After decades, German Turks still feel like outsiders


Eleven years of trying to fit in have yet to pay off for Yazay Eminaga.

He has learned German. He has German friends. Soon he’ll earn his doctorate in engineering from a highly rated university in Munich.

But his buddies still rib him for being “a killjoy” because, as a Muslim, he won’t eat pork or drink beer at parties. No landlord in downtown Munich seems willing to rent a nice apartment to a 31-year-old single Turkish man.

And landing a good job? He isn’t holding his breath; a fellow engineer of Turkish descent wound up driving a cab.


Returning to his homeland, with his degree in hand, now seems like Eminaga’s best bet.

“I have a couple of Turkish friends who have the same idea,” said Eminaga, an immigrant who has spent nearly his entire adult life in Germany. “We see other students who have gone back.”

Plenty of Germans would be happy to wave goodbye to them. Fueled by economic uncertainty and some political pandering, anti-immigrant fervor is on the rise across Germany and the rest of Europe, where parties on the far right and even moderate leaders are stirring up resentment of foreigners.

Turks, the largest ethnic minority in Germany at 3.7% of the population, have borne the brunt of the anger here. But even as some politicians issue dire warnings that the country is somehow in danger of being swamped by Turks, the opposite is true: More are leaving than coming.

Last year, about 8,000 more people of Turkish origin left Germany than arrived, according to official statistics. That continues a trend that began in 2006, when departing Turks outnumbered newcomers for the first time in two decades.

Some have retired and rejoined their extended families in Turkey. Others, weary of fruitless job hunts in Europe’s largest economy, have left to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

A large number simply don’t feel comfortable or welcome. In a survey last year, 35% of Turks in Germany said they wanted to leave; more than a third of those said it was because they didn’t identify with their adopted country.


Whose fault that is now lies at the center of a noisy debate fanned by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent declaration that multiculturalism in Germany had “completely failed.”

Anti-immigration politicians and campaigners contend that Turkish and other Muslim residents have refused to integrate, wall themselves off in communities where they make no effort to learn German, sponge off the state’s generous welfare policies and, in a few alarming instances, foment Islamic extremism.

Unemployment, crime and school dropout rates are higher in many of these communities than the national average, feeding the perception of a nasty underclass.

But immigrant-rights advocates say the low social indicators are partly the legacy of a state that happily started recruiting Turks and other immigrants as cheap labor 50 years ago but did little to try to weave them into the country’s life, treating them as temporary residents for decades. The restrictive path to citizenship in Germany was opened by the government only 10 years ago.

Discrimination and hostility toward immigrants remain widespread, influenced by news coverage that focuses on lurid stories, activists say.

“It’s always about the Turkish guy who stabbed his sister 10 times with a knife because she had a German boyfriend,” said Elif Cindik, a psychiatrist in Munich. Speaking of so-called honor crimes, she said, “It’s like, three happened in the last year. There were many more German family dramas, [men who] shot their wives or themselves because they lost their jobs or something.”

Cindik, 40, was born in Istanbul but immigrated here with her family as a girl. She excelled academically, studied at Harvard Medical School and returned to start a practice.

She has German citizenship. Yet people still appear surprised by her fluent German, or her tall stature and blue eyes. Or they ask her what she thinks of elections in Turkey rather than elections in Bavaria.

“They put me into drawers where I don’t really belong,” said Cindik, who sits on the board of a national organization for Turkish Germans. “I was invited to stay in the U.S., and I was thinking, why did I come back?... I would live there much less hassled.”

Although concerns about immigration have simmered here for years, they boiled over in the summer with the publication of “Germany Is Doing Away with Itself,” by Thilo Sarrazin, which contends that Muslims are making the country “more stupid.”

Sarrazin was compelled to resign from the board of Germany’s Bundesbank because of his comments. But his book landed on the bestseller list, and polls show that a majority of Germans agree with some of his assertions.

When he took part in a debate here in Munich, the audience was so vociferous in its support of him that it refused to listen to the arguments of his opponent.

Last month, Horst Seehofer, the premier of Bavaria state, declared that no more Turks or Arabs should be allowed into Germany.

The German tempest is part of a wider hardening of opinion toward immigrants across Europe. Far-right groups with explicitly anti-Islam agendas have posted gains at the ballot box in the Netherlands and Sweden, and a similar party won more than a quarter of the vote last month in a local election in Vienna.

In Germany, still haunted by its Nazi past, a growing number of people say they would be willing to support a nationalistic leader.

The talk now is of promoting the leitkultur, the guiding or dominant culture, among newcomers. Rather nebulous, the term seems to encompass learning German and embracing liberal democratic values. Some politicians, however, have spoken specifically of the need to embrace “Judeo-Christian values.”

“Some people think integration means I do what the culture does, eating pork or drinking beer,” said Eminaga, the engineering student. “So I have no possibility to integrate.”

Such attitudes have fostered the us-versus-them mentality that’s driving many Turkish immigrants to leave Germany, Cindik said, even as the country faces a shortage of skilled labor and a graying workforce.

She said native Germans must accept that theirs is now a multiethnic country and look for ways to help integrate minorities.

On a TV talk show recently, the moderator wanted to know what Cindik would do to end forced marriage among Muslim residents or stop honor killings.

“You know what, it’s not the part of the good immigrants to cope with the bad ones,” Cindik said. “It’s for society.”