Learning the Immigration Lesson at a Young Age

Foreigner integration has been a hot-button issue as German politicians battle over the country's first immigration law. At a school in Cologne, the next generation has got it down pat.

As politicians grapple with the question of how many foreigners is too many, the next generation of Germans is busily smoothing the road to integration at a high school in Cologne. Take Murat, for example. He was born in Germany, but his family originally came from Turkey – making him officially "foreign." Still, he and his friends say they prefer to look beyond nationality on a day-to-day basis. "I think that my German friends have learned something from me and my culture," Murat tells Deutsche Welle. "Just being at our house is a little different – the food for example. My mother cooks Turkish food, and my friends come to our house, from all different countries. Our house is totally multi-culti. My mother explains a little bit about the food, and I explain a little. And then, of course, they think it tastes good."

photo: Erwin Wodicka, BilderBox

​​Murat attends the Hansa-Gymnasium in Cologne, a German high school that tackles issues like immigration and intercultural education at their roots. Hansa is special in that it is a UNESCO project school, dedicated to teaching ideals of intercultural communication, environmentalism and human rights. Along with simply having a larger-than-usual number of foreign students – teenagers from 28 countries study there – the school supports a development project in Nepal and establishes relationships with visiting artists from different countries. The school provides a living laboratory for the study of immigration in a society where 12 percent of schoolchildren fall under the category of "foreign," meaning they don't hold German passports.

Compared to the cultural uniformity of a generation or two ago, this means that German schools, neighborhoods, and hangouts are ethnically and culturally varied. Yet while integration of foreigners has long been the subject of debate in Germany, less has been said about how the outlook of young Germans has been affected by their contacts with counterparts from Turkey, Eastern Europe or Africa.

Getting religion

Matthias, 18 and also Hansa student, has friends from Poland, Hungary, Africa, and Turkey. He says that through having Turkish friends, he got to know Islamic culture better. "The important thing, I think for me, is to recognize that your own religion is not the 'non plus ultra' and that other people can be very happy with other religions," Matthias says. "I believe it is very important. And I believe that you can only understand that in reality when you get to know other people." For Geraldine, contact with foreigners has made her appreciate her own country all the more. It is exactly in matters of national pride that Germans can learn the most from non-Germans, she says.

"What I find amazing with foreigners is that they have a whole different relationship to their country," Geraldine says. "Foreign students don't understand at all that it can be embarrassing or looked down upon to say that you are proud of Germany. They are more relaxed about their country, and are prouder and more patriotic." She adds: "I think we could stand to be a little more glad to live in Germany. I mean, just be happy to live here. To have a good school system, and lead a good life."

Integration, not assimilation

Yet there are those who say the entire question of how Germans are affected by "foreigners" is moot. Dagmar Siegmann, a teacher of German and social science at Hansa, says that what many Germans refer to as "multi-culti" is actually something young people take for granted nowadays. Especially in the current generation of students, she says, the differences in values between Germans and foreigners have mostly been erased. "Foreigners get integrated in Germany, in social structures that are there, and not the other way around," Siegmann says. Ironically, she says, Germany is just waking up to the idea that learning about other religions, family structures, or ways of interacting could be a positive development. But due to assimilation, "these structures are no longer found in their original form" in Germany. "Except for maybe that (Turkish kids) have dark hair, it is impossible at this point to recognize who is foreign or not. They speak fluent German, they dress like Germans, they are no different from anyone else," Siegmann adds.

Fifteen-year-old Julia, also a Hansa student, backs this up saying: "In our school , we don't think much about whether someone is foreign or not. It's just really normal." And despite having had eye-opening experiences about Islam, even Matthias wonders whether the question of "foreign" influence is a valid one. "The question is re ally not so much whether this or that foreign student has had an influence," said the 18-year-old. "The question is really whether at some point people are just friends or not-friends. I think the 'foreign' category is dead."

© DW Online, 2003

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