HAMBURG — Nuray ÇeÅŸme is leafing through her book while we meet in a café in central Hamburg. It is her intensely personal but highly political autobiography, as it tells the story of her upbringing in Germany as the daughter of Turkish immigrants.
She tells us the story of how she came to northwest Germany years ago and, for the first few years, lived in a Turkish parallel society. "I was with Turkish people at all times," she recalls. "I ate Turkish food and spoke and thought Turkish."
ÇeÅŸme then explains how she finally freed herself from life in this parallel society, and how difficult that was even though she arrived in Germany as an infant. Most people with her background never make the transition, she says.
ÇeÅŸme was born in the Turkish town of Balikesir. She was just six months old when she left her home. Together with her mother she moved to Germany where her father had been living as a guest worker for several years. They moved to Neumünster, where many Turkish guest workers lived. The Turks had an immense influence on the small city. Residents could buy Turkish goods in Turkish shops, get Turkish food, and hear Turkish being spoken everywhere.
"I had a good childhood there. I never felt alien, because I felt as if we lived in a Turkish town," says ÇeÅŸme. She learned to speak Turkish exclusively, only played with Turkish children, and held on to Turkish traditions. When she started going to primary school, at age six, she played with other Turkish children. She didn't even think about it: It was natural to her that she would stick to Turkish children.
If it had been up to her, things would have stayed like that. "There was no reason to change anything," she says. "Everything was going well."
But thing did change — not because ÇeÅŸme had a sudden epiphany, but because her parents insisted. Her parents had decided to stay in West Germany and now wanted their daughter to integrate as best as she could into local society. "My father always said: 'Make sure to mix with the Germans.'" He was one of the few to hold that opinion. Everyone else — his neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances — thought his opinion ridiculous. Even those who wanted to stay in West Germany. Why should his daughter be with Germans? Why should she not grow up normally? ÇeÅŸme's father was determined, though, and sent his daughter to a different secondary school, a school with a lot of German children.
At the new school, there were barely any Turkish children. ÇeÅŸme sat down next to a German girl and could not believe it when they became friends. "And through this wonderful new friendship I learned to speak German fluently — not just knowing a few bits and pieces," she recalls. "I learned to understand German customs and traditions and got to know other Germans because I wanted to."
ÇeÅŸme found more German friends and did an apprenticeship in one of the most German jobs possible when she graduated from secondary school: She became a tax accountant. And she loved being precise, calculable, orderly. "I feel at home in Germany, job-wise and otherwise," she says.
ÇeÅŸme's father always told her: "mix with the Germans." Photo — Facebook
Which is why she now wants to warn people. Integration may have worked in her case, she says. But only because her parents more or less forced her hand, and because later, she realized she wanted to integrate and made an effort. "But very few people have parents like mine and make an effort," she says.
There are no official statistics regarding integration. ÇeÅŸme estimates, nevertheless, that only about 40% of people with migratory backgrounds have integrated themselves into German society the way she did. She also thinks the percentage is dropping, that as time goes on, newcomers are even less likely to integrate.
"It's only natural. Even back then we had Turkish shops and goods and could feel at home," she says. This has only intensified. By now you have entire Turkish streetscapes with "mosques, travel agents, banks, cinemas, bakeries, restaurants," ÇeÅŸme explains.
"This causes people to feel comfortable and at home," she adds. But it also prevents them from adapting. And this trend is on the rise as there are more and more people with migratory backgrounds living in Germany, plus the refugees. "They have lived through horrendous experiences and will seek refuge in familiar things. That's exactly what I'd do," she says.
ÇeÅŸme admits that she doesn't have a general plan of action to tackle the integration issue. The status quo has take shape over the course of years and is unlikely to be changed quickly. Taking in refugees is, in her opinion, a humanitarian duty. These people did, after all, flee from bombs and war, needed protection and should be able to go to a part of town where they feel comfortable.
"But I am worried about their integration," she adds. "The more they're together in one place, the easier it will be for them in the short term because they have each other. But it will become harder in the long term."
ÇeÅŸme believes the first step is to acknowledge the issue, to talk about it publicly and stop pretending it doesn't exist. "We have to do so. We have to talk openly and honestly about the refugees and the already existing problems, which will only become more pronounced. It's something they failed to do with us.”