German-born Mesut Ozil’s footballing brilliance earned him headlines and wealth, but in the Ruhr, where his family settled, the future for immigrants is anything but rosy
The locals call it “Mesut’s ape-cage”, the fenced-off pitch on Olga Strasse in Gelsenkirchen where the German midfielder Mesut Ozil learned to kick a football. His is a success story that has inspired the German nation, earning him the nickname “multi-kulti kicker” for being the first national player from an immigrant background to have made it internationally, in a journey that has taken him from a scruffy, grey playground in the Ruhr valley, once a booming but now rundown part of the nation’s industrial heartland, to the heights of Real Madrid football club.
The district of Bismarck, to where Ozil’s grandfather moved as a gastarbeiter (migrant labourer) from his native Turkey 40 years ago, is nowadays typified by boarded-up shops, derelict apartment blocks, unimaginative graffiti and the popular “ape-cages” dotted around the residential areas.
“Our boy Mesut made it,” said Duran Uzunur, 69, sipping his way through a thick Turkish coffee in a cafe frequented by retired gastarbeiters. “Anyone who can get out of here does, but few succeed. When I arrived 36 years ago I was received with open arms and work was plentiful.” But now he said, following many factory closures and increasing numbers of companies moving operations abroad to reduce costs, there are few opportunities.
“Our youngsters are seen as a burden, and for most of them there’s no hope.” Mesut Ozil, he said, “is the exception to the rule”.
Ozil has been repeatedly upheld as the prime example of an immigrant success story since he took his place on last summer’s national World Cup team. Everyone, it seems, has sought to use him for their own political gain.
Chancellor Angela Merkel took full PR advantage of the player’s success, including an impromptu encounter with him in the team’s dressing room following Germany’s win over Turkey earlier this month. Meanwhile, the far-right NPD has labelled him a “plastic German” – an artificial, manufactured fake.
But behind the Ozil story is the untold narrative of a growing underclass of poorly-integrated, under-performing parents and children of foreign origin who are unemployed, under-achieving and increasingly dependent on the state.
It was they Merkel was referring to recently when she waded into a heated debate about immigration with her damning remark that Germany’s “multi-kulti” project had “utterly failed”. Betül Durmaz said she is glad that German politicians are “finally waking up to the fallacy of a dream”. The 42-year-old Turkish-German is a teacher at a secondary school in Neustadt, a district of Gelsenkirchen close to Bismarck, where 70% of pupils come from immigrant backgrounds. All of them are classed as having learning difficulties and most of them do not gain a school leaving certificate.
“The first generation of guest workers, like my parents who came here in the 1970s from Turkey, were much better integrated,” she said.
“They earned a living, they worked and lived alongside Germans, spoke German and they wanted themselves and their children to succeed.” She became a teacher; her brother, a successful actor.
Viewing her school as a microcosm of the rest of a country facing the problem of integrating the 9% of Germany’s residents who are of non-German origin, Durmaz said. “The success of integration is dependent on education, work and speaking the language, but the will to succeed in any of these areas amongst those with a migration background is missing.”
Durmaz, author of a bestselling book on the topic called Doner Kebab, Machos and Migration, a warts-and-all illustration of day-to-day life in her school, blamed the government and its “misguided education and integration policies” for the resulting stalemate.
“For years, successive German governments have held a romantic idea of multiculturalism, believing if they put the money into supporting foreigners wanting to work and live in Germany and give them every helping hand, they would be able to say ‘We’ve done our bit’.”
The trouble is, the government has not followed through sufficiently, she believed. “They should have set conditions,” said Durmaz. “They should tell those who refuse to take part in German language classes on offer, or whose children bunk off school, that there will be consequences, such as fines or the removal of certain benefits.”
Anyone wanting to investigate why official German policy has taken the direction it has, only has to look at history, and an enduring “guilt complex” linked to the Holocaust, she said. “German history has much to do with the fact that governments have turned a blind eye to the problems.”
The gastarbeiter system – which functioned on the basis that all Germans believed the workers would one day go home – functioned, said Durmaz, between the 1950s and 1970s, when the booming German economy was crying out for hardworking labourers.
“But now there’s no work for any of them, they live increasingly isolated from the rest of society, they don’t learn German and they increasingly define themselves through their religion because it’s all they’ve got to make them feel special.”
The results, she says, are to be seen in the playground, where she points out the clusters of children – Turks in one corner, Lebanese in another, a further, smaller group of German children huddled together, all speaking their own tongues. Their separation emphasises the sense of division.
“In fact, the German children are so much in the minority they often get insulted by the rest of them,” Durmaz said, adding that popular terms of abuse, are ‘Christians’ or ‘pork scoffers’, while the German children typically retort with the phrase ‘whore’s son’.
Recently politicians called for a “German-language only” rule to be introduced in all playgrounds, suggesting such a decree would hold the key to solving many of the problems of integration. Durmaz believed the playground rule would be counter-productive as well as unrealistic. But 75% of Germans questioned in a poll supported the idea.
The proposal was a knee-jerk reaction, to Merkel’s declaration that “multi-kulti had failed”, as well as the remark of another mainstream conservative politician that Germany was unable to cope with any more immigrants from Turkey and Arab lands, and the claim of a leading banker and Social Democrat that their presence was even “dumbing down” the nation.
To the horror of those who had liked to argue Germany was progressive in its integration policies, such sentiments have received widespread backing and fired up a frustrated section of German society that seems pleased its misgivings about immigration are finally being given a voice.
“Germans still haven’t come to terms with the fact that they’re now an immigrant country,” said Barbara John, a former integration commissioner for the Christian Democrats.
“It’s a chalice out of which they know they have to drink, but they’d do anything not to have to do so.
“But until they finally understand that the foreigners are not just guests who are going to go home one day, nothing will change.”