Turkish immigrants in Germany face tough road
27 December 2005
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Behind the sterile white brick walls of Brunnenplatz school, Ahmet Ruhi Cosgun dreams of a professional soccer career - not at a German club, but at Galatasaray in Istanbul.
At 15, this son of Turkish immigrants knows just how unlikely that is. But international soccer stardom still seems more feasible than college in his native Germany.
"If you didn't have to go to university, I might try to become a lawyer instead - I think I'd be quite good at it," said Cosgun, a black woolen hat pulled low over his forehead, as he leaned forward over a classroom table one recent afternoon. But a university, he added categorically, "is just not an option."
Brunnenplatz is in the heart of Wedding, a poor neighborhood that used to mark one stretch of the heavily fortified border with East Berlin. That wall is gone. But with three out of four students here of immigrant origin and at least half of their parents out of work, plenty of barriers remain.
Europe's failure to integrate a growing population of immigrants, many of them Muslims, starts desperately early: in education systems that still systematically neglect these and other disadvantaged children, trapping them in uneducated poverty and depriving them of a sense of worth and belonging.
The daughters and sons of Turks in Germany, North Africans in France and Pakistanis in Britain are more likely to do worse in school, drop out and end up jobless than their German, French and British peers. Many are grouped together in poor schools and disproportionately few make it to universities.
The result is anger - as the autumn rioting in France so powerfully illustrated - and a waste of youth and potential at a time when Western Europe shows lackluster growth and has an aging population.
According to Andreas Schleicher, an education expert at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the precondition for turning Europe's uneasy side-by-side with immigrants into a successful multicultural society is to build an education system that actively fights rather than perpetuates inequality of opportunity.
"Immigration in Europe is still considered a problem rather than an opportunity, and nowhere is that more obvious than in education," said Schleicher, who co-authored the recent study by the Program for International Student Assessment, which compared the quality of schooling in OECD member countries.
School reform has been on the agenda in several European Union countries in recent years, as a combination of palpable tension in immigrant communities, the rise of terrorism and the need to remain competitive in a global economy has focused governments' minds. Following the violence in its immigrant suburbs, the French government hastily presented an education reform bill on Dec. 1.
But with the exception of the Scandinavian countries, where the education system largely alleviates the social inequalities suffered by immigrants, those inequalities are perpetuated everywhere else on the Continent, the student assessment study showed in November.
In Germany, where immigrants now account for 22 percent of 15-year-olds, compared with 9 percent of the population as a whole, the inequalities are actually reinforced by the school system.
Mention "integration" to Evelyn Rühle, one of Cosgun's teachers, and she only manages a sad smile. "Disintegration, more like," she says quietly, admitting that she is glad her son does not have to go to school in Wedding.
In Wedding, Rühle says, immigrant children today speak poorer German and have less contact with German culture than when she started teaching 20 years ago. Many Muslim students, like Cosgun, go to Koran classes outside of school and speak only Turkish or Arabic at home. Meanwhile, the growth of digital television has made a host of Turkish- and Arabic-language channels available, intensifying language problems and nurturing identities that are informed more by the Israeli- Palestinian conflict or the war in Iraq than by the local German environment.
"Some of these kids have never even been to Alexanderplatz," a bustling square in the center of Berlin a 15-minute subway ride away, Rühle said. "They live in a parallel universe that has very little to do with the Federal Republic of Germany."
It is a fine line between tolerating, or even celebrating, cultural diversity and indulging a refusal to integrate, teachers here say.
Unlike in France, where young Muslim girls are not allowed to wear a head scarf in public schools, girls at Brunnenplatz school carry their religious identity with pride. Deniz Celik, a soft-spoken 16-year-old of Turkish origin, matches the color of her head scarf with her Western garb, from sneakers to nose ring.
But as parents multiply their demands to separate girls and boys in sports or take their children out of biology classes, teachers like Rühle worry that too much tolerance could become counterproductive - and that even more German parents will desert schools with high proportions of immigrants.
Indeed, she says, the language skills of some of her German students have suffered, with many now routinely dropping definite articles in everyday speech. Some German boys are also imitating their Turkish counterparts in macho gestures.
Much of the damage is done by the time the students arrive in secondary school, Rühle said.
In Germany, kindergarten and other preschool activities rarely start before the age of 3. In school, classes tend to finish at lunchtime, sending students back to their families for substantial amounts of time instead of organizing activities during the afternoon as in most other countries.
In addition, the educational fate of students is often decided between the ages of 10 and 12, when teachers recommend which of three tracks of secondary schooling they should attend. Only the top branch, called the gymnasium, paves the way to a university.
The proportion of immigrant children who make it to this top track stood at 18 percent last year, compared with 47 percent for German students, government statistics show. The share falls to 12 percent for children of Turkish origin, the biggest immigrant group. Only 3.3 percent of immigrants who go through the German school system make it to universities.
Meanwhile, 40 percent of immigrant children attend the lowest branch of secondary school, twice the German proportion. An estimated 19 percent end up in special-needs schools and another 19 percent leave school without diplomas, compared with only 8 percent of German students.
"We are basically creating an army of long-term unemployed," said Dagmar Beer-Kern, who is in charge of education in the government's office for integration. "Rather than forcing teachers to find ways of maximizing the potential of immigrant students, the system has inbuilt mechanisms to offload problems to a lower level."
Many policy makers in Germany acknowledge that the system is not delivering the results it should. The assessment study was damning on Germany's school performance overall and particularly damning on its inability to provide equal opportunities to underprivileged Germans and ethnic minorities.
"If we were to sit down now to devise a school system for our society today, it would be a no-brainer: The three-track system is inappropriate," said Klaus Böger, senator for education and youth in Berlin's city administration. "But education reform is an ideological minefield in Germany, so it's more productive to focus on reform within the system."
While German politicians shy away from a bitter three-decade-old debate about introducing an integrated high school system, Cosgun and his friends in Wedding tell of the shame in being stuck in the lowest school track, the Hauptschule.
"It's embarrassing - it's like you have a sign on your forehead that reads 'stupid,"' said Cosgun.
Outside the school, ask a group of his friends whose parents are out of work, and every single one raises a hand. Their own fate? "Our destiny," says Süleyman Karaman, 16, matter-of-factly, "is Hartz IV," shorthand for the welfare category for the long-term unemployed in a country with 4.5 million jobless.
At the nearby Theodor-Plivier school, the headmistress, Angelika Prase-Mansmann, gazes through her office windows into a dense curtain of falling snow. "Snow is tempting - we had four teachers supervise during break today to break up fights," she said. "Luckily no one got hurt today."
Fights are common, snow or not. Accumulated frustration and aggression will come out, Prase-Mansmann said. Eerily, the worst insult among boys in Wedding these days is "opfer," or victim. Teachers say the term, which emerged about two years ago, has replaced more traditional invectives.
"Are they victims? Yes. But it doesn't help that they think of themselves as victims," Prase-Mansmann said.
"It's a vicious cycle," she added. "They know there are no jobs and that as foreigners they are the last ones to be hired, so they don't really try and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
German pupils completing the lowest school track are competing for apprenticeships and jobs with those from the middle track at a time when both are scarce. Unemployment runs at 10.9 percent, but for immigrants it is almost twice as high. The share of immigrants among those holding apprenticeships fell from 8 percent in 1994 to 5 percent in 2003.
In some cases, teachers say, students are offered opportunities they do not take. Rühle tells of language tutoring sessions and educational trips that end up half-empty. Prase-Mansmann says her school has a teacher 15 hours a week to counsel seniors on jobs and apprenticeships, but few ever show up.
Yet both agree that schools need still more funds and human resources to provide more individualized educational attention to immigrant children.
Countries like Finland and Sweden, which performed well in the student assessment both overall and in integrating minorities, spend more money on schools and equip them with more and better-trained staff than their bigger European neighbors. They also teach all students together until at least age 14 and give students verbal assessments, rather than grades, in the early years.
In Germany, some schools are trying to emulate some of these features. At Brunnenplatz, for example, the headmaster, Karl Reismüller, fought long and hard to get special permission for a dual-track setup that blurs the line between the lowest and middle secondary tracks. He also wants to get parents teaching other parents German in casual conversation groups to "anchor the school in the community."
Many reforms in Germany's decentralized education system have concentrated on the preschool and primary school levels. The number of all-day primary schools is rising and language training at the preschool level has intensified, especially in places like Berlin and Hamburg where immigrants are numerous. A growing number of primary schools also offer bilingual tracks to nurture native languages alongside German. And the central government is trying to establish more specialized teacher training and quality control for schools across the boundaries of the 16 states, which are responsible for education.
At Erika-Mann, an all-day primary school, small groups of students are huddled over different tasks - a math problem, biology and reading exercises - with two teachers moving swiftly between them. Eighty-five percent of students here are of immigrant origin and about 40 percent of them come from unemployed households. But a full one-third of Erika-Mann students go on to the academic track, one-third to the middle track and only one-third to the bottom track.
"If we can do this, anyone can," the headmistress, Karin Babbe, said. "All children want to learn. You should see the excited faces of the first-graders on their first day of school. The trouble is that all too often this motivation is killed off."
According to Babbe, an energetic 51-year-old who seems to know the names of all her pupils, the key is self- confidence.
Mahmod Hejazi, a shy 12-year-old whose Lebanese parents speak hardly any German, arrived at Erika-Mann 11 months ago, along with a fat file explaining that he suffered from learning disabilities and required special instruction. His new teacher, Heidemarie Tandel, worked hard to integrate him, bringing him up to speed with the class material in afternoon tutorials.
The breakthrough occurred onstage last spring.
"Suddenly he was no longer Mahmod, who is too shy to say or do anything, but a self-confident and feisty toad that saves a little girl," Tandel recalled.
Late last month, her petition to remove his special-needs status was finally granted by the authorities and Mahmod published his first article in the student newspaper.
But so far schools like this remain scarce. One reason is that such efforts rely largely on the energy and tenacity of staff.