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Europe

Through the Eyes of a Foreigner

Subtle hostility or blatant violence – discrimination against foreigners can take several forms. Here a personal account of a foreigner living in Germany.

Recently while travelling in a first-class train compartment from Berlin to Cologne, I was asked brusquely by a ticket conductor to vacate the table I was occupying in the restaurant on board.

Startled, I showed the woman my first-class ticket, which entitled me to use the restaurant.

"You order food and sit here", she boomed in broken English. I indicated the cup of coffee I was sipping and the sandwich I’d bought from the snack counter of the restaurant. I explained in German that the first class compartments were all full and that many of the tables here in the restaurant were empty anyway. The answer and the fact that I spoke in coherent German seemed to infuriate her.

"That’s not my problem", she choked out in anger "You must leave".

I did because by now the loud exchange had attracted considerable attention. Cheeks flaming with embarrassment, I stumbled past a group of sheepish looking Germans and left the restaurant.

Public humiliation – a nightmare for foreigners

The above episode might not necessarily be considered as one having racist or discriminatory overtones. It may be argued that technically one can sit in a restaurant aboard an intercity express train in Germany only if one orders food or beverages from the menu card.

To that extent the conductor could have been said to be carrying out her duty and enforcing the rules.

But the humiliation and helplessness of being snubbed in public is a nightmare for many foreigners in Germany.

And worse...

Of course worse things can happen. Reports in the media of foreigners being attacked and harassed, especially in Eastern Germany has made the German government sit up and take notice.

Concerted measures are being taken to rein in and counsel Neo-Nazi thugs and racist elements in society, at a time when Germany is looking to attract more qualified foreigners to its shores.

But an unfortunate fallout of the media attention on isolated instances of racial hatred, is a general perception of Germany as a country hostile to foreigners.

Authority and discrimination –hand in hand?

It’s true that incidents of racist violence are still in the minority. But what is often overlooked is the hostile, discriminatory attitude of many ordinary Germans – notably shop personnel, officers working for various state departments, railway personnel.

In other words people working in some manner in posts of authority. Sadly many foreigners daily encounter instances of being viewed with mistrust, ignored and treated in a high-handed manner. Especially those with distinctly different ethnic origins and who speak little or no German.

Integration – a two-way process?

A spate of debates has been on in Germany for years regarding the assimilation of foreigners here. The catch word in German society is "integration". It refers to the integration of foreigners living here by means of their learning the language and getting familiar with the customs.

But hardly any effort is made to change attitudes of the German public towards foreigners in society. Or creating any awareness among them about the variety of foreigners living among their midst.

I remember an ignorant hair stylist in Berlin referring to me as an Arabian girl even after I repeatedly told her that I come from India.

A silver lining

But the picture is not entirely bleak. For every discriminatory incident that one faces as a foreigner in Germany, there are several others, which lift the spirits and almost make up for the embarrassment one has faced before. I encounter friendly and helpful Germans everyday, who treat me normally and give me a sense of being accepted here.

The only unfortunate part is that it’s the unpleasant experiences that usually stick in your mind.

Whenever a group of foreigners get together in Germany, one can be sure that the topic at some point inevitably turns to racial discrimination, with each one pitching in with his own experience.

That is a telling reflection on a country, which boasts a multicultural society.

  • Date 19.12.2001
  • Author Sonia Phalnikar
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/1VGW
  • Date 19.12.2001
  • Author Sonia Phalnikar
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/1VGW