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Stratified Belonging, Layered Subjectivities

Zong Yao Edison Yap

4. Findings I: Concentric and Stratified Discriminations

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4.1 The Same but Different: Turkish Guest Workers and the 2015 “Refugee Crisis”

1As of 30 June 2019, one third of Berlin’s 3.7 million residents had a migration background – i.e. when the resident or at least one of his or her parents is not a German citizen. The largest immigrant group is of Turkish descent, followed by people from the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, Poland, and former Yugoslav states (BAMF, 2017; B.Z./DPA, 2018).

2Turkish guest workers first came to West Germany after a worker recruitment agreement was signed in 1961 to support the West Germany’s post-war economic boom. At that time, neither guest workers nor Germans expected the Turks to remain long-term. Consequently, the West German government did not develop any specific policies for these temporary “guests” other than the setting up of information centres. Later, in 1971, then-chancellor Willy Brandt questioned West Germany’s absorptive capacity for guest workers and imposed a ban on recruitment in 1973 against the backdrop of the OPEC oil crisis. While roughly half of the Turkish guest workers returned home, the rest remained and brought over their families and culture. This is best encapsulated in a statement made by Swiss writer Max Frisch: “We called for workers, but people came instead” (“Man hat Arbeitskräfte gerufen, und es kommen Menschen”) (Seiler, 1965).

3Even as the government allowed Turks to remain and even facilitated family reunification, it did not institute long-term policies for their integration. In 1979, the West German government ignored a slew of proposals made by its first commissioner for foreigners, Heinz Kühn, to integrate guest workers and their families. Instead, West Germany increased restrictions on family resettlement and tried to incentivise Turkish residents to return home. Few Turks, however, took up the offer (Danisman, 2011).

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4Today, around three million people of Turkish descent live in Germany and more than 200,000 reside in Berlin (Aydin, 2018). The decision to permit a large number of Turkish immigrants in a short time span coupled with the lack of robust policies to accommodate their influx and long-term settlement have produced a Parallelgesellschaft (parallel society) in Berlin – and across Germany. A 2018 study by the Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen1, a German non-profit television broadcaster, found that while 66% of Turks feel well-integrated in Germany, only 38% of other Germans feel Turks are well-integrated. Additionally, more than half of Turks in Germany believe that the relationship between Turks and Germans had deteriorated. The situation appears bleaker as one assesses Turks’ structural integration based on education and employment. Among Turks in Germany, 62% believe that they do not receive the same opportunities in school as do their German counterparts, and three-quarters feel similarly disadvantaged in the workplace. The younger the respondents, the more negative their outlook: 83% of Turks under the age of 30 feel discriminated against in their professional lives (Vieth, 2018). Taking the above figures collectively, the disparity in perceptions of Turkish integration (66% by Turks versus 38% by Germans) as well as strong perceptions of structural discrimination support socio-psychological theories by showing the emergence of a positive social identity and collective self-esteem in the face of discrimination (Hogg, 2006; Tajfel, 2010).

5Following the implementation of Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, 55,000 asylum seekers found refuge in Berlin in 2015; their numbers have dwindled to 7,280 in 2018 (Kiesel & Piontek, 2019). However, while the numbers have subsided – especially with the EU-Turkey deal – Germany is once again confronted with the same issue it faced with respect to the guest workers: the integration of a large number of people within a short time span (European Commission, 2015). In the post-2015 era, the issue of integration is made more complex for Turkish and Arab immigrants and their descendants, many of whom have established their footprints in Berlin’s culture and cityscape.

6Chapter 3 offered insights into how Turks in Berlin experienced a troubled sense of belonging, their responses to it, and how experiences of discrimination affect integration (Mandel, 2008; Uslucan & Yalcin, 2012). This chapter first describes the common ways in which my interlocutors have experienced discrimination in Berlin, and then examines factors which help sustain or propagate discrimination. Here, it is useful to recall that I did not offer a definition of discrimination to my interviewees, because I would like their own experiences to define the contours of discrimination as they see it. By looking at the forces perpetuating discrimination, the section underlines the high degree of complexity inherent in constructing refugees’ and migrants’ sense of belonging.

7At the end of the chapter, I offer a critical reflection of how the refugees’ experiences with discrimination might differ from those of other migrants. By doing so, I hope to demonstrate not only the cross-cutting nature of the discrimination experiences among migrant communities in Berlin, but also the multiple entry points through which a non-white refugee or migrant could experience discrimination.

4.2 Common Forms of Discrimination Experienced in Berlin

8Through the interviews with my interlocutors, six forms of discrimination emerged as most commonly experienced among them – importantly, these are not exhaustive and cannot be taken as representative of the multitude of discrimination types experienced by refugees and migrants. They include: (i) being “Othered” by virtue of being non-white, (ii) being identified in relation to the creation of hierarchies and categories, (iii) being homogenised, (iv) being fetishised, (v) being discriminated against during the search for housing, and (vi) facing structural discrimination.

4.2.1 The Non-White Other

9There is a plethora of markers of identity for Otherness in Berlin: this can range from one’s appearance, ethnicity, last name, or accent, to the donning of a headscarf. Through these markers of differentiation, the interviewees experienced discrimination in their everyday life. Looking and Speaking Different and Having a Non-German Name

10The troubled sense of belonging faced by Turkish Germans has been extensively examined in Ruth Mandel’s Cosmopolitan Anxieties. One decade since the publication of her book, my findings show that this sentiment remains relevant. Selim is a 31-year-old Turkish German whose grandparents were guest workers. Selim currently lives with his family in Spandau – a district outside central Berlin – and recently graduated with a master’s degree in Public Management. Selim recounted two encounters with discrimination he often faced in Berlin; the first relates to him being rejected at a Berlin club, and the other relates to his Turkish name:

Most of my friends are Turkish. Normally it’s already difficult to get into a club. But if you are Turkish, it is even harder. For example... we were a group of six to seven men, some Turkish and some Irish. The tourists all got in and we were right behind them. Then the bouncer said, “Where are you from?” My friend asked: “Oh, what do you mean? You want to know if I come from Spandau or if my parents are from Turkey?” My friend answered, “I come from Berlin.” And then the bouncer said, “No, no, no. You are not from Berlin. You have to leave”. The club scene is the most discriminatory place in Berlin. Because there’s always someone who would tell you that you are Turkish even if you are German and were born here...

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11Selim’s commentary on the exclusivity of Berlin’s clubs is largely accurate. Having spent a few years living in Berlin, I can attest to the fact that Berlin’s techno clubs are frustratingly selective: getting into a famous club requires not just the right alternative “look” and “attitude”, but also a host of other factors such as the gender composition in one’s group of friends, ethnicity, outfit, and so on.2

12Later on, Selim shared that he had also encountered subtler forms of discrimination (or microaggression) as a result of his Turkish last name:

Sometimes people are racist to me. Like yesterday, at the ADAC, the German Automobile Club… I called them because something in my car was broken. The phone operator wanted to know my name. And I then gave her my name and address. Then she responded: “Oh, your name is ‘Selim’? You speak perfect German!” I wanted to say that: “Yeah, obviously, because I was born and raised here.”

13Selim’s experience shows how his visible and audible Turkish-ness through his appearance and first name had cast him outside German society as the “Other” – neither being born in Berlin nor being able to speak fluent German earned him a place as a “true” German citizen.

14Another German of Turkish descent, Cemal, shared Selim’s experience. Cemal’s father is German, and his mother is Turkish. Earlier in the year, a ticket machine at the Bahnhof had accepted his money without issuing a ticket; because of that, Cemal had to get his 60 Euros refund from the ticket office:

When I showed my ID to this blonde middle-aged woman, she commented on my name – which I found irritating. My first name is Turkish, and my last name is German. She commented on my mixed heritage and suggested that it was odd.”

15Cemal acknowledged the privilege that his half-German-ness had afforded him. When asked whether his fluent German and German citizenship helped him evade some forms of discrimination, he answered:

Oh yes, for sure. It really has to do with how much you have to interact with some people. If you have to go to the Ausländerbehörde [Berlin’s Immigration Office] often because of your visa status, depending on your background, you can be treated differently. This is why I am very privileged, because I don’t need a visa to live here.

16Hence, while certain qualities such as citizenship and language proficiency can help Germans Turks circumvent some forms of discrimination in everyday life, others – such as their last names and physical appearance as a non-white German – are immutable and cannot. This underscores the limits to German Turks’ belonging in Berlin as well as the centrality of “whiteness” as a marker of German-ness. As a minority located at the periphery of German society, non-white Germans and migrants will always be measured against the dominant culture and society and will always be at the receiving end of Germans’ flexible positionality. In short, one’s belongingness will always depend on which dimension of desirability white Germans are measuring them against.

17Selim offered a recent controversy involving Arsenal Club footballer Mesut Özil at the FIFA World Cup 2018 games which aptly captures a form of this flexible positionality. In May 2018, Özil, a German whose father came from Turkey as a guest worker, met Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and took a photo with the leader in the lead-up to the Turkish general election and before the FIFA World Cup, in which he played for Germany. The meeting drew widespread criticisms from Germans who questioned Özil’s loyalty to the country. Following Germany’s early crashing-out of the World Cup, Özil addressed the controversy on social media and called German media outlets out for their double standards based on his Turkish background. Özil mentioned that Lothar Matthäus, captain of the West German team during the 1990 World Cup (which Germany had won), had met with Russian President Vladimir Putin shortly before, but that episode received “almost no media criticism.” Özil later criticised the president of the German Football Association, Reinhard Grindel, and his supporters:

In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose. (Pearson, 2018)

18The headscarf [Kopftuch in German] has been a long-time site of contestation over competing visions of freedom, modernity, and security between Europe and the Islamic world. The topic has frequently appeared in political and public discourse through the neo-colonial impetus to save Muslim women from their “hypersexual” male counterparts and patriarchy as well as through the goal of attaining security in the public sphere at a time of heightened fear against terrorist attacks by Islamists (Abu-Lughod, 2002; Said, 1978).

19For Muslim women in Berlin, the Kopftuch further marks them as the foreign Other who is perceived as an affront to the Western or European championing of freedom and equality. While one of my interviewees, Wathira, a Syrian refugee who wore the Kopftuch, had never faced significant discrimination over her headdress in Germany, most of my respondents brought up the issue of Kopftuch and said that the headscarf does impede Muslim women’s experience in the job market and social life.

20One of Khaled’s friends, who is a Syrian refugee wearing the Kopftuch, was advised by the Jobcentre in Berlin to remove her headscarf as German clients would not like it. Khaled also witnessed his friend receiving uncomfortable looks and racist remarks when both of them were walking along the streets in Berlin. Khaled told me that all his female refugee friends eventually removed their headscarves because “they just wanted more opportunities” and “felt that the headscarf marked them out to be discriminated against.”

21Mohamed confirmed Khaled’s account and said that all his female friends wearing the Kopftuch had had negative experiences in Berlin whether it be racist remarks and weird glares in public or discrimination at the workplace or in school. Unlike Khaled’s friends however – which highlights again the diversity and different subjectivities among refugees – just “two out of a hundred” of Mohamed’s friends succumbed to this discrimination and removed their Kopftuch. Mohamed’s wife had initially wanted to be a kindergarten teacher but “she could not because she insisted on wearing the Kopftuch.”

4.2.2 Categories and Hierarchies of Belonging Where are you from?

22As detailed in Chapter 2, I frequented a queer club in Berlin called SchwuZ to gain access to refugees who could be participants in my research. During one of these visits, I had a particularly tense exchange with a transgender refugee (referred to as TA) as, after greeting her and her friend (here referred to as TB) in Arabic, I proceeded to ask – out of courtesy – “min ayna anti?” (“where are you from?” in Arabic). As TB was about to respond, TA interjected aggressively and shouted “Warum? Was ist dein Problem! Warum ist unserer Herkunft wichtig?!” (“Why? What is your problem? Why is our origin important?!”). I instantly apologised, held her hand, and then apologised again. That instead made her snap and say, “Don’t touch me!” Then, both refugees stormed off.

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23That incident left me shocked for I never intended my inquiries to be read as intrusive. In the highly charged political environment where anti-immigrant sentiments have been heightened by the rise of the right-wing, the question “Where are you [really] from?” has come to connote something much more negative.3 In the case of refugees, their violent aversion to the question could be the result of fatigue from the asylum-seeking process where their origins are instrumental to legitimising or delegitimising their belongingness in Germany – Syrian asylum applications have an acceptance rate of over 99%, whereas the rates experienced by other nationalities could be much lower – or a fear that their nationalities or city/town of origin could reveal their sect or political allegiances (Deutsche Welle, 2017; Tinti & Reitano, 2017). The above certainly does not represent the issue adequately. Through the interviews I have had with refugees and migrants, the same aversion popped up frequently in complaints about discrimination.

24For Ali, a 27-year-old Egyptian who had lived in Berlin for two years before moving to the Bavarian city of Bamberg for his university studies, he was never posed that question in Berlin. When asked whether he faced any forms of discrimination during his time in Berlin, Ali answered:

In Bamberg it is different. The people there always ask me: “Where are you from?” But here in Berlin – no, they don't really care. It is okay with them.

25Compared to Berlin, Bamberg is a much smaller, more conservative German city with far fewer residents of immigration background. In the case of Ali, the highly international nature of Berlin as well as its large Arab/Turkish diaspora meant that his origin was questioned much less in Berlin than in Bamberg.

26For Sam a 28-year-old Syrian refugee of Palestinian heritage, he disliked being asked “Where are you from?” because of the host of stereotypes and associations that would come up once Germans knew that he is Syrian or Palestinian. Sam claimed that many Germans – “maybe 50%” – were afraid of Arabs because of the stereotypes they have of Arabs as terrorists. He recounted:

When I say Arab, they would reply with “Okay, are you a terrorist? You want to kill me? Are you a Muslim?” I am just Muslim on my identification card. Really… But when I say I am from Palestine or when I am from Syria, most of the people show pity…because I escaped from the Krieg [war]. Because a lot of Germans here know what happened in Syria. So, I have a lot of problems with this question.

27Many of the other refugees share Sam’s sentiments and rejection of pity from Germans. For them, the initial sympathy was tolerable. Its persistence, however, had become degrading and served only to reduce them to the status of perpetual abjection. To them, refugees are more than just victims. Evidently, the label of being Syrian, Palestinian, or a refugee is a burdensome one, for it is attached with stereotypes and erases all heterogeneity among them.

28To avoid such treatment, refugees like Ahmad, a 22-year-old Palestinian who grew up in Syria and whose family moved to the United Arab Emirates to seek better economic opportunities, avoided mentioning that they are Syrians. If there were a need to make his nationality known, Ahmad would first qualify that he is not a refugee [although his family members were Palestinian refugees in Syria] and would say that he came to Berlin with his own money and a student visa. When asked why he felt the need to do so, Ahmad explained:

The thing is, many people will start treating you differently the moment you say that you are a certain nationality. All these stereotypes will start to apply. Even if they don’t mean it, they still have it in them. People will ask “How did you come here?” … And if you tell them you are Syrian. they will start feeling sympathy for me. I don't want that. I want them to just treat me not based on any nationality or any trait. Discrimination from Turks in Berlin

29Another predominant form of discrimination I noted was the demarcation of who deserves to be German or to be in Germany. This occurs along two main axes –Turkish versus refugees and older Arabs versus post-2015 refugees – and these were frequently mentioned by refugees during our interviews. These two dimensions do not preclude discrimination among the Arab newcomers themselves, as illustrated by Ahmad’s case above.

30The central justification for Turks’ discrimination against refugees stems from the fact that their parents or grandparents had come to Germany as guest workers and had toiled and “(re-)built Germany”.

31Mohamed, a fellow colleague of mine when I was doing an internship at a refugee-related non-governmental organisation, had this to say:

As Arabs – Palestinians, Lebanese, or Syrians – we don’t have the same history. So we don’t proudly speak of our history here in Germany.

32Likewise, Canan, who is German-Turk, and Sarah, a Turkish-French immigrant, both agree that Turkish immigrants felt more deserving of a place in Germany because of their Gastarbeiter history. Borys, an Austrian who owns a queer bar in the district of Neukölln and who had volunteered at a clothes-distributing initiative for the refugees in 2015, recalled hearing the “mostly-Turkish security personnel” working at the refugee camps at the Berlin Tempelhof Airport telling refugees to “go back” because “there’s already enough of us in Germany.” Interestingly, at the same time as these Turkish security staff were separating themselves from refugees, their use of “us” underlines their shared identity among them – not just as immigrants in Berlin, but also as Muslims.

33An interesting finding I gained during my interview with Selim is the Turks’ use of curse words to discriminate against Arabs in Berlin – in a similar fashion to how Turks would call Germans Schweinefresser [pork eater; though “fresser” here connotes “to feed on” more than “to eat”] and how Germans would in the past refer to Turks (and to Jews during the time of National Socialism) as Knoblauchfresser [“garlic eater”] (Mandel, 2008). The word “Ibn” in Arabic language means “son” while “Walad” in Arabic means “children”. Selim mentioned that the Turks use the word “Ibne” to mean “gay” in a condescending way when referring to Arabs or an LGBT individual and “Waled” to mean “bastards” or “rascals” when referring to Arabs. According to him, “they [the Turks] could have used a Turkish word to refer to “gay” but they instead chose an Arabic word.” The Turks’ appropriation of Arabic words as a derogatory term against Arabs in Germany underlines an important point that victims of discrimination can or are themselves perpetrators of discrimination. Discrimination from Older Arab Immigrants

34Through my interviews with refugees in Berlin, one general pattern emerged which I initially had not expected: most of the refugees I interviewed had in fact experienced more discrimination from other early Arab immigrants – namely the Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrians – than from Germans or Turkish residents.

35For these Arab immigrants in Berlin who arrived as a result of the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990 or who were economic migrants from Syria, their hostility and discontent towards Arab refugees, based on the interviewees, are the result of two things: their perception of a reputational risk – that the newcomers had tarnished the image of Arabs and Muslims – and a sometimes misguided belief that refugees enjoyed more privileges due to the bigger welfare handouts they received.

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36Dana works at a Berlin-based NGO called “Flüchtlingspaten Syrien”, an organisation whose initial purpose was to gather donations to sponsor family reunifications to Berlin.4 Prior to moving to Berlin with her husband, Dana had worked at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Syria for many years. Her father, brother, and husband are all Syrian doctors who had moved to Berlin years before the 2015 refugee crisis. Dana’s positionality is particularly interesting because she occupied a privileged position as a middle-to-upper class Syrian immigrant in Germany who was well-integrated and whose social circle was largely composed of white Germans and she worked for a refugee-based NGO which dealt with Syrian refugees who enjoy few rights and face substantial marginalisation as a result of their status. Dana recalled what her brother, an educated Syrian, would say about the recent wave of Syrian refugees:

My brother would say that the Syrians who came before 2015 are very privileged. He would say: “A lot of Syrians who came… they tarnish our image.” He said to me: “I came here 15 years ago to Germany. I used to work part-time day and night. I used to learn day and night. And I had only a small room to study in. And you see now the Syrians... they have everything provided by the Jobcentre... they have everything for free like German courses.”

37So what did the “new generation” mean when they say “tarnish our reputation”? Khaled, a 29-year-old Syrian-born Palestinian who first came to Germany with a student visa and subsequently applied for asylum as a Syrian refugee, explained that the older wave of Arab immigrants “did not have the chance to integrate because the German government did not put in place policies to integrate them.” He added: “These older Turks and Arabs would always tell Syrians [refugees] now that they are very lucky because they get a lot of help and benefits.”

38Khaled gave the example of an older Syrian immigrant whom he had met at a German language proficiency exam and who blamed the German government for his lack of success in life because “there was no integration and Germany had so many bureaucratic issues”. “Because of that, [he] had to work in the black market.” Consequently, Khaled said that the discrimination he had witnessed was less about older Arabs telling newer refugees to leave Germany, but more about them telling new refugees that, given the substantial help they got from the German government, they had no excuse to not be fluent in German.

39A third dimension of older Arab immigrants’ dissatisfaction with recent refugees is rooted in economic competition. Mohamed is a 28-year-old Syrian refugee who had fled twice – first from Syria as a result of the war, and second from the Libyan war – shared how two Arab pastry shops, located just 600 metres apart along the famous street of Sonnenallee (also known as “Little Beirut” by some), had very different experiences while trying to set up their businesses there. The first shop had a much easier time as it took over a Turkish pastry shop, kept the shop name mostly unchanged (except for adding the term “Idlib” to quietly mark it as Syrian), and had the fervent support of the former Turkish owner. The second shop had a successful business back in Syria but despite having the financial resources and experience, it received hostile reaction from the adjacent shops and Arabs along Sonnenallee. The latter had its shopfront shattered twice and the business owner attributed the attacks to Arab gangs which run the area. According to Mohamed, the second shop persisted in its businesses despite the aggression it faced. With time, Mohamed said that the owner gained the acceptance of people in Sonnenallee because his flourishing business had increased human traffic to the street which benefitted everyone.

40On the one hand, the contrasting experience of the two pastry shops along Sonnenallee illustrates discrimination arising from feelings of economic threat from established Arab-Turkish businesses. On the other hand, earlier Arab immigrants who had already gained a foothold in Berlin resented the recent wave of refugees for the increased visibility, societal scrutiny, and collective discrimination that the refugee crisis had brought to the broader Arab and Turkish community in Berlin. As suggested in the methodology section, this so-called inference of a “collateral damage” on all Middle Eastern residents in Berlin would have been rendered more nuanced had I been able to interview the “older” Arab immigrants in Berlin.

4.2.3 Erasing Differences and Homogenising Arabs

41As mentioned earlier in this writing, refugees such as Sam have experienced discrimination as a result of Germans associating all Arabs or Muslims with terrorism or violence – this is a sentiment shared by most of the interviewees, whether of Turkish descent or a refugee. For Cemal, who is half-German and half-Turkish, he recalled the strong resentment he felt when Germans asked him for his opinions on Turkey’s EU accession talks, as if “[he were] representing the Turkish position on that topic.” Mohamed, who is a scholarship recipient at an American liberal arts college in Berlin, also faced the same discrimination in school. He reflected on how his professor and university would assume that all refugees knew one another and that “if they spoke to one of us, they would have spoken to all of us.” Migrants themselves can also be complicit in this homogenising act. It is common during my interviews to hear interviewees talk about or speaking for the “Arab culture”.

4.2.4 Fetishisation of Arabs

42Perhaps due to my closer relationship with Khaled he was more willing to share intimate details about his dating life. Khaled described how he resented being expected to perform certain stereotypes of an Arab man: he shared how he had been told by German girls to “seduce me like an Arab”, “fuck me like an Arab”, or “dance like an Arab.”

43Khaled’s experience closely reflects my own struggles in Berlin (and elsewhere in Europe) where my aggressive stance against the fetishization of Asian (queer) men as feminine, submissive, and shy had “offended” many Germans and Europeans and had sometimes been interpreted as being unnecessarily hypersensitive. Not adhering to these ready-made stereotypes inevitably portrayed me as difficult person – but succumbing to these expectations would also render me complicit in propagating very degrading stereotypes of queer Asian men.

4.2.5 Discrimination in Housing

44 In Berlin, it is exceedingly difficult to find a room in a shared apartment (a Wohngemeinschaft, or WG for short), let alone a studio apartment. Room searches can take up to three months even if one sends out 10 to 15 applications a day. The refugees interviewed for this research had either lived in refugee camps upon arrival and had moved on to find their own places in the housing market, or they had secured a student visa in Berlin before applying for asylum. Regardless, they all had undergone the terrifying room search experience and had experienced discrimination in the process. For Ali, while he was lucky to have circumvented the travails involved in the room search through paying an agent to do it on his behalf, he had heard from several of his friends that “Germans are preferred”. Sam, a 28-year-old Palestinian-turned-Syrian refugee, shared that opinion:

Whenever I answer them [the landlords] where I am from, the WG would prefer someone else because I am Arab or maybe because I am an Ausländer [foreigner]. I once sent out 102 emails and only got 2 replies. Then those two told me: “come here, I want to make an interview with you.” And after that I got rejected.

45Selim, a German-Turk who has lived in Berlin all his life, agreed with Sam’s account: “I know a lot of people with immigration background who faced a lot of problems finding a flat in Berlin and don’t get the flat or room they need.”

4.2.6 Structural Discrimination in the Labour Market and in School

46The literature review chapter defined structural discrimination as the “rules, norms routines, patterns of attitudes and behaviour in institutions and other societal structures that represent obstacles to groups or individuals in achieving the same rights and opportunities that are available to majority of the population” (Najcevska, 2009).

47Selim provided a clear example of structural discrimination in employment opportunities – something he discovered while performing qualitative interviews for his master’s dissertation. During one of these interviews, the respondent, who was a supervisor at a public library in Neukölln, mentioned that he had received 100 applications for vocational training and that he had passed these applications to his employees to perform the shortlisting. At the end of the shortlisting, the supervisor received 25 applications and saw that all of them were German applicants with German last names. Selim was puzzled by the fact that no non-German names had been selected. The respondent was likewise confused: “The office is in Neukölln, so how could it be that no one with a non-German name is on my desk?” The supervisor then went to review the other 75 applications and saw that most of the rejected applications had Arab or Turkish names.

48Selim added that many of his friends with migration backgrounds had struggled to find jobs or accommodation in Berlin because of their non-German names. He elaborated:

I have friends who proved that if they changed their name to a German one, they would get the flat. The landlord would say, “Okay no problem. Just come by to see the apartment or room.” I have a friend of mine who is Indonesian German and he told me that whenever he applies for anything, he would use his German name instead of his Indonesian one. Because he knows that there’s discrimination – especially for things that you don't see.

49Reflecting on the above, Selim said that it was precisely because of that persistent structural discrimination that his father had always taught him from a young age that, “[he had] to be better than the average German to get equal chances”. Selim also recalled a French language teacher from middle school who would tell him that his grades were too bad and that he would never make it to high school. “She never encouraged me”, he said.

50PJ, a Berlin resident and Singaporean I came to befriend when I first moved to Berlin in 2018, explained that the lack of representation of German Turks in the workplace is part of the reason why she had few Turkish friends in Berlin. PJ had worked in three tech-based start-ups and had this to say:

In all my workplaces, the Turks are severely underrepresented – even though there are a lot of them in Berlin. Somehow it feels like they are not getting the same kinds of jobs that I have. In all my jobs I have only met one guy who has German Turk background.

51Consequently, PJ’s interactions with German Turks were limited to “nothing more than späti [convenience store] uncles or supermarket aunts asking me to help them reach for something on the shelf”.

52At her workplace where she worked as a content manager, PJ complained that her supervisors would ask her to get her work “double-checked” by other colleagues who were from the United Kingdom or the United States – this, despite her being a native English speaker with more than 10 years of professional experience. PJ added:

I find that very offensive because it just shows how they perceive you. It is enough that my written English is excellent to a fault – but maybe because I have a little accent. I have been told that I have a very Asian accent. I don’t apologise for my accent. It is who I am… This “double-check your English” thing is very common. I notice that every Singaporean I know who has worked here has experienced that.

53For those who are not part of the referent – i.e. native white Germans – it is common to be reminded at the workplace or in school of their peripheral status in German society.

4.3 Factors Fuelling Discrimination in Berlin

54The preceding sections have outlined the ways in which the refugees and migrants I spoke with have experienced discrimination in Berlin. In this section, I examine the broader forces sustaining and fuelling discrimination in Berlin. These factors are diverse and multi-dimensional – not just in breadth and depth, but also spatially and historically. These may include individual reactions towards discrimination, such as simple acts of confirming stereotypes and justifying discrimination, societal level forces such as securitising discourses and socioeconomic inequalities, trans- or inter-national forces, and the indirect role of the media in stoking anti-immigration sentiments.

4.3.1 Individual Level Forces

55Two of the predominant ways in which my interlocutors have unintentionally perpetuated discrimination are (i) ignoring discriminatory acts or allowing their subjectivities to be ignored, and (ii) repeating tropes often used by Germans.

56In his anecdote about his experience at the German Automobile Club, Selim was irked by the lady’s remark that he as a Turkish German spoke fluent German. With respect to that microaggression, Selim had clearly been desensitised and had taken it in his stride: “I am not bothered by it anymore.” Such experience did not only apply to people of colour in Berlin but also to white non-German residents. Borys, the owner of a famous queer bar in Neukölln, is Austrian and had gotten used to Germans making fun of his Austrian accent:

You know I speak the same language. When I started my job, I called some people from the Jugendamt [a local agency working for youths’ welfare]. A woman picked up the call but remained quiet. She then said, “oh, please don’t stop talking. I feel like I am on my holiday because of your Austrian accent.” To her, I was the “cute Austrian with the cute accent”. This was a little annoying at the beginning, but I got used to it. It is still happening. People still try to imitate my Austrian accent.

57By ignoring discrimination or letting it pass, one inevitably becomes complicit in perpetuating prejudice and stereotypes. Yet it can be exhausting for minorities and immigrants to constantly correct others and raise their awareness of the heterogeneity in migrant communities and the “Other”. For Dana, who is Syrian and who works at Flüchtlingspaten Syrien, “You know you have to have flexibility. You don’t have to take things personally and classify everything under the umbrella of discrimination.”

58On the other hand, there are also times where migrants who are proactive in helping Germans have a more nuanced perspective of their cultures and lives have their subjectivities shut out. For Sofia, who is a Palestinian student working in Berlin, she was given the cold shoulder and was made to feel as if she was anti-Semitic after she had tried explaining to her German classmates that she isn’t Israeli but Palestinian.

59Likewise, in one of PJ’s former jobs in online marketing where her startup was seeking to break into the Asian markets, she had repeatedly told her bosses how e-Commerce was done differently in Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia; her bosses ignored all of her suggestions. Soon after, the venture failed. PJ added: “It is discrimination that comes from arrogance. They [the Germans] always believe that they are correct even though somebody from that part of the world tells them otherwise. I ascribe it to arrogance and superiority complex.”

60In my dealings with people in Europe, I often draw equivalences to make my point that “Not all Chinese people eat dogs, not all Koreans eat live octopuses; not all Swiss eat horses and insect patties, and not all French eat rabbits”; or that “If Singaporeans and Chinese are the same, then you must be from Pakistan even though you are Indian”. At times, the injection of humour helps deliver the point without coming off as overly aggressive.

61As discussed in the preceding section, Muslim women donning the Kopftuch in Berlin and in Germany face significant discrimination not just in their employment search, but also in their everyday life. When it comes to the headscarf, two Arab migrants I interviewed demonstrate how they could have been complicit in sustaining discrimination by repeating “Western” justifications against Islamic dressing in Europe.

62For Ali, who is a Christian Egyptian student, he says: “there are just some stuff that the Germans cannot really offer to you. Like when you wear the burqa or the niqab [nearly full-body Islamic dressing], it is not allowed because you really hide your identity. So it is not okay. It doesn’t matter what your religion is.” By reusing the official line of argument used by governments in Europe – which regularly features in media and public discourse, especially when discussing the topic of public security and (counter-)terrorism – Ali inevitably lent it credibility and also reaffirmed the Huntingtonian thesis about the inherent incompatibility of the “East” and “West” (Huntington, 1997).

63Further, Dana, whom I had expected to be least liable to such complicity due to her critical stance on issues related to refugee integration and German immigration policies, also repeated an oft-used argument that the Kopftuch is a non-issue and what matters is one’s merits: “I always tell our refugee women that the Germans don’t care if you wear the Kopftuch or not. They care about what you bring to the society. Are you wearing the Kopftuch and that’s it? Or are you wearing the Kopftuch and are working part-time or full time? I mean they don’t care about your appearance very much.” Surely Dana’s point is not entirely invalid, but to treat the headscarf as not a barrier to entry in the workplace and in German society is to ignore and undermine the experiences faced by Muslim women.

4.3.2 Societal-Level Forces

64Micro-level responses to discrimination can, as shown above, contribute to the maintenance of discrimination against migrants and refugees in Berlin. This also extends to more macro-level forces such as discourses related to terrorism, historical baggage that transcends generations, socioeconomic differences and, relatedly, the geographical distribution of refugees and migrants.

65The Muslim question and its compatibility with “Western” civilisations are not a discourse or phenomenon unbeknownst to Europe. In more recent times, the September 11 (9/11) attacks in the US as well as the subsequent War on Terror have transformed the international system in very palpable ways – whether it be the aviation industry and passport regime, border control and national security measures, or discourses surrounding Muslims as threats to “Western” civilisation.

66For Cemal, the above have changed the national (German) conversation about Turks – and more generally Turkey – from one focusing on their ethnicity and nationality before the al-Qaeda attacks to one centred on Islam after the 9/11 attacks. Prior to 9/11, Cemal recalled that the controversy over Turkey’s accession to the EU pertained more to Turkish or Arab ethnicity: “… definitely religion wasn’t much of an issue. Then suddenly after 9/11 and other attacks in Europe and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, Muslimness became a core part of your identity.” The problematisation and securitisation of Islam and one’s Muslim-ness have likewise formed a major part of Muslim refugees’ and migrants’ experiences with discrimination in Berlin. For many of the refugees I interviewed, such as Khaled, Sam, and Mohamed, they are tired of being associated with terrorism or violence and having to clarify that “not all Muslims are terrorists” or that “not all Arabs are violent”.

67Beyond the more abstract security and terrorism discourse, more tangible factors such as socioeconomic differences have been a major force in fuelling refugees’ and migrants’ experiences of discrimination. In Berlin, one’s socioeconomic class can be linked to where one lives, even though other factors also play a key role in shaping one’s desire or ability to live in a district that offers cultural closeness (such as Kreuzberg, Wedding, or Neukölln).

68The case of Selim provides useful insights into how socioeconomic factors could have contributed to anti-immigrant or anti-refugee sentiments among Germans in Berlin. Selim criticised Merkel’s Willkommenkultur and the “Refugees welcome” attitude that many Berliners showed:

The refugees came in 2015 and the interesting thing for me was that many people said, “Refugees welcome”. I also said the same because the refugees have the right to escape from conflict. But the difficult part for me was to see people from Friedrichshain or Neukölln and elsewhere say “Refugees welcome” because it is easy for them to say that – they know that there are no places for refugees to live in their districts. Most of the refugees live in the outer districts like in Marzahn and Spandau. Because there’s a lot of space here for accommodation. So it is interesting for me because they say “Welcome, welcome” but they don’t live with the consequences of it.

69Selim was right in pointing out that most of the refugees are geographically located in the periphery of the Berlin state (see Figure 1 below). According to Berlin’s official website,, the top five districts with most refugees living there are Lichtenberg with 3,332 refugees, Pankow with 3,002 refugees, Marzahn-Hellersdorf with 2,835 refugees, Tempelhof-Schöneberg with 1,851 refugees, and lastly, Spandau with 1,776 refugees. Conversely, districts with the lowest number of refugees are Mitte with 761 refugees, Reinickendorf with 939 refugees, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg with 1,000 refugees, and Neukölln with 999 refugees (, 2019). The peripheral location of these districts also corresponds to the lower socioeconomic status of the residents in terms of their monthly income: according to the Federal Employment Agency, the districts of Marzahn-Hellersdorf, Spandau, and Lichtenberg experience the lowest median income out of all 12 boroughs in Berlin (Gringmuth-Dallmer, 2019).

Figure 1. Map of Berlin’s 12 Districts

Figure 1. Map of Berlin’s 12 Districts

Source: Wikimedia Commons (n.d.)

70As a result of the unequal distribution of refugees across Berlin, some districts and their facilities faced more pressure than others. For a period of time after the 2015 “refugee crisis”, Selim worked as a project manager in schools in Spandau and saw first-hand how the district’s infrastructure had suffered from the ramifications of Merkel’s open-door policy as well as the government’s lack of preparedness prior to the policy change:

There were a lot of refugee kids who did not have the chance to go to school. There were many Willkommensplätze [welcome centres] made in the primary school. But there were way more kids than places available in schools. There came many refugees who wanted to fit into the German system... the school and health system… but they couldn’t make it. Especially in areas like Spandau where I live, there are many people living with little money. It was easy for people to get into conflict because the people from Spandau would say “the refugees get so much more welfare than [we do].”

71Selim clarified that it is a misconception that Germans thought refugees receive more welfare benefits than they did: unemployed persons in Germany, at the very least, are entitled to basic subsistence benefits (known as Hartz IV) and can receive up to 416 euros per month, coverage for accommodation and heating, contributions to health insurance, nursing care, and educational packages for children (European Commission, n.d.). In contrast, a refugee in Germany is entitled to a maximum of 219 euros in cash handouts and 135 euros in payment-in-kind – a total of 354 euros (Hodali & Prange, 2018; Luyken, 2017).

72While refugees actually receive much less welfare and fewer legal rights compared to a German citizen, it is less the amount of welfare they receive, and more the fact that the German government has dedicated so much attention and resources to the refugees – instead of German citizens themselves – that accounts for public anger towards them. Selim elaborated:

There are also people [the Germans] who struggle with their lives in Germany. So they would think: “Okay, why is so much money being used on these people and not on us?” It is not a racist thing, but it is an economic issue. They see that they are struggling and are not getting enough support from the state. People in Spandau are not angry with the refugees because they are Arabs and they don’t like Arabs. But the poor see: “OK, there’s money, and the government did so much for the refugees, but not for us.” And because they don’t see the bigger picture – they only see the refugees and so they direct their anger at them.

73The post-2015 refugees are also at the receiving end of anger directed at them from Arab immigrants who came before them. Earlier Arab immigrants are unhappy because post-2015 refugees are doing poorly despite receiving support from the state (recall Dana’s brother’s resentment towards refugees in this ePaper) This time, the discontent stems from a combination of feelings of unfairness and, seemingly, embarrassment, since earlier immigrants could easily be conflated with refugees and be made to answer for the latter’s (in)actions or (mis)deeds.

74Equally illuminating was Mustafa’s explanation of this discontent. When asked whether he would be treated differently by Turks in Berlin if they were to find out that he is not Turkish but a Syrian refugee, Mustafa had this to say:

As long as they [the Turks and early Arab immigrants] are working and have residence permits, it is okay for them that I am Syrian. The old generation… or some Lebanese, they have been living here for ten or twenty years without any residence permit… as refugees or others. And they see that the Syrians are here... they got their permit within three months. And they get angry with us because they feel that it is not fair. So for the old generation... as long as they already have a legal status, it is okay for them to have new refugees here.

75From the above, it is clear that discontent with recent refugees can take on multiple configurations depending on one’s positionality. Dana’s brother, an established Syrian doctor in Berlin, resents newer refugees for their poor integration and the bad reputation they have brought to the Syrian community in Berlin; Mustafa’s account adds one’s legal status as another dimension in older Arabs’ resentment towards refugees. What is also noteworthy here in Mustafa’s account is the long-term impact of poor integration policies and an esoteric German bureaucracy on the lives of subsequent immigrants – socio-culturally, economically, and legally.

4.3.3 Temporal-Spatial Considerations

76The temporal-spatial dimension – or a path dependency, to some extent – is another critical factor in sustaining discrimination, prejudice, and divisions. Here, I would like to discuss two ways in which this factor is highly consequential: (i) refugees’ positionalities in their countries of origin and their subsequent transposition – partially or fully – to Berlin, and (ii) the impact of Turkish myths and the history of Arab-Turkish conflicts.

77During our interview, Dana offered a much more nuanced picture of Syrian refugees in Berlin – something which, as an outsider, I would not have noticed. Dana explained that most of the refugees in Berlin come from smaller cities and, despite Syria being a relatively less conservative country in the Middle East, many of the female refugees in Berlin wore headscarves. She also shed light on how the worldview of a refugee from rural Syria might differ from that of an urbanite: female refugees from smaller towns tend to think that “it is their job” to bear children, and that having more children increases one’s prospects of a better life. Conversely, Dana and all her friends, who hail from the middle-to-upper class, think that “two kids are more than enough.” This observation is nothing unique to Syria.

78With a refugee’s flight from Syria to Berlin, that positionality (of a more conservative worldview) could continue to hold influence in his or her life. Dana added an observation:

Those who come from big cities – I met them and they speak the language fluently after two years. They either start studying or working. And those who come from smaller cities: there was a refugee who asked me: “If I get another child, will my child get a passport?” And then I said “Well you have to take a break. You have to learn German because your child will go to school very soon. And if you don’t speak the language you will find it difficult to find a job. Your child will find it difficult in school and will surely be discriminated.

79Based on Dana’s inputs, it is evident that a refugee’s more conservative, rural background back home can play a significant role in his or her integration and experiences of discrimination in the country of destination. How that configuration could be subverted or shaped in Berlin will be explored more extensively in the next chapter.

80Reasons for discrimination against Arabs by Turks can also be located in the historical ties between the Arabs and Turks as well as myths. For Canan, Cemal, and Selim, there is a general agreement that embedded in the Turkish psyche, there is a resentment towards Arabs as “they think of them as culturally inferior”. Selim said the following, which he thinks is why Turks re-appropriated the meanings of Arabic words into the Turkish curse words “Ibne” and “Waled” (see section

It is not a lie to say that Turks and Arabs have a controversial history. For the Turks, the Arabs are seen as traitors who betrayed them during the Ottoman times in favour of the British. So there are a lot of conflicts from the past that could explain why people act like this.

4.3.4 The Role of the Media in Stoking Anti-Immigration Sentiments

81Media coverage of the August 2015 “Wir schaffen das” speech by Chancellor Angela Merkel and the ensuing glorification of a new German Willkommenskultur were too uncritical, a comprehensive study commissioned by the Otto Brenner Stiftung in Frankfurt found (Chazan, 2017). Having analysed thousands of articles in national and regional newspapers across the political ideological spectrum, the report found that the news outlets painted too rosy a picture and did not differentiate between right-wing extremists and everyday Germans who felt side-lined by the influx of refugees into the country. It further stated that journalists had merely “adopted the viewpoint and also the slogans of the political elite”.

82While news outlets became more sceptical of the open-door policy after the 2015 New Year’s Eve mass sexual assaults on women in Cologne, the damage had been done and there had already been rising mistrust of the “mainstream media”, with the latter being oft-referred to as the “Lügenpresse” (“the lying press”). For instance, 55% of those surveyed felt “systematically lied to by the media” (Chazan, 2017). In another econometrics study by the Düsseldorf Institute for Competition Economics on the relationship between media coverage and Germans’ immigration concerns, it was found that media coverage does have an influence on attitudes towards immigration (Benesch, Loretz, Stadelmann, & Thomas, 2018).

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83Many of the refugees and migrants I interviewed agreed that the German media’s portrayal of the refugee “crisis” had a part to play in their experiences of discrimination. Dana juxtaposed the case of her sister and the “typical refugee women” often presented in mainstream media to underscore the influence media has had in shaping public discourse and perception:5

For example, my sister is a doctor and wears the Kopftuch but she is rarely discriminated because she’s a doctor and she speaks German fluently. Then you have the typical case: you see someone with a headscarf, who has been here for many years and she barely speaks the language and has five children and a very aggressive husband who doesn’t care about the children. She has to do everything: she has to cook, she has to work, she has to take care of her children. The children are barely integrated in school. She has to do everything on her own. And her husband doesn’t give a shit. This is the typical case which you read every day in the newspaper. But about my sister, no one would talk about this because this is not the typical case. I mean, the media plays a big role. There’s the typical case of “the oppressed, the suppressed, with many children.”

84Canan, Sarah, Dana, Wathira, and Selim all agreed that the German media had exaggerated “crisis” as they all did not experience a corresponding sense of insecurity and chaos.

4.3.5 Transnational Drivers of Discrimination

85Before concluding this chapter, it is necessary to recall one point which was brought up earlier by Cemal, that is, the impact of regional and international events on the incidences of discrimination among immigrants in Berlin.

86By highlighting the changing nature of discrimination or discourse over his Turkishness and German-ness before and after the September 9/11 attacks in the US, Cemal underlined the susceptibility of discrimination to extraterritorial forces that are beyond the control of the government. Prior to 9/11, Cemal mentioned that private and public discourse about Turks in Germany revolved around both their ethnicity and nationality and the latter’s compatibility with the EU; subsequently, with the al-Qaeda attacks on US soil, the conversation morphed into one addressing the Muslim question.

87The aforementioned could arguably be read alongside Germany’s reaction to the permeation of Turkish politics in the country’s social-political-cultural landscape. By not restricting the unfettered political campaigning by Turkish politicians in Germany prior to 2017 and offering relatively open navigation space for the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) – the latter which is the largest umbrella organisation of mosques in Germany and which has strong ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office in Turkey – Germany inevitably offered up its social-political-cultural landscape as a site for Turkish transnational politicking and identity politics (Heinrich, 2018). Consequently, this has had significant mid-to-long-term impact on feelings of discrimination felt by residents or citizens with Turkish origin in Germany, for it questions their loyalty to the German state and highlights their perpetual state of being neither here nor there (Özvatan, 2019; Stockholm Center for Freedom, 2018).

4.3.6 Critical Reflection

88As mentioned in the literature review section, most studies dealing with the intersection of discrimination and immigration have dealt with the subject (immigrants) as if they were a single entity. Through the above findings, refugees’ aversion to the “refugee” label and their general dislike of the question “where are you from” suggest that they do encounter discrimination that is peculiar to their legal status. Revealing oneself as a refugee would, for some, mean that a host of stereotypes (e.g. terrorism, criminality) would be applied to them.

89Beyond a legal status that grants them fewer rights and less welfare than the average German citizen, refugees also face discrimination from older Arabs who settled in Berlin years or decades before their arrival. Within the Arab community – and in stark contrast to the expectation of a network of Arab communities supporting one another, which I had presumed in the Preface – the findings show a stratified form of belongingness: at the top are early Arab economic migrants (such as Dana’s family of doctors), followed by early Arab immigrants who were poorly integrated and were marginalised by complex German bureaucracy, some of whom lack a proper residential status, and lastly, Arab refugees. Within the Syrian community, we further see a similar motif and hierarchy. In other words, the findings show not just a simplified Parallelgesellschaft (parallel society) – but multiple Parallelgesellschaften (parallel societies), each divided by indicators of belongingness designated by the dominant group, be it legal status, socioeconomic class, command of the German language, country of origin in the Middle East (with Syrians feeling more deserving of a place in Germany), and so on. Where the refugee, migrant, or the Other stands in this vast constellation of factors vis-à-vis the German referent and centre – the latter which is not static and is constantly moving according to how the elusive concept of “German-ness” is defined at a particular point in time – depends on a multitude of factors, some within one’s control, and others not. This therefore underlines the gargantuan task of integrating refugees and migrants.

90This chapter has highlighted some of the more common experiences of discrimination felt by refugees and migrants. I have intentionally included voices of a variety of non-refugee migrants – such as those of German Turks (Cemal and Selim), a French Turkish migrant (Sarah), a Syrian migrant (Dana), Singaporean migrants (myself and PJ), and an Austrian migrant (Borys) – to underline the cross-cutting nature of discrimination as well as the multitude of nodes in which one could be cast as or be made to feel as the Other in Berlin and the broader German society. It has then identified the multi-dimensional ways in which discrimination could be sustained or fuelled by forces going from the individual to the international fora.

91The insights provided here are integral to the next chapter, which explores how discrimination feeds into and complicates problems of integration. Importantly, in the following chapter, I attempt to offer a window into how refugees’ and migrants’ positionalities from their homeland could be subverted or shaped across time as they attempt to gain a foothold in a vastly different Berlin cosmopolis.




Having myself spent roughly two and a half years living in Berlin, I found my personal style to have changed quite significantly. In the beginning I would be mocked by some friends for looking too “bourgeois” or too “put-together”. Before we would head to clubs, I would also be advised on how to dress in order not to be rejected after a painfully long two to four hours waiting in a queue. With time and despite the initial discomfort with Berlin’s urban streetwear, my style changed and I myself began to look the part in order to fit in.


The inclination to ask someone where they are from is perhaps related to my having lived in Singapore for most of my life: in my country, every registration form requires that one states his or her ethnicity, nationality, religion, and gender.


Due to issues with funding, Dana reflected that the organization had shifted its focus to refugee integration.


Through brief interactions in 2017 with a project manager of a Notunterkunft (“emergency housing”, i.e. a refugee home) based in Berlin, I had been told many stories which corroborate Dana’s “cliché cases”. The person was unfortunately unavailable to be interviewed for this research.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Map of Berlin’s 12 Districts
Crédits Source: Wikimedia Commons (n.d.)
Fichier image/png, 492k


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