman to the airport, the teacher remembers: “He gave me her hand and said, ‘This is my daughter, and I want her back like this. Don’t let her out of your eyes, ever.’ ”

The young woman never joined evening outings in London. “You can imagine, I felt very badly,” Kaltenbacher says.

But when Barbara John, the former integration commissioner, hears stories like that, she finds a glimmer of hope.

“You must give them time, and you must convince them,” she says. “We make it a yes-or-no question, everything. … You have to build up trust.”

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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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