In Berlin, a Cultural Wall Sets Turks Apart

Times Staff Writer

The Gummi Bear marked the cultural divide between Annette Spieler and the inquisitive little girl.

The principal at the elementary school in the Wrangel neighborhood here, Spieler offers candy as rewards for good grades. One Muslim student asked whether Gummi Bears were made with gelatin, an ingredient often derived from pigs. Spieler had never encountered such a question, but upon checking, she discovered that they were.

“The girl refused it,” Spieler said, sitting in her office the other day as stragglers from recess echoed through the hallway. “It was an indication of how the neighborhood has changed. When I came here in 1991, I didn’t see as many head scarves as I see now, or as many immigrant women wrapped up all over. But now I see it everywhere. The Islamic religious life is strengthening and it’s coming into the schools.”


The 12-square-block neighborhood in west Berlin has long been a place where new arrivals to the city flock, struggling to establish themselves and then to escape the incessant hum of courtyard factories and the rattle of machine shops. Bordered by a canal and train tracks, colored with graffiti and scented with wood smoke, the neighborhood today is a glimpse of the immigration pressures that Germany and the rest of Europe face.

It is a microcosm of how a nation’s half-hearted efforts at integration have instead created a troubled immigrant population with its own languages, codes and ethos -- a separate world. The families of Turkish workers who began arriving here in the 1960s are into their third generation, but many still feel as if their identities are floating between Berlin and Turkey’s Anatolian plains.

Not far from the playground at Spieler’s Fichtelgebirge Elementary, the last of the autumn leaves whirled and scraped over the sidewalk, and the olive-skinned boys near the basketball court skipped and hopped around the shy girls. The sounds and the breeze drifted, if you listened, through the stairwell and hallways leading to the living room of Hatice Genc, a broad-faced, smiling mother of four, whose demeanor belied her concern about the future.

“My husband and I keep an apartment in Turkey,” said Genc, who arrived in Germany 35 years ago with her father, a “guest worker.”

“We’re still not sure about our status. What if the German government says, ‘OK, all foreigners out’? It happened in World War II when no one believed it could happen. What is integration? Do I have to take my head scarf off, wear short skirts, drink alcohol? I graduated from a German school. I have German friends. But what does integration mean? No one has told me.”

That question lingers across Europe, from the ragged suburbs of Paris to the radical neighborhoods of London and through the alleys of Rome. Europe’s Muslim population has doubled since the mid-1980s. Yet it is only recently, amid bombings, rising poverty and burning cars, that the continent has become startled by the failure of what it never clearly defined: integration.


Once a pure ethnic German enclave -- a pastor supported Adolf Hitler in the 1930s -- the Wrangel neighborhood was bombed in World War II and shadowed by the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. Today, the neighborhood is 45% immigrant, mostly Turkish. There’s not a single ethnic German among the 320 students in Eberhard Klein junior high school. The Tabor Protestant church had 22,000 congregants when it was inaugurated in 1905; today it has 1,500. Down the street, scaffolding cloaks a new multistory mosque and Islamic center.

“I saw my first Turk in 1962,” said Harald Zugehoer, who was born in Wrangel in 1949. He moved to a country house south of Berlin years ago, but kept his metal shop in the neighborhood. “People who say integration will never work are right. Berliners are half-spiritual and half-atheist. They can’t handle this dogmatic kind of Islam.

“I don’t walk the streets here anymore. I come with my car and I leave with my car.”

Zugehoer sat in the candlelight of a local tavern, surrounded by the cracked baritones of smokers and a few lined faces he hadn’t seen since he was a young boxer. He looked out the window, past the raised train tracks and into the night and its sharp glow of neon. He fished in the nearby canal decades ago, and remembers where things in Wrangel used to be: the department store, the shoemaker, the key maker, the doctor, the dentist -- everything, he said, “that you needed for life.”

Those things are gone; new ones with foreign syllables have replaced them. He paused, sipped his black tea. “The neighborhood just went down the drain,” he said. “And how can it get better when jobs in Berlin have vanished?”

He said that he had nothing against Turks, he even befriended one while skiing. But he said integration didn’t work, no matter how much one side mingled with the other.

The lines of demarcation in Wrangel are often blurred. Young German professionals have recently been drawn to the neighborhood’s ethnic atmosphere, yet they send their children to schools in other districts. Punk rockers with purple hair stroll past men in aprons chattering in Turkish and slicing lamb in the window of the Baghdad Cafe. At a nearby bar, Germans sip beer and play cards on one side as Turks stir tea amid the clatter of backgammon on the other.


There are troubling omens in the new mosaic. Unemployment among Turks here is 40%. Thirty percent of high school students drop out, and only 13% attend college.

Amid limited opportunities, many families have turned to religion, and others have embraced the tribal customs their grandparents brought with them decades ago. Fathers in Wrangel still arrange marriages along clan lines, and increasing numbers of women wear head scarves.

Extremism lingers at the neighborhood’s edges. Young women who resist reading the Koran are sometimes sent images on their cellphones suggesting they will turn into rat-like creatures.

This year, a former Eberhard Klein student and single mother, Hatun Surucu, was shot by one of her brothers in what police described as an “honor killing” -- to punish her because he thought she had brought shame to the family with her European lifestyle.

Smelling of eucalyptus cough drops, Burkhard Waechter, Tabor’s bespectacled bookkeeper and historian, was busy in his church the other day. Scant light from a gray sky bled through the stained glass. He walked to the left of the altar and pointed to pictures and trinkets cataloging the church’s 100-year history: a tarnished chalice, a fading image of Hitler, a Bible donated by the Kaiser’s wife, a photograph of an Allied plane, its bomb doors open and its stubby cargo dropping toward Wrangel.

Low rents brought Waechter to Wrangel 28 years ago. These days, he sometimes sees Muslim kids strolling along the sidewalks with their German friends from kindergarten. It is a hopeful sign, Waechter said. But he wondered how integration could work when people were so different, and so angry.


“When I was little, my great-grandmother told me not to play with Catholic kids,” Waechter said. “But a Catholic and Protestant are different than a Muslim and a Christian. My son had Turkish friends and we were trying to build relationships. We all spoke German, but it seemed there were barriers as if it were still a different language.

“If I see a Frenchman or an American, I know we have a shared history. We killed each other in wars. But with Turks there’s no common experience. Even a simple thing like music -- you have heard the Beatles, I have heard the Beatles. But has a Turk?”

Down the street and to the right, through a courtyard and up some flights of steps, three Turkish women wearing head scarves sipped sweet tea in the late morning light.

Genc, her sister, Hulya Yeni, and sister-in-law, Sibel Koc, spoke German with the nuance and inflection of natives. Genc was a child when her father, an unsuccessful shoemaker turned laborer, moved the family from a town near the Black Sea to Berlin. She learned the rhythms of Europe but kept her cultural traditions: Genc’s family arranged her marriage to a cousin from the same Turkish town, allowing him to move to Germany and work as a landscaper.

The couple moved to Wrangel in 1990. It was the year of German unification, and East Germans streamed across a fallen wall looking for jobs. There suddenly were fewer opportunities for Turks in Wrangel and the larger ward known as Kreuzberg. Unemployment rose among immigrants, and the small strides toward integration in the 1980s began to fade.

“Our parents’ generation came to Germany to make money as guest workers. They didn’t think about integration because they thought they’d return to Turkey,” Koc said. “But the next generation went to German schools. We have German friends. We’re not always separated.”


“Yes, but the Germans are not interested in having contacts with us,” Yeni said. “Nobody thought about how integration should work.”

Genc slid her tea forward on the table and sat back in her chair. She and the other women talked about the daily slights they encounter: a suspicious look from a cashier handed a 100-euro note; Germans who ridicule them in German, without thinking the women understand the language.

“Right now I really don’t know where I belong,” Genc said. “I’d like the nightmare to be over.”

Genc’s son, Ahmet, 16, doesn’t view his situation in such stark terms. A third-generation Turkish German, he attends a better school outside the neighborhood, considers himself religious and believes integration is possible. But like the generation before him, Ahmet wrestles with identity and often feels conflicted.

“I feel much more integrated than my grandparents and a little more than my parents,” said the tall and sturdily built teen. “When I visit Turkey, they call me a German Turk. But when I’m there I want to be just a Turk -- I don’t want the German part. But here I want to be seen as an integrated Turk. I know that sounds like a contradiction.”

In the street, young men gathered like birds. The subway clattered in the distance, and the music from car radios was muffled by windows rolled tight against the cold. Things quieted down by the canal, where a few swans glided, giving the impression of a vast garden spreading out from the gritty sidewalks.


Then more voices; soccer balls scuffed and children skittered across the yard during recess at Spieler’s elementary school. The bell rang and the students filed back into class.

In 1991 when Spieler arrived at the school, 65% of the its 410 students were immigrants. Today, 88% are from immigrant families and most of them are low income.

“This neighborhood is like a Turkish village,” Spieler said. “You can get everything from the cradle to the grave, all in Turkish.

“The better educated will get out, but the others know their chances to get jobs after school are close to zero. So their religion and their tradition come together, and at some point this steam will need a valve.”