Ten years ago, a nail bomb attack injured 22 people in Cologne's Keupstrasse, a street home to many Turkish businesses. Integration activist Sezen Tatlici reflects on the status of the Turkish community in Germany today.
DW: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent campaign rally in Cologne has rekindled the debate about immigrants and integration in Germany. Is this fair?
Sezen Tatlici: Yes. I think we need to talk about immigration in Germany - that it’s a real thing! A quarter of the population - 20 million people out of a population of 80 million - are 'new Germans,' as I call them. Yet, still, too many people don't recognize Germany as a diverse and heterogeneous country. I think the media needs to play a role in changing this perception. 'New Germans' need to be visible in the media and active in the hiring processes in HR departments. But I think we need to be careful in how we approach this. If we or I say to the media or to companies, 'You are doing this wrong,' people will switch off.
You've lived and studied in the US. Imagine for a second that the president of Mexico were to rent out Madison Square Garden in New York and hold a campaign rally for Mexicans living in New York - much like Erdogan did for Turks living in Cologne. Could you imagine what the reaction would be in the US?
I don't even think this would be possible in the US. I don't think Mexicans living in the US would connect with a Mexican leader the way some Turks in Germany connect to Erdogan.
Why is that?
When I watched the rally in Cologne, it seemed to me that the people there were genuinely his fans. This suggests that the democratic structure of Germany has failed. We as a nation - we as a society, and I also count myself here - weren't sensitive and welcoming to new Germans, especially people of Turkish origin who have been in Germany for decades. Many of these people don't feel at home here. They don’t feel like they're a part of Germany. They don't feel appreciated. They’ve never been thanked for their contributions to Germany.
As a result, a vacuum has been created. And that vacuum has been filled by someone else, by Erdogan. He is a great orator. He knows exactly how to speak to these people, to make them feel welcomed and appreciated. He even thanks them for what they have done to help Germany! You’ve never seen Angela Merkel say 'We've had 50 years of Turkish immigration to Germany, and I really thank all of you for coming here and becoming part of our society.'
How do people in your family feel about this?
My grandmother came to Germany in the late 1960s. She always worked hard for the country, paid her taxes. She raised my mother to be politically active and engaged. And she pushed us to study. But my grandmother doesn't speak German well. People look at her in the streets and think, 'You've been here so long, and you can't even speak German.' They look down on her. And this is a bad thing.
We have a saying here in Germany - a fish stinks from its head - and I think it can be applied here. Leaders in Germany need to set the tone. If they were to say, 'Okay, you may not speak German, but you've done your service to the country. We appreciate this,' this would be helpful. It would be helpful if German leaders recognized that Turkish and other immigrants played a role in building the stable and prosperous Germany we all love. If this would happen, then people’s attitudes would change.
So German leaders need to give 'New Germans' more positive reinforcement - and perhaps show more empathy?
Exactly. With Erdogan, you have a leader who is telling Turkish people in Germany that they have value. That their voices matter. And then what happens? They go to his rallies and give him their hearts. It's not surprising at all. If we change our culture of how we perceive people coming to our country, things would improve.
Do you see Germany forming its own version of the American dream?
We don't really have this concept in Germany, but I think we need it. If we had our own version of the American dream, we would be a lot more thankful to people coming to our country. But what do we do? We have high-profile politicians who accuse immigrants of coming here to cheat the welfare system. I think we need to move away from such language.
When I lived in the US, I felt that as a German with a Turkish and Arab background that I was very welcome. When it was time for me to return to Germany, people wanted me to stay - I was thrilled by this concept of being accepted so quickly. My friends and work colleagues considered me part of the US; they accepted me for who I am. The idea that I went there to become a part of their country was something they really respected.
What can Germany learn from the US and other immigration nations?
We need to make our own version of the American dream. The American dream is very much focused on starting off as a dishwasher and ending up a millionaire. It's focused on the individual. That concept won't work in Germany. The concept that would work in Germany would see the individual contributing to the society, which then in turn gives back to the individual. We need to sit down with some key people to create a new concept and then teach this to our children and politicians so everyone understands it.
Are you optimistic that this change can happen?
I am. You have to remember, 60 years ago when immigrants first starting coming to Germany from Turkey and Southern Europe, the immigrants were not educated. Their children were also at a disadvantage. The third generation began to study and to join the professional class. Today, we have a growing population of educated 'new Germans' who are starting to speak for themselves. This is why I think things are changing, and why I am optimistic.
Sezen Tatlici is the founder chairwoman of the Typisch Deutsch e.V. (typical German) organization, which helps immigrants and their children to integrate into German society.