July 19, 2005
Germans quit Berlin school, sparking migrant debate
By Nicola Leske
BERLIN (Reuters) - Turkish, Arabic and Vietnamese fill the
air in the playground outside the Eberhard Klein school in
Berlin's Kreuzberg district, where German is a foreign
the district filled with immigrants just south of the
government quarter, giving it the distinction of being the only
state school in the country without any German children.
Reflecting Germany's at-times awkward relationship with its
large immigrant communities, the absence of any Germans in the
now-famous school has become a thorny political issue ahead of
an election expected in September.
While Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's center-left government
is proud of how it says it has modernized immigration laws,
conservatives criticize the lack of integration and spread of
"ghettos" in large cities such as Berlin, Cologne and Hamburg.
"You can live around here and never have to utter a word of
German -- there are Turkish shops, Turkish lawyers and Turkish
doctors," said Bernd Boettig, principal of the Eberhard Klein
school in the down-market Kreuzberg district.
Boettig said he tries to dissuade German parents who want
to register their children at his school and said the last four
German children left in 2004.
Studies show that German language skills decline once the
percentage of those who do not have a command of the language
rises above 20 percent in the classroom, Boettig explained.
He says integration hasn't worked.
"For a long time people figured migrant workers and their
children would eventually mix with Germans," he said. "But
let's face it, integration has failed. We could have steered it
20 or 25 years ago but now I really don't know what can be
The language of Goethe and Schiller is rarely heard outside
his classrooms. About 80 percent of the pupils are from Turkish
families. The remaining 20 percent come from Arab-speaking
countries, former Yugoslavia, Vietnam or Africa.
Boettig said it was a fact of life that Kreuzberg has its
ethnic diversity, adding it had enriched the city.
The bustling district is famous for its variety of foreign
restaurants and night clubs. Its trendy low-cost ethnic
neighborhoods are especially popular among German students.
"But once people start having children, they begin to move
away," Aliya Dirican said. The Turkish educator offers women
German classes at the school.
And Boettig admits he quickly loses patience when parents
of pupils come to see him and expect to have a Turkish-language
translator provided by the school.
"If the parents don't go through the trouble to learn
German, how should the children know any better?" Boettig said.
Germany boasts a large population of immigrants that began
arriving in the 1960s when the country was in need of laborers.
There are 7 million who hold foreign passports in Germany, but
an estimated 14 million of the country's 82 million population
are immigrants or children of immigrants.
The post-World War II "economic miracle" would not have
been possible without the "Gastarbeiter," or guest workers, who
came mostly from southern Europe or Turkey.
But because the conservative governments at the time
insisted Germany was not a country for immigration, little was
done to integrate the foreign workers because no one expected
them to settle permanently.
Although millions left Germany, many more have ended up
staying in the country.
Germany has been slow to realize that integration does not
come naturally and only recently passed new laws mandating that
immigrants take integration and language classes.
At the same time, some politicians have tried to capitalize
on public fears about an influx of economic migrants in the
face of high German unemployment.
For some, the Kreuzberg school is proof that immigrants
have isolated themselves and the development stokes fears of
foreign ghettos developing in German cities.
Boettig, the principal, concedes parts of Kreuzberg are
ghettos. He said many lack basic German language skills, which
is taught in the classrooms but rarely spoken outside.
"The children speak German with the teachers, but then turn
around and speak Turkish with their classmates," he said. "And
we all know the best way to master a language is to use it
among family and friends."
Berlin's adviser on immigrants, Guenter Piening, said there
will be more schools with dwindling numbers of Germans.
"It was foreseeable that sooner or later we would have a
school without any German children," Piening said. "I wouldn't
rule out that there will be more."
He said schools need to realize they need to adjust to a
diverse population in Berlin and cities such as Hamburg and
Frankfurt with large immigrant communities.
The key to integration is a proficient knowledge of German,
he said. "But of course, Berlin is somewhat cash-strapped,"
Piening said. "There is only so much you can do."
But the lack of German classmates at Eberhard Klein school
does not seem to bother the pupils.
"We have no problems with German pupils, with or without
them, it's OK for us," said Ihsan.