Turkish bakeries, delis, Oriental supermarkets and Döner Kebab stores. Mosques, hairdressers, a Turkish Airlines travel agency and Arabian shops. The mix gives the Berlin neighborhood, or "kiez," of Northern Neukölln a colorful, quirky feel. Some call it "Little Istanbul," others Berlin's "Lower East Side" for its companion mix of artists and intellectuals.
But Northern Neukölln with its 160,000 residents is also a poster child for the difficulties of Germany's migrant communities. Sixty percent of the the working age population is jobless, and 72 percent of residents live on social welfare, according to the local government authority. Seventy percent of school children do not finish high school. Plus, criminality has soared since the 1990s.
This neighborhood is Leman Koluman's and Zeinab El-Hassoum's beat. The two women, from Turkey and Lebanon respectively, work as "Neighborhood Mothers," an outreach program for disadvantaged migrant families invented in 2004 by city officials led Hella Dunger-Loeper, Berlin's Secretary for Building and Housing.
Cruising for New Friends
Equipped with colorful bags full with information flyers, often wearing the red scarves that have become emblematic of the project, the women cruise the "kiez" to make friends with the mothers of immigrant families.
Over a cup of tea, bringing empathy, experience and good advice, they talk to the newer immigrant mothers about the education of their children, the necessity of language skills, jobs and more. Each selected family is then visited ten times, informed systematically about such subjects as healthy food, gender issues and preventing addictions, how to access the medical system, the school system, the immense advantages of full educations and finding employment.
"At first, our customers were very tied-up", Zeinab says. "They did not dare to voice their real questions and concerns, since they suspected us to be from the welfare youth office to check out their families." After a while, though, trust had gradually been built up.
How does a woman qualify for the Neighborhood Mothers program and its introductory six-month training course? She must be a migrant herself, a mother, native speaker of Turkish or Arabic, jobless, and a fluent speaker of German. The latter is key, since many of the lifelong problems that migrants have in Germany derive from the lack of profound language skills.
The Trust Factor
"First, it generates trust when a member of the same ethnic community approaches the families. A regular social worker cannot reach those families", says Maria Macher, the coordinator of Diakonisches Werk, the charity institution of the Protestant Church, a partner in the project. "We can't get close," notes Dunger-Loeper. "A young female social worker with a short skirt generates a reaction: 'I don't want my daughter to dress like that.'"
Vice versa, any cultural signals even close to Muslim custom often generates simple and xenophoebic reflexes and prompts negative reactions among Germans. Yet, according to the experience of Leman and Zeinab, most of the topics to be tackled in terms of integration are simply not religious, but rather everyday situations to be dealt with.
Leman and Zeinab, mothers of two and seven children themselves, recall how lonely and isolated they felt during their first years in Germany. They had came to Berlin from Izmir (Turkey) and Beirut (Lebanon), more than 10 and 20 years ago respectively, to get married. They did not know the language, had no contacts, jobs or any clue how to get involved or access daycare entitlement for their young children. This harsh experience of isolation now contributes to their empathy and credibility when they approach other migrants.
Sitting in the official "neighborhood moms'" office in the town hall of Neukölln, surrounded by framed award certificates, Leman shares her pride in what is her first real job in Germany. She earns 1060 Euro per month pre-tax ($1330), EU 860 Euro ($1080 ) after tax — critical income for the family, since her husband is jobless.
Leman, before coming to Germany, had worked as a nurse in Izmir. But the German authorities did not recognize her Turkish diploma as equivalent to local standards. She would have to undergo another full three-year nurse training. Overall, having a migrant background in Germany, statistically equals being jobless twice as often as a native German. And industrial jobs, where migrants traditionally worked, are vanishing in significant numbers.
Immigration Wave History
The major wave of the immigrants in Germany arrived during the 1950s to 1970s. They came from Italy, Greece and, above all, Turkey (presently 2.8 million residents of Turkish origin), invited by the German government to help fulfill labor market need during the boom phase of the "economic miracle". The immigrants were expected to stay just temporarily. But most of them remained, settled, started families. Yet, they were always labeled "guest workers." Not until the 1990s did German officialdom moderate its paternal, patronizing attitudes toward the immigrants and their families. Citizenship rights have been accorded even more slowly.
Integration has also been held back by fundamentalist Islamic practices of male domination that some Turkish immigrants embrace, leading to forced marriages, domestic violence and subjugated lives for women. There have been rare but ominous "honor killings" by male relatives of Muslim women seeing to lead independent lives.
Berlin's Neighborhood Mothers program — expanded from its original 12 Turkish women in 2004 to 110 active "super-moms" of differing nationalities today — sets a clear standard for immigrant integration that makes a real difference in peoples' lives. Other German towns and cities have begun to copy the concept. In 2008, the Metropolis organization of world mayors gave Neighborhood Mothers its top award for improving the lives of city dwellers. Of particular appeal to the judges: the project's "win-win" approach, aiding both migrants and the city at large.
In an era of continuing strong "South to North" immigration — especially to Europe and North America — it's not hard to imagine that local adaptations of the Berlin program's personal and sensitive formula are becoming a key to social accord in countless cities.
Birgit Heitfeld is a Berlin-based freelance journalist.