While newspapers and even TV channels aimed at foreigners in German are common these days, minority communities are finding more interactive ways to communicate with one another -- through Web portals.
Staying connected to home is important for immigrants
Every evening after work, Maria Knauf sits down at her computer and types in her password for the Web site www.germany.ru. On the site she's "kiska," which means something close to "kitten," and once she's logged on, she checks out who's online.
"I already see a couple of names I know," she said as she started typing. "I've chatted with 'Tante Anna' before so I'd better say hi."
For Knauf, germany.ru allows her to feel a little closer to home every evening, since it enables her to chat with other Russians in Germany, catch up on news back in Russia, or exchange experiences about their new lives in a country that is still very foreign for many of them.
"It's simply a place where I can meet like-minded people who speak my language and who I don't have to explain myself to," she said. "That means a lot in a foreign country and naturally we stick to people we know."
Sites like germany.ru, so-called "ethnoportals," are dedicated to minority communities in a country, giving them a forum where they can be surrounded by the familiar.
Judging by the number of users on the Russian site, it's a growing need. The site has 300,000 registered members and some 30,000 visit the pages every day, making it the most-visited site for Russian users in western Europe. Most of the surfers who stop by are young people who have immigrated to Germany.
"In 1999 I registered the name germany.ru in Russia without really thinking about it too much," said Andreas Brückmann, founder of the site and an ethnic German who immigrated to Germany from Saint Petersburg. "Back then, I didn't really have an idea about what I would make out of the site. I just liked the address."
germany.ru is like a comfortable living room for Russians in Germany
But now the site has taken off, and has information on music, bands, movies, and Russian television as well as a popular dating service. In fact, it’s the matchmaking that draws most people to the portal, according to Brückmann. In surveys, he's found that nearly 40 percent of the site's users are hoping to find a boyfriend or a girlfriend there. Many are successful.
"I think we've already celebrated thousands of weddings and I'm constantly invited to the happy occasions by people I don't even know," he said. "Of course, at this point there are quite a few germany.ru kids out there. I'm glad I played a role in that."
At about the same time the germany.ru went online, three Turkish brothers living in Germany had a similar idea, and created a place for Turks in Germany to gather in cyberspace. They had noted that in the US, there were already a multitude of sites for minorities: for Asians, Latinos, African-Americans, etc. But in Germany, it was a virtual desert.
"We thought there should be something for us since there are so many Turks living in Germany," said Tamir Kulmac, one of the brothers.
They set up Vaybee!, which means "Wow!" or "Great!" in Turkish. Today, vaybee.de is the most successful Turkish portal in Germany, with some 400,000 members.
"It's supposed to be a community, with discussion forums, chat functions, e-mail, that kind of thing," said Kulmac. "But it's developed beyond that."
Full range of services
It's now become a company, which, like any enterprise, needs to earn money. So several income-generating areas have been put online, such as a dating service, an online shop and a travel portal, which today has more German clients than Turkish ones.
Vaybee!'s Russian equivalent also offers a whole palette of services, although instead of sending travelers to foreign countries, Brückmann organizes tours in Germany for Russian rock groups.
The webmasters know that in the fast-moving world of the Internet, change is the only constant, and they frequently update their sites and add new features. They have to, since they're not the only kids on the block anymore -- thousands of imitators of all ethnic stripes have put their own portals on line now.
Home-grown crowd as well
The portals don't only appeal to brand-new arrivals to Germany. Many of the users on Vaybee! are German-Turks who were born or grew up in Germany, and speak the language like natives. In a recent survey, the site found out that some 40 percent of its users are women, a fact which Kulmac didn't expect.
For some women, ethnoportals are an idea forum for meeting new people
He says, however, after thinking about it, he realized that the forum was ideal for Turkish women, who, because of a more conservative culture, can be less willing to pursue traditional ways of getting out and getting to know people.
"People can meet, flirt, or date on our site, but all in a secure and, if you want, anonymous environment," he said.