Unsung Heroes

From the Winter 2011/2012 Faith issue 

By Deborah Steinborn

HAMBURG—In 1982, a young Turkish immigrant named Kemal Sahin opened a new 430-square-foot gift shop on a busy commercial street in Aachen, Germany. Sahin didn’t want to start his own business, but he had to. It was his only chance to stay in the country. From a farm family in an isolated Anatolian mountain town in Turkey, Sahin arrived in Aachen as a teenager carrying nothing but an old suitcase, two packs of cigarettes, and some money pinned inside his jacket. He worked his way through university to earn an engineering degree on full scholarship. He’d thought this would lead to a good, entry-level job in German industry. “Instead,” he recalls, “they told me I had to leave.”

Since he was a foreigner, Sahin couldn’t obtain a work permit in his field regardless of education, skill, or talent. There was only one loophole. He could stay if he launched his own business. So at 27, with just 5,000 Deutsche marks (about $2,000) saved from menial summer jobs in a metal factory, he did exactly that.

Over the years, that simple shop where Sahin sold T-shirts, tablecloths, and prayer mats at rock-bottom prices evolved into what is today the largest Turkish-run business outside Turkey. Despite German resistance from many corners early on—locals refused to work for him, distributors wouldn’t work with him, banks wouldn’t lend to him—Sahinler Holding today dwarfs many German companies in its sector. It boasts more than €1.4 billion ($1.9 billion) in annual revenue and 12,000 employees in 27 subsidiaries scattered across 15 countries, including the United States.

Sahin’s rocky path to success is now legend for those who have heard the tale. A young man’s last-ditch effort to avert deportation turned into the third-largest fashion and textile producer in Europe. Some young Turkish-Germans cross the country to Aachen’s cobble-stoned streets, seeking his advice and encouragement. “Sahin was my role model,” says Veli Demirdizen, who emigrated from Turkey in the 1980s to study business and now owns his own multi-million euro clothing company here. “He still is.”


With a long-standing focus on the problems of Germany’s 3.5-million-strong Turkish minority, the community’s positive contributions remain in the shadows. When Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan visited Berlin in November for the 50th anniversary of the gastarbeiter (guest worker) labor agreement, he said Germany’s biggest immigration failure was that its “politicians do not acknowledge enough the integration of the three million Turks” living in the country.

That needs to change if the country is to prosper in the future. Unlike the United States or Britain, Germany flat-out denied being a country of immigration until recently. It chose instead to hope that the gastarbeiter who helped rebuild the country starting in the 1960s would eventually leave. As a result, Germans treated the ever-growing ethnic minorities as foreigners.

While German politicians still dance around the issue of integration, a select few Turkish Germans have set out on their own to change the mindsets of both ethnic and non-ethnic Germans. Ambitious Germans of Turkish background are quietly infiltrating professions that are at the core of the nation’s prosperity—politics, media, science, culture, sports, and certainly business—turning Germany into a truly multicultural nation. And they’re letting their brethren know that despite all obstacles, they can do the same.

Cem Oezdemir, the Swabian-born son of a guest worker from Tokat in Anatolia, is co-chair of Germany’s Green Party. Fatih Akin, born in Hamburg to Turkish migrants, is an internationally acclaimed film director. Mesut Oezil, a third-generation Turkish-German, achieved global fame as star soccer player on the country’s first-ever multicultural team during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Ali Guengoermues, who emigrated from Tunceli at 10, is the first chef of Turkish background to win a coveted Michelin star. Even those who aren’t at the forefront bring new dynamism to the country. German Turks contribute an estimated €35 billion annually to the domestic economy, according to the Turkish-German Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Cologne.

Their widespread achievements as entrepreneurs and businessmen prompted an in-depth study of 150 mid-sized Turkish-German companies by the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Turks in Germany are still most often associated with the image of the 1960s guest worker, yet over the past 50 years they have become an important part of German society, culture, and business,” says Norbert Winkeljohann, chairman of PwC Germany, adding that second- and third-generation Turkish Germans “have moved from society’s edges to its center. In some cases, they’ve worked their way to the top of the economy.”

Yet the success of this comparatively small but growing number of Turks in Germany is nearly invisible to the public as they focus on other migrants and their offspring who struggle to find a role in the local society. It’s time for Germans to accept the contributions Turks have made to their adopted country. Otherwise, the economy could suffer in the long term as young, ambitious German Turks move back to Turkey or to more welcoming locations elsewhere in Europe.


Half a century after the first guest workers from Turkey arrived at airports, train stations, and bus depots throughout West Germany, the public mindset is still stuck on the stereotype of migrants and their children who fail to learn the language, live off public services, and shun German culture.

Last year, a book by Thilo Sarrazin, a highly ranked central bank official and Social Democratic Party member, hit number one on the national bestseller list, accusing Muslim immigrants, particularly Turks, of dragging down German society. The book, Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab (Germany Abolishes Itself), claims Germany’s Turkish minority refuses to integrate, lacks intelligence, relies far more on social services than other groups, and is overwhelming the country by breeding too fast. “I do not have to acknowledge anyone who lives by welfare … refuses to care for the education of his children, and constantly produces new little headscarf-girls,” Sarrazin told the cultural magazine Lettre International shortly before the book’s release, erroneously adding, “This holds true for 70 percent of the Turkish population in Berlin.”

Sarrazin was dismissed from his post at the central bank, but Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab’s first edition sold out within a day. It has since become the most popular book on politics by a German-language author in a decade. European integration experts are concerned about public reaction to the book. National polls in the months following its release found that Germans sympathize with the thrust of its arguments. Almost half the country’s population, liberal Democrats included, agrees with Sarrazin’s political views. What’s more, 18 percent of Germans would vote for a political party headed by Sarrazin if he started one, according to a poll by the Emnid research group.

Yunus Ulusoy, who emigrated from Turkey as a small child, doesn’t downplay the problems of Germany’s Turkish community. The integration project manager at the Center for Turkish Studies, University of Duisburg-Essen, says many older migrants still resist the local culture though they’ve lived in Germany for 30 or 40 years. Some children of migrants can’t find work, or don’t really search for it. And the two very different cultures, not to mention religions, clash easily. A recent study by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development found that Turks are Germany’s most poorly integrated immigrants by far. “Persons with a Turkish background are making very little headway in mixing with the majority German population,” a summary of the study notes. “The consequence is the emergence of parallel societies, a development highly unconducive to integration.”

What’s really at issue, though, is that public discourse can’t get past the negative aspects. “Immigrants are an easy scapegoat for the country’s woes,” Ulusoy says. “But we need to continually reinforce the message that despite its difficulties, a multicultural society also brings us opportunities.”

Germany’s top political figures have been unable or unwilling to convey that message. When Sarrazin’s book rekindled mainstream anti-immigrant sentiment last year, Chancellor Angela Merkel fanned the flames. In a speech delivered in Potsdam, she claimed that Germany’s attempt to create a multicultural society “has utterly failed” and that not enough had been asked of the country’ immigrants in the past. Her statement might have been well intended, but it certainly wasn’t interpreted that way.

For Turkish Germans like the textile entrepreneur Sahin, Sarrazin’s racist sentiments and even Merkel’s obtuse comments are unacceptable. Sahin recalls the resistance he encountered when starting his business in the 1980s. “Germans classified us as menial workers and nothing more,” he says. Among many Germans, that same attitude still exists, he adds. Now in their third generation, German Turks are still more often than not classified as foreigners by the mainstream.

“Politicians need to stop cultivating prejudices just to aid their own popularity,” stresses Sahin. “We have to give migrants and their children the feeling that they belong, and that has to start at the political level before things really change.”


Growing up in a leafy, predominantly ethnic German suburb in the 1980s, Asli Bayram had a hard time fitting in. Bayram, who became the first Miss Germany of Turkish heritage six years ago, was born in Darmstadt to Turkish parents in 1981. Partly as a result, she defines herself as neither Turkish nor German. “I have something of both cultures,” she says, “and that’s a good thing.” Today, that “neither here nor there” identity so defines her that she titled her autobiography Grenzgaengerin: Leben Zwischen den Welten, or Border Crosser: Living Between Worlds.

Bayram’s parents emigrated from Turkey well before she was born. They wanted a better life for their children than their homeland could offer. Over time, her father founded a small import-export company, then went back to school in the hopes of studying medicine. Her mother helped out in the office while raising their five children. Both parents imparted their own culture and religion to Bayram and her siblings, but they also stressed the importance of being part of the local community. Her father intentionally located the family in a good, if homogenous, neighborhood with a reputation for strong public schools. Bayram was the only non-ethnic German in her grade school class.

As a schoolgirl in the 1980s and early 1990s, “I always felt like I had to work twice as hard as other kids in class in order to prove myself,” Bayram recalls. “Some teachers were extremely nice, but others were brutal. They pulled on my hair, told me to go back to Turkey. It was tough.”

Then, one winter evening when she was 12, Bayram answered the door to her family’s apartment to face a man she recognized from the neighborhood. He had often yelled at Bayram and her siblings, referring to them in passing as “that pack of Turks.” The neighbor pulled out a gun and shot at Bayram. Her father pushed her out of the way just in time, and she escaped with a gunshot wound to the arm. But Bayram’s father, who took a bullet while shielding her, bled to death in the apartment hallway. The neighbor, a supporter of the German radical right-wing movement, was later arrested and tried. Sentenced to nine years for manslaughter, he was released from prison early for good behavior.

Despite that harrowing experience, Bayram’s family stayed in Germany. These days, she declines to talk about events surrounding her father’s death. She doesn’t want her past to overshadow the present or future. Nonetheless, Bayram’s history motivates her. In 2005, she was studying to become a human rights lawyer when, on a whim, she entered the national beauty pageant. In her book, Bayram recalls the decision to enter. “I knew that if I won the title, I’d be able to send a message to all women of Turkish heritage in Germany: ‘Look! We can do this, too!’”

Bayram won. She began to get offers for film and theater roles after that. Bayram’s three sisters went on to become attorneys, but she eventually broke off her studies to pursue acting full-time. She now tries to change misconceptions about minorities through art and believes that doing so can help create a truly multicultural society. She seeks out only serious film and theater projects. Often, they address human rights, social divisions, and marginalized ethnicities. She received Europe-wide acclaim for a 2007 theatrical performance as Anne Frank in Luxembourg. More recently, she played the lead in the film Shanghai Gypsy, the intercultural love story of an Italian and a Roma that will be released in 2012. Her most recent project is the starring role in Body Complete, a film about the ethnic-cleansing massacres of the 1990s war in Bosnia.  

“The more projects of this nature that are produced, the better,” Bayram says. “My hope is that they will change the public perception of minorities in Europe, particularly in Germany. There is simply too much negative propaganda.” If a book like Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab can become a bestseller and find followers even among well-educated middle-class Germans, Bayram stresses, “it’s obvious that a lot still must be done to connect our cultures.”

Indeed, Bayram, like Sahin, hopes that through her own work, the German mainstream will finally recognize the accomplishments of its minorities—not just their problems. Likewise, she wants to send a message to younger German Turks, particularly women, that they have the same opportunities as ethnic Germans. To that end, she regularly visits elementary and middle schools throughout Germany to talk with minority students about her life and to work and counsel them on theirs.


In the early 1960s, when Germany began to recruit laborers, overwhelmingly from Turkey, policy makers had no idea their country would eventually house 3.5 million Turks, making them Europe’s largest immigrant community. Their thoughts were focused on the short term. The Berlin Wall’s construction in 1961 had halted overnight the flow of workers from the east, and new sources of labor had to be found quickly to support a booming West Germany. At the same time, Turkey was suffering from high population growth and mass unemployment, and its populace desperately sought new opportunities for work.

Signed on October 31, 1961, the labor-recruitment pact between the two countries sent hundreds of thousands of Turks northward as gastarbeiter. These guest workers were meant to help build West Germany’s economic miracle by filling low-skilled jobs locals didn’t want. By 1973, almost 870,000 Turkish guest workers had arrived in West Germany.

New arrivals came mainly from poor, remote regions of Turkey. They often couldn’t read or write well, let alone speak German, making it difficult for them to participate in society. But at the time, locals didn’t mind. Most guest workers lived together in dormitories near the factories where they worked. Few Germans expected them to stay forever, and many homesick Turks hoped they wouldn’t. When the guest workers stayed, though, German politicians made little to no effort to integrate them. By the mid-1970s, the trend was toward permanent residence. Politicians reacted with contradictory plans at best. In the 1980s, they began offering Turkish guest workers lump sums of roughly 10,000 Deutsche marks to return home, but the offer fell flat. Just 13,000 individuals accepted.

Politically and legally, Germany held fast to its closed-door policies, though in reality, it had long since become a country of immigration. The failure to address its growing Turkish population only fueled xenophobic sentiments. More and more Turkish families set down roots— opening shops or starting businesses, having family members join them, and sending their children to local schools. Meanwhile, many ethnic Germans grew increasingly resentful. In the 1990s, a wave of racial street violence including arson attacks claimed the lives of numerous Turks in both the former East and West Germany.

Until just a few years ago, most German Turks—whether model citizens or the exact opposite—remained Turks on paper. In 2000, the government revised its nationality law to grant automatic citizenship to children born to foreigners in Germany on the condition that at least one parent had resided legally in the country for eight years or more. Previously, the naturalization of foreigners was governed by a nationality act dating back to 1913. So while Turks who migrated to Britain became well-integrated and successful citizens there, rising in the ranks of business, media, and politics (the mayor of London is of Turkish descent), even third generation Turks in Germany remained immigrants.

“These people all helped to rebuild Germany. They weren’t refugees, they were invited here to help,” Bayram says. “The country has had 50 years to really welcome and integrate these immigrants, and it hasn’t happened yet.”


Germany “can no longer exclude anyone from this society, not a single migrant who knocks on our door,” says Ismail Tipi, a well-known Turkish-German politician in the state of Hesse. “We don’t have the luxury anymore to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’.” The ethnic German population is aging and shrinking, and a labor shortage looms once again as a result. More and more, migrants will be fueling its society in the future, he says. “Germans need to learn from past mistakes when it comes to integration, and migrants need to stop acting as spectators in their new homeland. We have to work actively on both ends.”

Tipi speaks from experience. In the 1960s, his father was an entrepreneur in Izmir, Turkey. The family led a comfortable life in the scenic port city on the Aegean Sea. But an industrial fire in 1968 wiped out the family business. Tipi’s father decided to start over elsewhere, signing up as a guest worker at a Siemens factory in the southern German city of Regensburg.

“My father was clear from the very start that Germany was to be our new home, and that made all the difference,” recalls Tipi, now 52. “He didn’t want us to feel torn between the two countries, or to think our life in Germany was temporary. We would have felt like strangers in a foreign land forever.”

So unlike other guest workers at the Siemens factory, Tipi’s father quickly left dormitory life for a modest home in Zeitlarn, a Regensburg suburb. Tipi and his siblings followed their parents four years later. They attended German school from day one, speaking only a few words such as “grüß gott” (a Christian greeting used in the south) and “dankeschön” (thank you). Tipi joined the local soccer club his first week there, slowly found friends, and settled into his new life as a German resident.

“I never forgot where I had come from,” recalls Tipi, “and from early on I felt I had to work much harder than my compatriots to accomplish anything. But these were all blessings.”

In 1995 Tipi applied for, and received, German citizenship. He joined the Christian Democratic Union and has been actively involved in local politics ever since. By 2010, he had become the first conservative member of Hesse’s state parliament with a Turkish background. Now, Tipi uses his political role to spread his convictions about integration to both Germans and immigrants. When meeting immigrant groups—whether in his own voting district or further afield—Tipi stresses what he believes are the three most important keys to successful integration. Learn the language. Develop job skills—computer, mechanical, vocational. And get involved in your new world. “Without all three keys, you won’t get through the door,” Tipi says. “Politics and policies aside, these three things are absolutely essential to integration. With them, anyone can make their way right to the center of society.”       

To that end, Tipi has helped introduce to his state a career support program called “Meslek Altin Bileziktir,” (loosely translated, “A career is a golden charm”). The program, first launched in Cologne in 2003 by several Turkish organizations and the local employment office, assists Turkish youth who don’t make it to university level to acquire vocational skills. Many German Turks of the younger generation, especially those living in tough ethnic enclaves such as Berlin’s Neukölln district, struggle to find jobs given a lack of vocational and, sometimes, language skills. The career support program, which has spread to several other states in the past few years, aims to change that. Twice a month, a team of professionals and academics offers workshops on the importance of career qualifications to Turkish youth and their parents.

The program has connected many youths to skills-training programs, internships, and jobs. Their parents have realized the importance of education in fostering a career. And Tipi has gotten the message across that Germany offers opportunities for ethnic Germans and those with migration backgrounds alike.


In a sense, Merkel made a valid point late last year when she said Germany’s integration efforts have failed. The general public mindset in Germany today remains dismissive of multiculturalism.
Many German citizens still refuse to accept the migrants who have become their neighbors, colleagues, and classmates. Yet in historical perspective, Turkish Germans are more integrated than ever. Witness Sahin, Bayram, and Tipi as well as the some 80,000 Turkish-German businesses that contribute billions of euros each year to the German economy. For those Germans who haven’t done so yet, it’s time to begin accepting migrants, their children and grandchildren as “one of us.” Otherwise, the economy and society will suffer as successful Turkish Germans head back to Turkey or to opportunities elsewhere in the world.

Germany already risks losing a younger generation of well-educated Turkish Germans who would forsake the nation they have grown up calling home. In recent years, a business and cultural brain drain has set in, largely ignored by the public. Last year, according to the German Statistics Office, 8,159 more Turkish nationals left Germany than moved there. There have been net outflows of Turks since 2006. Research by the Institute of European Studies at Istanbul Bilgi University shows educated, highly skilled young professionals are among them.

Futureorg, a group based in Krefeld, recently surveyed 250 Turkish and German-Turkish professionals with university degrees or higher, most of whom were born and raised in Germany. Almost 40 percent said they planned to move to Turkey in the near future. Granted, Turkey is currently in the midst of an economic boom. Gross domestic product grew 9 percent last year compared with just 3.6 percent in Germany. That strong market, and the opportunities that come along with it, is certainly a factor. But, according to Futureorg’s survey, of those Turkish Germans wishing to emigrate, 42 percent claimed it was due primarily to not feeling at home in Germany.

In some respects, a lot has changed over the past five decades. When a motivated young man named Kemal Sahin received his engineering degree from Aachen University in the early 1980s, he was told he’d have to leave the country. Back then, Sahin fought hard to stay. Nowadays, many young, ambitious German Turks with similar degrees see more opportunities back in Turkey. It’s very much in Germany’s interest, however, to find a way to keep that talent at home.



Deborah Steinborn is a freelance writer based in Hamburg and a former contributing editor of Forbes.

[Photo: Frank M. Rafik ]

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