Germany’s longest serving Commissioner for Foreigners’ Rights, Barbara John, steps down this month after more than two decades of striving to integrate and make life easier for Berlin’s large foreign population.
Tougher than she looks -- Berlin's Commissioner for Foreigners Professor Barbara John
When Barbara John took up her newly-created post as Commissioner for Foreigners’ Rights in the state of Berlin in 1981, she didn't guess her work would take so long.
She had hoped at the time that the integration of foreigners in the city would be completed within a decade, and she expected her office to become superfluous thereafter. Today the 65-year-old knows better.
"I now know that integration is a very long process, a century-long one. Especially since Germany has decided to open itself up to immigrants, the question of complete integration is now much more important than it was back then," John said at a press conference earlier this month to announce that she was stepping down after 22 years in the job.
Born in the Turkish-dominated Kreuzberg district of Berlin in 1938, John was a teacher and ethnology professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University before being appointed as Berlin’s Commissioner for Foreigners. What started out as the task of helping foreigners adapt and cope with local life turned into a much more complex and diverse job over the years.
Helping Turks settle in
When John first took up her work in West Berlin there were over 250,000 young foreigners -- mainly of Turkish origin -- working there at the time. Most of them were the offspring of former "guestworkers" who flocked to Germany in the postwar years to help in the reconstruction of the battered country.
"My responsibility -- as I saw it at the time -- was to create acceptance for this new population group and also to gain their trust and secure their rights. That was the most important thing," John has said of her early days on the job.
Known for her spunk and determination, John set about helping the young Turks assimilate better into Berlin society by setting up self-help groups, community integration projects and organizing German language courses. John’s office also began financing an organization in the late 1980s to advise foreign nationals on starting small businesses and commercial ventures. Today Berlin is known as the "capital for ethnic companies" and is the home of some 12,000 foreign enterprises.
Apparently, John gained the trust of Berlin's foreigners, seeing as thousands of Turkish families and other foreign nationals started pouring into her office to seek support and advice on matters ranging from family reunions to residence permits to apartment leases.
Duties increase along with foreigners
In the 1990s the foreign population exploded in Berlin, partly triggered by the fall of communism in eastern Europe. Today almost 450,000 foreign nationals live in Berlin, the majority of whom are Turks, followed closely by Poles and Vietnamese.
The influx of foreigners turned the German capital into a multicultural metropolis and also changed the nature of John’s duties. She became responsible for refugee and asylum seekers in the capital as well as integrating 40,000 to 50,000 ethnic Germans, mostly from the former Soviet Union.
Encouraging refugees faced with deportation to return home or seek refuge in other countries is another focus of John’s work. More than 6,800 refugees used the "voluntary return" program initiated by John between 1998 and 2002 to return mainly to Bosnia and Kosovo. John is now especially concerned about helping exiled Iraqis living in Berlin and surrounding areas to return home to a free country.
In addition to helping foreigners from diverse backgrounds overcome language and cultural barriers, John has also set up working groups and organizations to deal with social problems such as discrimination and racist violence and to defuse tensions between immigrant groups and local police. John has also layed special importance on supporting migrant organizations in promoting integration.
"Turkish Barbara" above party politics
A member of the conservative Christian Democratic Party (CDU) since 1970, John has remained faithful to her party, despite its traditionally narrow stance on foreigners. Derisively called "Turkish Barbara" by some of her party colleagues, John says her work is "above party politics" and has on occasion flouted the party line. She firmly supported the dual citizenship concept initiated by the governing Social Democrats and Greens in the face of resistance from party ranks and is also strongly in favor of an immigration law that is still being thrashed out in parliament.
"I’m convinced that the new immigration law will open a fourth door for immigration -- namely one for highly-qualified applicants -- and offers more integration through the special integration courses... but the challenges will only be really solved with fundamental reforms in labor law, in the labor and school systems. Those are the key areas for integration," she has said.
The indefatigable John is still not completely bowing out of the scene once she leaves her job at the end of May. She intends to work in Berlin’s school administration to promote teaching German as a second language.