Reaching out to Berlin’s immigrant community, one mother at a time

“Neighborhood Mothers” making a difference. Photo: Diakoniewerk Simeon

BERLIN, Germany — Turkish bakeries, delis, Oriental supermarkets and Döner Kebab (burger) stores. Mosques, hairdressers, a Turkish Airlines travel agency and Arabian shops. The mix gives the Berlin neighborhood, or “kiez,” of Northern Neukölln a colorful, quirky feel. Some call it “Little Istanbul,” others Berlin’s “Lower East Side” for its companion mix of artists and intellectuals.

But Northern Neukölln with its 160,000 residents is also a poster child for the difficulties of Germany’s migrant communities. Sixty percent of the working age population is jobless, and 72 percent of residents live on various social welfare programs, according to the local government authority. 54 percent of school children do not finish high school. Plus, criminality has soared since the 1990s.

This neighborhood is Husnieh Abdelhakim’s (50) and Nada Sharaf’s (42) beat. The two women, from Lebanon and Iraq respectively, work as “Neighborhood Mothers,” an outreach program for disadvantaged migrant families invented in 2004. Hella Dunger-Loeper, who was Berlin’s Secretary for Building and Housing at that time, led the program, and social education worker Maria Macher developed the details of the concept. Dunger-Loeper’s successor Michael Müller has and still continues the program.

Cruising for new friends

Equipped with colorful bags full with information flyers, often wearing the red scarves that have become emblematic of the project, the women cruise the “kiez” to make friends with the mothers of immigrant families.

Over a cup of tea, bringing empathy, experience and good advice, they talk to the newer immigrant mothers about the education of their children, the necessity of language skills, jobs and more. Each selected family is then visited ten times, informed systematically about such subjects as healthy food, gender issues and preventing addictions, how to access the medical system, the school system, the immense advantages of full educations and finding employment.

“At first, I was very insecure,” Nada says about her job entry. But after a while, she gained self-confidence. Her own tough experience with a premature baby in an incubator in a German hospital gave her much credibility when she talked about medical care and the benefit of midwives to her customers.

When she herself was first visited by a neighborhood mom, she instantly knew that this would also be a job for herself. She applied, since her law degree from Iraq would not help her find a job in Germany.

How does a woman qualify for the Neighborhood Mothers program and its introductory six-month training course? She must be a migrant herself, a mother, native speaker of Turkish or Arabic, jobless, live in the neighborhood, and be a fluent German speaker.  The course includes theoretical and practical parts. The future neighborhood moms are also made familiar with the social and medical institutions that come into play and – very important – learn communication techniques.

The trust factor

“First, it generates trust when a member of the same ethnic community approaches the families. A regular social worker cannot reach those families,” says Macher, the coordinator of Diakoniewerk Dimeon, the charity institution of the Protestant Church, a partner in the project. “We can’t get close,” says Macher. “A young female social worker with a short skirt generates a reaction: ‘I don’t want my daughter to dress like that.’“

At least 500,000 immigrants per year will be needed to power Germany’s industry and export machine and keep the economy going.

Husnieh agrees. Often, the families she visits are concerned about the mixed sports classes and the issue of their daughters having to work out without wearing their headscarves. When she tells her “customers” that it’s indeed more practical and makes injuries less likely to work out with no headscarf, then it makes sense, since Husnieh draws from her own experience. If a German social worker said the same thing to a migrant family, this would instantly convey an ideological message.

Sports are a big issue among Muslim migrant families. Parents often try to excuse their daughters, for example, from the swimming lessons. A German court has recently ruled that swimming lessons are mandatory. Muslim girls have the option to wear a “body wrap suit” called “burkhini.” And the fact that lightly dressed male adolescents also populate the swimming pool area, the court concluded, has to be accepted as a social and cultural reality.

Vice versa, any cultural signals even close to Muslim custom often generates simple and xenophobic reflexes and prompts negative reactions among Germans.

Yet, according to the experience of Husnieh and Nada, most of the topics to be tackled in terms of integration are simply not religious, but rather everyday situations to be dealt with. Husnieh, a mother of two herself, recalls how lonely and isolated she felt during their first years in Germany. She was not entitled to work as a refugee, neither to learn German. In the ’80s, the German society was much less open to migrants.

Husnieh and Nada had come to Berlin from Lebanon and Iraq – Husnieh about 30 years ago, aged 20, as a refugee. Nada came as a marriage migrant. She met her husband, who already lived in Germany, on a vacation in Jordan. Both women did not know the language, had no further contacts, jobs or any clue how to get involved or about topics like daycare entitlement for children.

This harsh experience of isolation, especially in Husnieh’s case, now contributes to her empathy and credibility when she approaches other migrants.

Maria Macher remembers the earlier days of the program: “Sometimes, people in the families did not dare to voice their real questions and concerns, since they suspected the neighborhood moms to come from the welfare youth office to check out their families.” After a while, though, trust had gradually been built up. Nowadays, the neighborhood moms are like celebrities – a Neukölln institution.

Sitting in the official “neighborhood moms” office in the town hall of Neukölln, surrounded by framed award certificates, Husnieh shares her pride in what has been her first real job in Germany so far. She earns 1,060 euros per month pre-tax ($1,330 U. S.), or 860 euros ($1,080) after taxes – critical income for the family, especially if the husband is jobless.

Nada, before coming to Germany, had worked as a jurist in Iraq.  Even if she had been a something different – a doctor, for instance – the German authorities would not have recognized her diploma as equivalent to local standards. She would have had to undergo another full training anyway. Overall, having a non-EU migrant background in Germany, statistically equals being jobless nearly twice as often as a native German. Industrial jobs, where migrants traditionally worked, are vanishing in significant numbers. Nowadays, young people from Spain come to Germany to undergo a dual training or become a skilled worker. This door is not as easily open for non-EU citizens – for example those from Turkey.

Immigration wave history

The major wave of the immigrants in Germany arrived during the 1950s to 1970s.

“We can’t get close. A young female social worker with a short skirt generates a reaction: ‘I don’t want my daughter to dress like that.’”

Maria Macher
Coordinator, Diakoniewerk Dimeon

They came from Italy, Greece and, above all, Turkey (presently 2.8 million residents are of Turkish origin), invited by the German government to help fulfill labor market need during the boom phase of the “economic miracle.” The immigrants were expected to stay just temporarily. But most of them remained, settled, and started families. Still, they were always labeled “guest workers.”

Not until the 1990s did German officialdom moderate its paternal, patronizing attitudes toward the immigrants and their families. Citizenship rights have been accorded even more slowly. Integration has also been held back by fundamentalist Islamic practices of male domination that some Turkish immigrants embrace, leading to forced marriages, domestic violence and subjugated lives for women.

There have been rare but ominous “honor killings” by male relatives of Muslim women seeking to lead independent lives.

Yet, in very recent years, the approach to immigration has undergone a remarkable change. The main reason is sociological. Germany’s population is aging rapidly – and already the oldest in Europe. Within the next 10 to 15 years, something like the whole population of Bavaria (12.5 million people) will exit the labor market. This demographic shift means that at least 500.000 immigrants per year will be needed to power Germany’s industry and export machine and keep the economy going.

Therefore, the public discourse gradually changes the perspective on migration – the topic is more and often viewed from the angle of an “opportunity” rather than through the lens of a “problem.” Politicians have forged the term “welcome culture” that Germans are encouraged to adopt. It also means that immigrants who already live in Germany may get better chances to develop their skills in the future.  While many private foundations have created programs to foster tolerance towards Muslims, the German labor ministry has launched campaigns to attract skilled labor from abroad.  While in the past, the language barrier was seen as the immigrants’ problem, now it has rather become the country’s problem, since many qualified migrants prefer English-speaking countries to settle, like the United States, rather than Germany.  This cultural change may be beneficial for all migrants in the end, whether high potential in the first place or qualified in the process.

Yet, back in 1982, when Husnieh came to Germany as a refugee from Lebanon, she was not allowed to work or entitled to learn German in official language classes. People like her were thus completely marginalised and dependent. The Neighborhood Program came on as a boon as of 2004.

While in the past, it was mostly women who came to Germany as marriage migrants, the gender discussion and women’s liberation have led to changes. “More and more men also come to Germany to get married here,” says Maria Macher. And, coming from Macho cultures, they often have an even harder time to accept help and build a social network than women.

Berlin’s Neighborhood Mothers program – expanded from its original 12 Turkish women in 2004 to presently 93 active “super-moms” (5 groups) of differing nationalities today – sets a clear standard for immigrant integration that makes a real difference in peoples’ lives.

Goal to make program more sustainable

The present challenge, according to Maria Macher, is to make this program even more sustainable, in two ways: First in long-term financing. Until now, so-called project funds are applied for and granted only every two years, then run out again. Although the program enjoys a broad acceptance among Berlin officials, citizens and charity organizations, it has not been put on more solid feet so far.

Secondly, says Macher: “We want to help the neighborhood moms to find a new qualified job in the mainstream labor market after the two years they’re entitled to work in our project.” 

A number of other German towns and cities have begun to copy the concept, as well as the Danish capital Copenhagen. In 2008, the Metropolis organization of world mayors gave Neighborhood Mothers its top award for improving the lives of city dwellers. Of particular appeal to the judges: the project’s “win-win” approach, aiding both migrants and the city at large.  Since the program has been in place for nearly one decade now, a monitoring tool has been developed that helps the moms to get feedback and improve their work. “Initially, this scared me a little,” says Nada. “It felt like a control or exam, but in time it helps to improve the work we do.”

In an era of continuing strong “South to North” immigration – especially to Europe and North America – it’s not hard to imagine that local adaptations of the Berlin program’s personal and sensitive formula will become a key to social accord in countless cities. 

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Birgit Heitfeld is a Berlin-based freelance journalist. Full bio

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