Is it possible to learn integration? Germany thinks so. Since 2005, special courses have been helping immigrants become familiar with German language and culture. But do they really work? A Berlin film-maker wanted to find out. Melanie Lachner watched the resulting documentary
Insaf Azzam furrows her brow as she stares at her exercise book. "Is the cleaning job still available?" she reads in broken German. Job search role-playing is part of the curriculum here. Azzam, who was born in Syria and wears a headscarf, is taking part in an integration course in Berlin, together with 20 other immigrants from Bangladesh, Argentina and Eastern Europe.
Film director Britt Beyer has been following a course like this one for the past ten months. The resulting documentary film entitled Werden Sie Deutscher (How to Become a German) offers rare insights into the practical side of Germany's immigration policy. "I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult," she says, "but there was a great deal of openness." Although her film is full of comical situations, it does encourage critical debate.
In many cases, the people attending these integration courses have already been living in Germany for decades. They've put down roots here without ever really feeling at home. Just like Insaf Azzam, who came to Germany 20 years ago with her husband. Although they have been here a long time, the family has never felt really welcome. As a homemaker, Azzam has learned very little German over the years; she gets by speaking Arabic in her Berlin neighbourhood.
Learn German or leave
The family's residency permit has now been extended for two years instead of just for a few months like it used to be. Successful completion of the integration course was a condition for the extension. Insaf Azzam saw it as a chance to finally learn German. She no longer wants to feel like a foreigner in Germany and, for her, the course is a first step. For many participants, the pressure to pass the final exams is enormous. Those who fail could have their social benefits cut or, in the worst case scenario, could be deported.
The basic idea of the integration courses is praiseworthy, and at just one euro per lesson, they are unbeatably cheap. Above all, however, with these courses, Germany is sending out a clear signal that immigrants are no longer seen as guests, but are recognised as valued members of society. "It took 50 years for someone to make them this offer," says director Britt Breyer.
Good intentions, questionable implementation
That being said, the implementation of this long overdue measure is questionable. Orderliness, diligence and punctuality are described in the text books as desirable German traits, creating a picture of Germany that is entirely built on clichés.
For Beyer, it is "time to get rid of these stereotypes." She feels that the content of the course is evidence of an attempt to hold fast to a set of ideals that is as unrealistic as it is outdated. It sometimes seems as if there is a fear that a little bit of German identity is lost with the arrival of every immigrant even though such courses are an opportunity to promote cultural diversity in Germany.
At the end of the film, Insaf Azzam receives the result of her exam. She has passed! But does a boring old certificate make her part of Germany? Does she feel more integrated now after years of living in a parallel society? Not really. Germany, a self-declared country of immigration, continues to foster integration "in instalments".
© DW.de 2013
Editors: Kate Müser/DW.de and Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de