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Integration Debate

Jabeen Bhatti interviewed Ekin DeligözDecember 28, 2006

Ekin Deligöz made waves when she called for Turkish women to take off their headscarves. DW-WORLD.DE spoke with the Green Party parliamentarian about her life as an immigrant and how she sees the future of integration.

Ekin Deligöz's comments about the Muslim headscarf have led to death threatsImage: picture-alliance / scanpix

DW.WORLD.DE: How did you come to live in Germany?

Ekin Deligöz: I was living in a small town in the middle of Turkey with my grandparents when my mother, a teacher in Istanbul, was invited by the German government to teach Turkish children living in Germany. I moved with my mother to southern Bavaria when I was eight.

Did you integrate into the Turkish community in Germany?

At the beginning, yes. Because my mother was a teacher, she had a really high status in the community. There were always people coming into our house when they had some problems or needed help because she spoke German. She was something between a translator and social worker. Still, when I went to high school, to gymnasium -- as you know, the German system separates children at this age into three school tracks -- I was the only foreigner in my class and there were only about two or three in the whole school. As a result, I did not have a choice but to integrate.

Kopftuch Demonstration in Paris
France has banned headscarves in schoolsImage: AP

Why were you one of the few Turkish children to attend gymnasium?

I think it was because of my mother. She did all the small things that parents need to do, checking homework, talking with my teachers, working with me. She was always telling me I do not have any other chance as a woman in a foreign country other than to go and study, learn something.

My mother learned that from her parents. My grandmother was the one that really pushed her, telling her, ‘you have to go to school, it is very important for you. We are not very rich and the only way for you to get something out of your life is to be educated.’

In Turkey, parents really pay a lot to get their children into private schools and make an effort to ensure their children get an education. The Turkish people in Turkey are really doing a lot for their children’s education, more than the Turkish people in Germany.

Why did you want to be a politician?

I wanted to change the world. I grew up with people and with books about people who didn’t have any chances in life. I didn’t understand why I had such opportunities. For example, all my Turkish girlfriends were getting married at a time when I was still studying. One told me that she was getting married and that it was the end of her life. I asked her, ‘why, you love your husband.’ She told me to not be so naïve. I wanted to change the world for such girls and for others without a chance.

How do you see yourself? As German? As Turkish? As something in between? How do Germans see you?

I see myself as a Turkish-German. As for Germans, well I can do anything but I am still Turkish to them. If questions, for example, about Turkish politics come up, I am always asked as an expert. I say, look, I have studied in Germany, I have studied public administration here, the German system. Ask me about Germany, not about Turkey, it is not my chief issue. Sure I talk about the immigration stuff, but it is the immigration policy of Germany, not Turkey. People will actually talk to me about social policy, sometimes really complex stuff then the last question will inevitably be, what about the people from your homeland. And I reply, 'you are from my homeland.' But they never forget.

Terror Deutschland Ermittlung Fahndungsplakat Dschihad Hamad Bahn-Attentäter
Fears of Islamic extremism have risen since the failed bomb attacks in GermanyImage: AP

We all have to find our identity on our own. I don’t have any problem to say I am an immigrant in Germany. A part of me is, and will always be Turkish. And a huge part of myself, my thinking, is German. And it is okay to both. There is a richness in this. But the thing is, a lot of people think negatively about this. For example, German parents are doing a lot to ensure their children are bilingual. It is valued when it is German-English, or German-French but when it comes to Turkish, it becomes something very negative. It is the same with Russian.

Do you think that attitude will ever disappear? If not, how can true integration occur?

People coming to Germany as foreigners remain foreigners. And when they get the right to live here and work here, they are still not allowed to be a German. It took until 1999 before Germans admitted that we are a country of immigrants. Before, Germans always looked at immigrants as guests and guests have to go back. They didn’t realize that these people are not machines but people with families, with children who are growing up in Germany. For example, every fourth child in Berlin is of a foreign background. Still, in Germany, we give immigrants a lot but we don’t tell them that they are part of this country.

What about the Turkish community? Do they have a responsibility to try harder to integrate?

Yes but the thing is, they always have these negative experiences and are searching for an identity. In Turkey, we are not considered Turkish anymore but are the ones from Germany. In Germany, we are the ones from Turkey. And if the country you are living in doesn’t give you any signs of welcome, it is hard. Some decide to take responsibility and learn to fit in but some find other ways to create an identity, such as in religion for example. That gets dangerous when religion is used as an instrument to build a parallel society, an ethnic colony, a unit looking for separation. There is a responsibility in the communities themselves to say, our goal is not to be separated.

Erster Schultag in Frankreich
More than eight million Turks live in GermanyImage: AP

Also, Turkish parents have to change. They are caring in the wrong way. They are giving their children material security and doing their best but not pushing the most important thing, education. Many of the Turkish people living in Germany come from small towns in Turkey and are not educated themselves; some are even illiterate. As a result, they are not really capable of knowing how important education is for the future of their children. They don’t know how important it is to do the small things, to talk with children’s teachers, do homework together, even have a designated desk and books in the house.

How do you see the future of Germany in terms integration? Do you think things will improve?

I hope so. The most important thing will be to give young immigrants a chance, to give them an education a job, a future and optimism about the future. If we are not able to do that, we don’t have a chance. And we have to talk about immigrants as part of this country. But there also has to be greater investment in education for immigrants, for their children. For example, it is only the second year of our integration courses and we already have 50,000 more applications than courses. If you give people the opportunity, they use it. And we have to catch the children early. Ultimately, we are not in the position to lose even one of these children -- these are the future of Germany. We have to take responsibility for them.

How are you seen in the Turkish community?

There are a lot of people standing behind me, saying that it is important what I am saying. At the same time, there are also those who are against me and are very aggressive -- because what I say threatens their conservative positions.

You have taken a controversial position on headscarves that has led to death threats against you. Why take on such an explosive topic?

It hasn’t been easy, even within my own party. There is this tendency towards tolerance -- to accept and not ask questions. But if you are not asking questions, what about the girls? You have to ask questions and look behind doors because tolerance means not looking away. We live in Germany and what kind of chance do these girls have if we say it is okay to stay separate? Still, when you take such a position, you can be used by political conservatives who see the reaction and say, ‘see, all immigrants are like this and the only thing to do is send them home.’ But they are not able to see that there is no back to Turkey anymore.

Ekin Deligöz was born in Tokat, Turkey in 1971 and moved to Senden, Germany in 1979. After finishing gymnasium, she studied public administration in Constance and in Vienna. She joined the Green Party in 1989 and became a member of the Bundestag in 1998, where she has served as a spokesperson for child and family policy for her parliamentary group. She became a German citizen in 1997. She is married and has a child.