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No longer ‘guests’: Germans of Turkish descent are finding greater acceptance at last

Husband and wife Ugur Sahin and Oezlem Tuereci, founders of BioNTech
Ugur Sahin and Oezlem Tuereci, founders of COVID-19 vaccine developer BioNTech, are among those helping to raise the profile in Germany of residents of Turkish descent.
(Bernd von Jutrczenka / DPA)

Anchoring Germany’s popular “Tagesschau” program with confidence and charisma, Damla Hekimoglu brings the good news, the bad news and the ugly news to millions of television viewers every day. That makes her smiling face, beamed by public broadcaster ARD into living rooms and onto smartphones, among the country’s most recognized.

Her position at the heart of German society also makes Hekimoglu, 33, one of the many scientists, athletes, actors, diplomats, physicians and politicians of Turkish descent who are helping to upend decades-old prejudices and discrimination here against the country’s Gastarbeiter — the “guest workers” who came to do the hard and dirty work that others shunned — and their offspring.

“You can definitely feel a sense of growing pride in everything that Germans with Turkish roots are accomplishing,” Hekimoglu said in an interview. “The times are changing, and that’s a good thing. It’s great to see more role models and a greater sense of appreciation, even though there’s still a lot of racism around.”

Born in the small rural town of Kalterherberg in far western Germany to a dentist father and homemaker mother, Hekimoglu said she and her family were living “the German dream” of a better life in their adopted country.

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The upswelling of ethnic Turkish pride comes 60 years after the agreement between Turkey and what was then West Germany that opened the gates for millions of Gastarbeiter. To mark the anniversary, a new book, “Wie Deutschland zur Heimat wurde” — “How Germany Became Home” — has hit bookstores, a moving compilation of the success stories of 27 residents of Turkish origin.

One story in particular, of triumph in the time of coronavirus, has stood out: that of Ugur Sahin, an immigrant who, with his German-born wife of Turkish descent, Oezlem Tuereci, was the mastermind behind the world’s first widely approved COVID-19 vaccine, through their startup company, BioNTech.

During Europe’s 2015 migrant crisis, Germany took in more than 1 million newcomers, sparking a backlash by some. Five years on, tensions have eased.

Other recent milestones have also sparked celebration and optimism. Earlier this month, the country’s first Cabinet member with Turkish roots, Cem Oezdemir, was sworn into office as agriculture minister. In 2008, Oezdemir became the first German of Turkish descent to head a major political party when he was elected co-leader of the Greens.

“The last 60 years have been a success story of Turks in Germany that’s been ignored for far too long,” said Oezcan Mutlu, 53, a former member of Parliament and the publisher of “How Germany Became Home.” “It’s time to see that immigrants enrich this country and make important contributions.

“The discrimination, racism and ostracism are still there too. But it’s good to see times are changing.”

For decades, the prevailing attitude among Germans was one of bigotry toward the millions of Turkish immigrants who kept their factories running, fueled their postwar “economic miracle” and took on the low-paying menial jobs no one else wanted.

Cem Oezdemir, Germany's new agriculture minister, is the first German of Turkish descent to become a Cabinet member.
(Franka Bruns / Associated Press)

Set out during a labor shortage after the Berlin Wall went up, the welcome mat for Gastarbeiter was rolled up in the early 1970s when the global oil crisis paralyzed Europe’s powerhouse economy. Many of the Turkish workers returned to their homeland, as Germany had banked on, but plenty of others stayed, despite being discriminated against in jobs, schools and housing for decades to come.

Residents of Turkish heritage now number about 3 million to 4 million, making up the largest and most vibrant ethnic minority group in this land of 82 million people.

A succession of conservative governments essentially shunned the newcomers in their midst and declined to grant Turks citizenship. That exacerbated the sense of an underclass in one of the world’s wealthiest countries — and indirectly encouraged racists and far-right extremists in Germany, some of whom mounted deadly attacks.

In 1993, five young Turkish women and girls were killed in an arson fire in the town of Solingen, near Duesseldorf. Between 2000 and 2007, eight Turkish shopkeepers and small-business operators were shot to death execution-style across Germany by a small band of neo-Nazis whose crimes stumped police only because they assumed the killers were other Turkish immigrants.

Arzu Canoglu was born in Turkey 48 years ago, grew up in Germany, loves both countries and speaks both languages fluently.

And early last year, five Turks were among the nine foreigners gunned down in a racially motivated rampage outside cafes popular with Turks in the western city of Hanau by a right-wing extremist who later killed himself.

Sahin, the founder of BioNTech, recalls facing hostility and discrimination but also vowing that it wouldn’t stop him from achieving his goals. Those came to spectacular fruition in the COVID-19 shot the company developed with Pfizer, a vaccine sometimes referred to here as the “Miracle of Mainz,” which sprang out of research originally meant to improve cancer treatment.

“Everyone faces discrimination at some point because of where they’re from, or the color of their skin, how they look, what they think or because they were born with a golden spoon in their mouth,” Sahin, 56, says in the newly published book. “But I didn’t pay attention to that. I focused on the things I was doing.”

The relationship between Germans and their neighbors of Turkish descent was long strained by misunderstandings and restrictive citizenship rules that, until 2000, made it almost impossible for Turks to become German nationals and full members of German society, even if they were born in the country.

Angela Merkel, a once-obscure scientist who claimed the global spotlight, leaves a mixed legacy as her 16-year tenure as Germany’s chancellor ends.

Encouraged by archconservative anti-immigration politicians, some Germans harbored ugly stereotypes of Turks as integration-resistant Muslims who refused to eat pork or drink alcohol. They accused Turkish residents of walling themselves off in separate communities and sponging off the country’s generous welfare system.

Public perceptions were also colored by the horrific 2005 killing of a 23-year-old Turkish woman by her brother at a Berlin bus stop after she rejected a forced marriage to a cousin and stopped wearing a head scarf.

Prejudice was not uncommon on the street, in stores, on the shop floor and in the classroom.

“I was the only one with Turkish origins at my high school in a rural Bavarian town,” said Serap Ocak, who was born in Illertissen, about 80 miles west of Munich. “That took some getting used to for the teachers and classmates. Most teachers meant well, but they also let me know that they didn’t think I belonged there. When I finished school, the principal couldn’t resist making a flippant comment: ‘We finally have a Turk who graduated.’”

Ocak, 45, is now a rising star in Germany’s Foreign Ministry and has served as a diplomat in New York. She said she felt the sting of discrimination growing up in Germany, and although the situation has improved greatly, it’s still not perfect.

“A lot has changed since I started at the Foreign Ministry 10 years ago,” Ocak said. “There wasn’t anyone in a senior position with Turkish origins back then. There is far more diversity now. But not everyone there is happy about that, as a younger colleague made it clear to me.”

The same goes for Oezden Terli, who has become one of Germany’s most prominent meteorologists, in part for his sometimes controversial reports on the ZDF network’s prime-time newscasts linking climate change to current weather-related problems.

“I’ve always experienced slight gusts of discrimination my whole life,” Terli said. “But when I started doing the weather on ZDF it turned into a hurricane. It was too much for some people that a Turk was on public television warning about the dangers of climate change.

“Suddenly I was caught up in the crossfire of agitators. It bugged me at first, but then I just started to ignore it. I try not to let it get to me.”

Olaf Scholz has become Germany’s ninth post-World War II chancellor, ending Angela Merkel’s 16-year tenure as leader of the EU’s most populous nation.

Besides Terli and Hekimoglu, the “Tagesschau” anchorwoman, other TV news personalities with Turkish origins include Mitri Sirin of ZDF and Pinar Atalay of RTL News.

Germans have also been thrilled by the exploits of national soccer team stars Mezut Oezil and Ilkay Guendogan, flocked to movies starring Sibel Kekilli and directed by Fatih Akin, watched TV programs hosted by Nazan Eckes and read books by Emine Sevgi Oezdamar.

Long in coming, today’s greater acceptance is stirring hope of an even more inclusive Germany, one that belatedly recognizes how its people of Turkish descent, who were once disparaged for overstaying their welcome, have been enriching the nation all along with their diversity, talent, diligence and creativity.

“Being an immigrant is something totally normal for us,” said BioNTech’s Sahin, who moved to Cologne as a 4-year-old. “What’s important is that everyone contributes. It’s so easy — just create a big team where everyone who wants to join in can.”

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.


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