To make life easier for German Turks, locals try sharing their personal histories

Germans of Turkish descent often find little understanding between themselves and their Germanic peers – especially amid a contentious referendum in Turkey that has Berlin and Ankara at odds. Some are trying to jump-start dialogue between the groups.

Markus Schreiber/AP/File
The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin is illuminated as a Turkish national flag in reaction to a suicide attack at Istanbul's airport in June 2016. Today, tensions are running high in Germany's Turkish immigrant community prior to a referendum in their old home country on expanding the Turkish president's powers.

Berkant Bostan was born in Germany to Turkish parents. But when strangers ask Mr. Bostan where he’s from, they expect him to name his ancestral hometown. Many of his fellow German-born Turks define “home” as a place they only visit on summer vacations.

“I grew up in two different worlds,” says the 20-something Bostan. He’s one of at least three million German citizens with roots in Muslim Turkey, most of whom descended from a temporary-worker visa program. By far Germany’s largest minority group, Turks have a mixed integration story. There are German Turks thriving as politicians and artists, but there are also illiterate women living almost entirely cut off from mainstream German culture.

And while relations between ethnic Germans and Germans of Turkish origin have always been a bit tense, in recent years they've come under particular strain. Not only has Germany's influx of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East exacerbated tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims living there, it's also stirred nationalist sentiments that target Germans of Turkish origin.

This weekend also sees Turks voting on a referendum that would give President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian leader, sweeping new powers. And in his efforts to win over expatriate voters in Europe, Mr. Erdoğan has sparked a bitter war of words with European leadership – and a backlash from German society.

Yet in meeting rooms and hotels across Germany, strangers from both groups – ethnic Germans and Germans with Turkish roots – are being brought together and asked to share some of their most intimate life stories with each other, in an effort to bridge the longstanding divides between their communities. Since the end of the cold war, so-called “biography talks” have been used to find common ground – and to demystify some of the stereotypes feeding into tensions like those between Germans and Turks today.

“People need to listen, and to feel understood,” says Bostan. “Dialogue is the best tool we have.”

Turkish community in Germany

Germany's Turkish population first began to arrive in the 1960s, during an economic boom that outpaced its workforce. To address the imbalance, post-war West Germany welcomed thousands of “guest workers,” mostly from Turkey, giving them two-year permits to fill jobs in factories.

But two years wasn’t enough for Germany’s insatiable economy. The government extended visas, and allowed workers to bring their families. By the time the program ended with the 1973 global oil crash, roughly half the Turkish guest workers had settled in Germany. Today, roughly 5 percent of Germans have Turkish roots.

Some, like Bostan, thrive in post-secondary studies and engineering. Others seldom leave the ethnic ghettos seen in large German cities, where schools, restaurants, and religious sites cater solely to Turks, Kurds, and Armenians.

“Women in particular often didn’t go to school, and so they didn’t learn German. Allowing this was our biggest mistake,” says Astrid Wirtz, a journalist with Cologne’s Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper who has covered Germany’s Turkish communities for decades.

The vast majority of Turks in Germany came from poor, Anatolian villages — the same places whose voters have propelled Turkish President Erdoğan to multiple electoral victories. And Ankara's influence in Germany remains strong. Three-quarters of Germany’s 1,200 mosques are funded by an organization with close ties to the Turkish government, and many host Turkish-language social events and teachers that echo its nationalist viewpoint.

Germany has 1.4 million eligible Turkish voters, and while their turnout is low, 59 percent of votes cast in 2015 went to Erdoğan’s party, AKP, compared with 49.5 percent of overall votes. He’s counting on similar support Sunday in a constitutional referendum that would give him more powers over courts, laws, and term limits.

The proposals play into widespread German antipathy toward Erdoğan, whom they criticize for imprisoning journalists, quashing protests, and creating a cult of personality. And last month, Erdoğan accused Germany and the Netherlands of “Nazi practices” for banning his campaign rallies over fears they could incite riots towards other minorities.

It was the latest in months of tension. Following last July’s attempted coup, 40,000 Erdoğan supporters crowded Cologne’s riverside for a rally organized by his party. When Erdoğan blamed the Gülen movement – a one-time Erdoğan-allied Turkish political faction that he now sees as his primary antagonist – for fomenting Turkey’s unrest, pro-Erdoğan mobs in Germany stormed local schools associated with the movement.

“Our relations with Turkish-origin people here in Germany keep getting worse,” said Wirtz. “To reverse that trend, you have to start somewhere.”

Bonding with strangers

While the Turkish-German tensions are rooted in the '60s, a potential balm came several decades later from an unrelated source: Germany's reintegration in the '90s. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, all Germans were left with stereotypes of people from the opposite side. West Germans had watched defectors describe cruel, backwards communists. East Germans had been told that the capitalist west was still committing Nazi atrocities.

To try and undo those views, politician Axel Schmidt-Gödelitz brought small groups from each side to conference centers, hotels, and even castles starting in 1994. He had strangers spend a weekend together to hear about each others’ lives. Without interruption, and in sworn secrecy, each had 30 minutes to detail their life story, before the group asked questions for another 30 minutes.

A foundation has kept such talks going over the years, by providing training and videos to groups wanting to copy the format. Today, eight participants spend meals and breaks together, and can only access their phones at night in their individual dorms. To date, 2,200 people from each side of the wall have taken part in these talks.

In recent years, the "Gödelitzer model" has been applied to new cultural conflicts, including people living on both sides of the German-Polish border and between South Koreans and North Korean refugees.

And in 2011, groups started Gödelitzer talks for Germans and Turks. Now, 19 cities across Germany hold these meetings at least once a year.

Ms. Wirtz, the journalist, co-launched Cologne’s chapter four years ago. “People have more in common than they realize,” she says, clasping the laminated maps she uses when hosting talks. One shows Turkey, while the other spans Germany to the Russian border.

“The Turks have a migration story, but the Germans often also have a story about being displaced in the war, of being relocated to a defeated Germany where no one had enough to eat.”

‘I was so secure’

Gödelitzer meetings are completely closed to any but those sharing their experience. But Bostan offered up his own experience, from a weekend three years ago. He described growing up as the first son of Turkish immigrants: from navigating bureaucracy as a child because his parents couldn’t read German paperwork, to their expectations he would graduate from a top university.

Bostan felt a connection with a man with century-long roots in Germany, who raised his own siblings after both of their parents died in World War II. A Germanic woman recounted her father’s abusive behavior, which she blamed on the wartime trauma he witnessed.

“I never thought the effect of the war is so deep to the core of how some Germans feel,” said Bostan. Their honesty made him comfortable enough to recount painful memories of exclusion, like when his elementary school teacher made a big deal of bringing chicken to an otherwise pork barbecue, presuming he was Muslim.

“The majority don't accept you as a German. They see you with black hair, black eyes, and they think you must be Turkish or Kurdish.”

Saskia Dörr, a natural scientist from Bonn, said she felt nervous before sharing her life story with strangers at a Gödelitzer talk in 2015. But she quickly bonded with the group. “It was such a good, human encounter.”

Born to a construction worker and a housewife, Ms. Dörr recounted becoming the first college-educated person in the family. She also told her grandparents’ wartime memories of forming makeshift candies out of sugar rations for their children.

In exchange, she heard a young Turkish woman talk about the trade-offs of a family-centered culture, where her mother constantly supports her but limits her privacy. Dörr came to realize that while she felt her life seems unremarkable to Germans, most countries don’t have the wealth or social freedom for a construction worker’s daughter to earn a PhD.

“I learned a lot about how political situations really affect personal lives,” she said. “I’d never really reflected on this.”

Months later, the German government opened its borders to asylum seekers. Dörr leaped into action, rallying friends to volunteer, and get companies to sponsor refugee-integration programs.

“We had this societal discussion about why they are here, and should we bring them in. And I was so secure in my arguing, because I had these talks. I was so sure in my position – that it's necessary that we help those people.”

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