Like in many other parts of the world, Sundays in the immigrant neighbourhood of Bonn, Tannenbusch, are quieter than usual. On one recent Sunday, everything was closed except for kebab shops offering takeaways, as local politician Binnaz Öztoprak strolled the empty streets.

Binnaz Öztoprak moved to Germany from Turkey in 1993 (Credit: Akın Art)

Yet while the pandemic has brought lockdowns, it has also ignited a debate about migration and integration in places like Tannenbusch. Öztoprak, 49, who moved to Germany from Turkey in 1993, was reflecting on the fact that like her, the inventors of the world’s first approved coronavirus vaccine have Turkish roots. 

Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin, the founders of BioNTech which developed the vaccine in collaboration with the pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer, are now hailed in Germany as inspirations. But their stories also reveal the discrimination that Turkish migrants to Germany have historically faced: in one interview, Şahin revealed that his school teachers nearly set him on an educational path that would never have allowed him to go to university, and that this was only averted when his German neighbours stuck up for him. 

“Şahin was lucky,” Öztoprak said, noting that it was a common occurrence for Turkish immigrant families. “Many children aren’t that fortunate.” 

Germany has a long history of immigration from Turkey, but people of Turkish origin are seriously underrepresented in higher education. While some 30 per cent of Germany’s population has a university degree, the figure is around half that for first and second-generation male Turkish immigrants, and even less for women. 

Öztoprak, whose father lived in Germany for many years as a “guest worker” – immigrants brought in to make up for labour shortages in German industries after the Second World War, initially on a temporary basis – has personally felt the effects of the stereotypes attached to Turkish migrants. She moved to the city of Dortmund in 1993 to study for a PhD, after completing her undergraduate studies in Ankara. 

“People were surprised to see an educated woman from Turkey. They thought I was an exception,” Öztoprak said. “But I’m one of thousands of women in Turkey who got degrees, and all this was happening when a woman, Tansu Çiller, was prime minister of Turkey.”

Öztoprak felt that Germany made it hard for Turkish immigrants to fit in – she remembers being offended when a friend of her first boss introduced her to others by saying “she’s from Turkey, but she’s not a cleaning worker” – and was drawn to politics by the problems she saw in her community. She joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 2000, and was recently elected as a member of Bonn’s Integration Parliament, a committee made up of immigrants and people of migrant backgrounds that advises the city council.

Munich resident Sami Memili is the founder and CEO of Arcora Group (Credit: His Facebook account)

Munich resident Sami Memili, 53, is the founder and CEO of Arcora Group, an international vendor of hygiene products. His company has five factories, spread across Germany, the US, North Macedonia and Turkey. Memili’s parents were also immigrants to Germany, first leaving him behind in Adana when he was a young child, then bringing him to the Bavarian village of Vierkirchen at the age of 12. 

Memili recalls being thrust into the German school system without understanding a word of the language. 

“We only went to school because we had to, there was no way we would learn anything,” said Memili, adding that he had such a hard time adapting to Germany that he ran away to Turkey when he was 13.

“There was a bus company in Munich that did trips to Turkey. I told them that my parents had left for Turkey ahead of me, and that they were expecting me,” Memili said. 

Two weeks after Memili reached his aunt’s house in Turkey, his father came to convince him to return to Germany. There, his school placed him in a Turkish-language class, alongside migrant children of all ages. 

When Memili graduated from a vocational training course at the age of 21, he went straight to work for his brother’s cleaning company, through which he eventually won a contract to distribute the products of an American firm. This allowed him to visit Boston often and improve his English, and eventually led to him studying for an MBA in the US, on the advice of a business associate.

“I wasn’t able to get my education in Germany, I got it in America. My desire to leave Germany forced me into international business. I’m only successful because I never got used to Germany,” Memili said.

Second-generation Turkish immigrants like Memili often say they have had to fight to be accepted in Germany, and that they have faced life-long discrimination. For younger generations, the experience is different, although not without problems. 

Deniz Kumral moved to Berlin to study for a PhD in neuroscience (Credit: Kerstin Flake)

Deniz Kumral, 31, moved to Berlin eight years ago to study for a PhD in neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute, one of the country’s most prestigious schools. She was attracted by the free, research-focused education, as were many others: around 60 per cent of Kumral’s colleagues in the department were immigrants. 

“I didn’t personally encounter any discrimination in the Institute,” Kumral said, while noting that foreign lecturers were rare in Germany. Although she thinks this is mainly due to language skills rather than discrimination on the basis of nationality, she knows of some cases where that isn’t the whole story. 

“A German was hired for a post-doc position I applied for recently, even though she didn’t meet the criteria,” Kumral said.

Kumral attended a German high school in Istanbul, and has always felt close to German culture. 

“My friends mocked me for being more German than Germans themselves,” she said, laughing. But she still experienced hostility while living in Leipzig, an eastern German city with a reputation for being less welcoming to immigrants. 

“I was asked whether I eat pork or drink alcohol during an interview by potential housemates,” she continued.

Kumral and her friends were also once assaulted when walking past a hotel where the Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet used to live. 

“A bunch of hooligans yelled ‘we don’t want you here’ at us,” she said. “One of them threw a beer bottle he was holding. We were scared, so we just walked away.”

Kumral notes, however, that younger Germans have different attitudes. 

“Some of them even think it’s rude to ask where someone is from. I was chatting with my physiotherapist the other day, and they asked me what languages I spoke, instead of where I was from,” she said.

Özgür Özvatan, assistant chair of research on migration and integration at Humboldt University in Berlin (Credit: His personal archive)

According to Özgür Özvatan, assistant chair of research on migration and integration at Humboldt University in Berlin, structural racism persists, especially in the education system. Immigrant pupils are often placed on less ambitious education paths as a result of underlying bias among teachers, as well as a disconnect between their families and the education system. Şahin’s story, of needing a helping hand from German neighbours, is a common one.

Yet Özvatan is wary of the way the BioNTech success story might be used to obscure racism, rather than highlight it: in his view, they are still an exception. Türeci and Şahin, he said, “will be role models for Turkish youth [in Germany]. But it would be more accurate to say that they are ‘successful and Turkish’, rather than ‘Turkish and successful’”.