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Old, poor and foreign

Karin Jäger / csc January 20, 2013

Older immigrants to Germany have less education than their German peers, face higher unemployment and depend more heavily on welfare. A Dortmund collective aims to address their needs.

Members of the Association for International Friendships at a meeting (Photo: Karin Jäger/DW)
Image: DW/ K. Jäger

What unites Hadi Kamisli, Mathilde Schmidt, Kosan Ismed and other members of the Association for International Friendship (ViF) is a sense of solidarity and community that they say often lacks in their day to day encounters with Germans who aren't of foreign origin.

On Mondays and Fridays, the group meets in the western German city of Dortmund, a former industrial stronghold. Over tea and biscuits, they chat about old times, play games and sing songs.

Taking initiative

Kosan Ismed was one of the association's co-founders in 1987, and has since received a number of awards for his community engagement. Due to his family's lack of money, the Kurdish Turk received just five years of schooling in Anatolia. Later, he moved to Germany, becoming one of the tens of thousands of steel workers who labored in the black furnaces of Hoesch AG - once the country's third-largest steel manufacturer. In those days, his Turkish colleagues said that Muslim women shouldn't work, but Ismed allowed his wife to take a job.

"For 25 years, she cleaned in a nursing home," he says in broken German and with a touch of pride.

He and his wife believed that they could provide better for their five children with two salaries. Today, Ismed is happy because they have two pensions. Things are different for his neighbor, he says. She only receives social welfare benefits and does not have enough money to return to Turkey, where the cost of living is lower.

An image of Kosan Ismed (Photo: Karin Jäger/DW)
Kosan IsmedImage: DW/ K. Jäger

Initially, Ismed only wanted to stay in Germany for 10 or 15 years and then return to Turkey. But he doesn't regret his decision to remain at all.

"There's democracy and social services. Everyone lives well here," he says.

Sofia Olschevska agrees. She lost the rights to her pension when she emigrated from Chernobyl 22 years ago. In Ukraine, she worked as a head nurse and physiotherapist, but she, like many others in her area, was afraid of cancer following the nuclear meltdown in her hometown. Olschevska sought work in Germany without finding a job. Nonetheless, she acquired German citizenship and lives modestly on what she receives from the state.

"We have a home, heat and something to eat. We are fine," says the former health care worker, who offers the association's members free gymnastic courses, relaxation exercises and massages - for free, she stresses, as a token of gratitude.

"I am so happy this association is in Dortmund. We all have such a good relationship with each other," she says.

Germany became home

Hadi Kamisli has lived in Dortmund for 33 years after following his parents, who had found work in Dortmund. That makes him part of the second generation of Germany's so-called guest workers - migrants who were formally invited to work in West Germany as part of a government program.

An image of Hadi Kamisli (Photo: Karin Jäger/DW)
Hadi KamisliImage: DW/ K. Jäger

"At that time, no one thought about retirement," he says, adding, “Better to save in order to be able to deal with future problems.”

His father had done that, buying a house in Turkey with his savings. But the family didn't return. Kamisli's mother quickly recognized that Germany had become their home.

"In the past, it was normal to support relatives in Turkey. That doesn't work any more. We have to think of ourselves and save," Kamisli says.

Language and cultural barriers

Saving for retirement presented obstacles for Germany's Turkish community. Kamisli reports that many Turkish immigrants didn't trust German pension consultants and insurance agents. In addition, he says, the immigrants often couldn't understand essential information. It was typically available only in German or involved bureaucratic procedures difficult for outsiders to penetrate.

He believes most Turks living in Germany decided to have fewer children because of financial concerns. They also may have been unsure that the next generation would be eligible for work later on.

Today's third guest worker generation is more Internet savvy, which means that they can go online to get assistance and information. In that respect, they differ from the older generation - many of whom are now in need of help. Hasibe Ulubas is one of them. She arrived in Dortmund 42 years ago, two years after her husband got a job. The 64-year old has only moved once - to a smaller house on her street after she became a widow. Her husband was buried in Turkey, but she stayed in Germany because of her four children and her grandchildren. She has a particularly close relationship with her oldest daughter, Sevgi Ulubas.

Sevgi (left) and her mother Hasibe Ulubas (Photo: Karin Jäger/DW)
Sevgi (left) and Hasibe UlubasImage: DW/ K. Jäger

Sevgi has been her mother's translator - in government offices, and at the hospital or the lawyer's office - ever since she was a child. And she is still at her mother's side to speak for her.

"Dad worked for 20 years, and then he became ill for a long time and got a disability pension. But that wasn't enough to feed the family," she says.

Her mother had to take care of her father and work as a cleaning lady for two hours a day. Now she relies on welfare to survive in retirement.

Dimming prospects

Russian-German Mathilde Schmidt has faced a number of financial difficulties, but doesn't complain. She receives limited retirement benefits under German laws relating to foreign pensions, which apply to entitlements earned in the Soviet Union. The laws only apply to those who arrived in Germany before 1995. Schmidt is lucky because she arrived in 1993. "Thank god because all those who arrived after 1995 have to depend on social welfare because of the law change," she says.

An image of Mathilde Schmidt(Photo: Karin Jäger/DW)
Mathilde SchmidtImage: DW/ K. Jäger

Everyone in the club listens as Schmidt tells how she was taken to Siberia at age four. She had no money there as an adult. Today, she still doesn't have much money. But, she says, she has her freedom here - and several others nod.

Schmidt sees dimmer prospects for young people today, though. She's concerned about the prevalence of limited work contracts.

"They can neither take care of themselves nor a family or their parents," she says.

Setting a positive example

"One of the goals of the association is to educate and advise members early," says Viktoria Waltz, who heads the ViF association.

She's regularly able to bring in experts to talk about healthy nutrition and elderly care. The association members have also put together a brochure with important information about healthcare. It includes a registry of local doctors with foreign language skills. Questions on care, medicine, co-payments and power of attorney are answered.

One of the advantages for immigrants in Germany is the state's provision of preventative care as well as treatment and nursing as needed, says Ulubas.

The public sector will have to provide those services to even more people in the future. By 2020, two million immigrants will reach retirement age, and they will be in need of care. That fact earns a prominent place in the association's brochure - almost like a warning.