Integration in Germany: Giving Turkish-German Kids a Chance

Integration is a touchy issue across Europe and Germans are worried that unrest could eventually infect its immigrant population. The country’s education system, say leading integration experts, is the place to start.

Erman Tanyildiz, a Turkish-German entrepreneur, was concerned as he watched images of the French riots flicker across his television screen last autumn. How, he thought, can Germany prevent its own immigrant community from erupting in frustrated unrest?

His first brainstorm — which he himself describes as “crazy” — was the establishment of elite kindergartens in Germany’s immigrant neighborhoods. Surely, he thought, teaching English and other foreign languages to immigrant children before they even got to school would help them get ahead.

But then, to anyone who has spoken to Tanyildiz, the idea is hardly out of character. After all, as founder of the OTA-Tanyildiz foundation, he has long been supporting educational initiatives, and runs a training center in the Berlin working-class neighborhood of Lichtenberg for 500 disabled and economically disadvantaged teens. But it is his latest venture which is really turning heads in the German capital: the OTA Hochschule — a year old private university focusing on Turkish-German relations. It also seeks to improve higher education opportunities for immigrant groups.

“I thought I had to do something for Germany’s immigrants so that they could earn professional qualifications,” Tanyildiz says. “Professional integration is where social integration starts.”

A lack of decent education opportunities

The university, called the OTA Hochschule and which sent its first graduating class out into the work world last year, was conceived in 2000. The German government was considering an immigration program for professionals to fill the country’s IT skills gap and for Tanyildiz, this was just another example of Berlin failing to see what was right before its nose — namely, a young immigrant population already living in the country but lacking decent education opportunities.

By 2002, the OTA Hochschule had already cleared the not-insignificant bureaucratic hurdles facing new universities in Germany. Soon, OTA will formally link with two universities in Turkey and will offer double diplomas to students from both countries. And in September 2005, Rita Süssmuth — whose long list of qualifications include having chaired Germany’s Independent Commission of Migration and being a former member of parliament and ex-president of the Bundestag — took up her new role as president of the small university, which offers bachelor’s degrees in business administration and computer science.

Despite Tanyildiz’s initial successes, however, the shortcomings in the German school system remain. Indeed, the biggest problem the new university faces is that there aren’t enough Turkish youth with the qualifications to even apply.

A 2003 study, for example, found that youngsters from the highest socio-economic background are almost nine times more likely to go to a gymnasium — Germany’s university-track high schools — than those from the lowest. The rest get dumped in second and third tier schools originally intended to train future workers for a job as a tradesman or factory worker.

A great idea in theory. But with fewer and fewer such jobs — and with a calcified economy seemingly unable to keep unemployment below 5 million — these schools have become dumping grounds for poorer children and for children of Turkish immigrant families. A stopgap on the way to the very long welfare lines.

“Everything is backwards in Germany”

“We have to change our system to make it more permeable,” Süssmuth says. “The system is not flexible enough to open the door to someone who is not from the traditional background. It’s a question of social mobility. In most countries, you have an integrated comprehensive system, whereas we don’t in Germany.”

In Germany, in fact, the hurdles start immediately. Kindergarten is not free everywhere in the country, meaning children from poor families have a deficit starting from grade one. Many Turkish families don’t speak German at home, compounding the problems for Turkish-German children when they get to grade school. And at the end of the fifth or sixth grade, depending on the state, the decision is made as to which of the three high schools children may enter — a system heavily criticized by the so-called PISA study of school systems undertaken by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. No wonder, then, that only very few children with immigrant backgrounds make it to gymnasium and the university.

“Everything is backwards in Germany,” Tanyildiz says. “You have to pay for kindergarten but not for university…. We have to promote from the roots, not from the top down but from the bottom up.”

All of which makes the new university little more than the first step on the long road toward educational integration — a point its founder concedes. Still, Tanyildiz is hoping the OTA Hochschule may be able to make up for the current dearth of role models for Turkish-German youth. He himself had his uncle — who ran a steel factory — when growing up. “My parents said to me, ‘if you do well in school, you will be like your uncle,'” he says. “What kind of role models are there today for the Turkish youth?”

And meanwhile, of course, there’s that kindergarten idea. It’s still embryonic, but he’s beginning to line up some political support. “You have to put the kids in kindergarten and make sure they get a good education and perspective and are motivated,” he says. “The system in place now just doesn’t match the reality on the ground. It has to be changed.”

Originally published on SPIEGEL ONLINE International:,1518,394303,00.html


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