Young Muslim Migrants in Berlin

Versatile Identity

The riots in France have triggered a debate on integration policy all over Europe. Berlin is considered to be a particular source of potential conflict in the case of Germany. Ariana Mirza talked to young Muslims and social workers

Turkish youth in Berlin-Kreuzberg (photo: Larissa Bender)
Unlike their French counterparts, young migrants in Berlin don't see the districts they live in as ghettos

​​Ali and his friends look bored. They spend most of their days on the streets "just nattering." Sometimes, explains Ali, they go to an Internet café or one of the numerous amusement arcades in the district. But most of the time, they don't have the money to do even that.

When I ask them to comment on the situation in France and to draw any possible parallels to their situation, the boys beat about the bush. "Dunno. Don't know anything about it," says Ali, the sixteen-year-old spokesman for the group.

His friends bounce around the park bench the group uses as a meeting point. They laugh and elbow one another. "This can't be France. There's nothing going down here!"

Lack of qualification for migrant youths

But the lads' boredom and the lack of prospects for Ali and his gang hides a worrying statistic: across the country, only one third of young people from migrant families leave secondary school with a qualification. Just as few train for a profession.

For the Turkish Community in Germany, these figures set the alarm bells ringing. In a recently published "Four-Point Plan", the German government is urged to take immediate action. The report concludes that financial support for fostering young migrants must become a fixed part of the budget.

Groups of young people roaming the streets, like Ali's gang, are part of everyday life in Berlin. But unlike their French counterparts, the kids here don't think that the districts they live in are ghettos.

"Sure, lots of Turks live here; but so do lots of Germans; students and the like," says Ali. Like so many other migrants, he feels at home in a sort of grey area.

Split national identity

"If they meet a German who wants something from them, they make a point of the fact that they are Turks or Arabs," explains a social worker, "but at home, they say that they are German."

Nor do Fouratt and Tarik want to specify one particular nationality. First of all they say "We are from Lebanon," but moments later they reject this self-assessment. They admit that they know very little about Lebanon, never want to move there, and that their Arabic is not perfect. Then they speak about being Muslim.

Yes, they are definitely Muslim. And where is home? With every question, the fifteen-year-olds become less and less sure. They talk among themselves briefly and then decide that they are "Kreuzberger" (Kreuzberg is the name of the Berlin district in which they live).

Integration policy has yet to be developed

Mohamad Zaher knows how difficult it is for young people to find their identities. "Language, culture, and religion are the main pillars," he says.

Zaher, a Palestinian, founded the youth club "Karame" in Berlin in 1978. His many years of experience have taught him one thing in particular: "It is too late to start helping them when they are 18/19 years of age and have already drawn attention to themselves. You've got to start much earlier."

This is why "Karame" now focuses on primary school children, stays with them while they grow into adults, and keeps in contact with the parents. "All of the approximately 250 Arab families in the district know our club," he says, not without a little pride. Nevertheless, he thinks his efforts are a drop in the ocean. He sees gaping holes.

"As of yet, no-one has developed a clearly defined integration policy for Germany."

"Religion is very important"

Kemal Özbasi from the "Gangway" organisation deals mainly with street kids: young people who are already living on the edge of society. The 38-year-old is one of the few social workers who comes from a migrant background and is now actively involved in youth projects in Berlin.

When asked how much importance he thinks faith has for his young protégés, he says: "Religion is very important, especially in terms of their system of values."

Young Muslims use Islamic principles to regulate their own behaviour. This statement is backed up by my research. Ali and his friends often debate about what is "haram" (forbidden) and what is not. Getting into a fight, for example, is ok ... "if someone insults you."

There is no question of them stealing because stealing is forbidden in the Koran. That being said, they prefer to ignore the fact that their visits to the amusement arcades are not compatible with the principles of Islam. When I ask them why, they laugh: "C'mon, we're German!"

Ariana Mirza

© 2005

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