Life in Berlin as a foreigner, thoughts on assimilation and integration

Emma Krause reflects as an outsider looking in, navigating the political and cultural idiosyncrasies of the place she has made her new home – Berlin, Germany.

It’s been two years since I moved to Germany to attend the Hertie School of Governance. After spending almost 8 years studying and working in the United States, and 18 years growing up in Canada, I came to Berlin curious about the city, the country, and the continent.  Now, as I begin my final year, I find myself reflecting on my experiences here as a foreigner and attempting to make sense of the city I currently call home.

Upon arrival, Berlin quickly presented itself as a medley of former haunts, whether as a series of discoverable neighbourhoods (Toronto), a humming metropolis with easy access to lakes, oceans, and forests (Boston), or as the centre of political life (D.C.). The parties and nightlife were as intoxicating as New York, and the division between east and west reminded me of the dynamic between Montreal’s English and French populations. However, even though the city is as diverse and cosmopolitan as they come, I was surprised by the blatant societal stratification.

Starting in 2015, Germany took in over 1 million refugees, opening its borders to people who came by land, air, or sea to seek a better life in Europe’s most prosperous democracy. It was far from the first time that waves of migrants crossed German borders. Agreements on the Recruitment and Placement of Workers (“Abkommen über Anwerbung und Vermittlung von Arbeitskräften”) were common throughout the 1950s and 1960s and encouraged people to move to Germany from Italy, Greece, Spain, Turkey, Morocco, Portugal, Tunisia and the former Yugoslavia. In the early 1990s, these numbers rose again, spurred by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the wars in the former Yugoslavia and the human rights crisis in the Kurdish region of Turkey. Different expressions of religion, clothing, food, and styles of living – all the little details that make up culture and nation – are by no means new to Germany, especially Berlin.

Yet today, if you take a bike ride through the city, you would think that welcoming foreigners is, well, foreign.

In 2005, Germany declared itself as a country of immigration, where integration is perceived as a legal duty. Integration summits took place throughout the early 2000’s to develop a national integration plan (implemented in 2007) and update the residence title options for immigrants. However, to truly ‘arrive’ in this country, a foreigner (whether an immigrant, a refugee, a student, or a temporary worker) must assimilate, not integrate. It’s evident in the day-to-day minutia – all important documents and administration will be done in German on paper, following the ‘correct’ process as articulated by the bureaucracy, no exceptions – as well as the tangible details that make it possible to live somewhere. Good luck getting a rental contract if you are not German. Thumbs pressed for finding a job (even in Berlin) if you do not speak working level German and have a degree from a German or European university that demonstrates specific topical knowledge in a subject area. Have fun understanding your mail if you can’t read German well. This reality is particularly striking in Berlin, one of the most open and accepting cities in the world.

Germans reading this would likely say ‘well you moved to Germany, of course you have to learn the language, do the bureaucracy, learn to do things the German way.’ And they’re right, of course, absolutely. But can’t it be a two-way exchange? As Germans teach us what good bread is, or show us how to implement and make use of admirably flexible labour policy, can’t we also be enabled to offer alternative ways of living, speaking, and doing?

This is the crux of the assimilation vs. integration debate: being able to move to a place, and adapt to its ways, while being embraced for and encouraged to share yours. De facto Germany is a country of immigration; however, it is not an integrated society. One merely needs to walk along Sonnenallee and then into Neukölln: Turkish and German communities live side by side, speaking, worshipping, eating, and living, but barely interacting beyond consuming the occasional döner. These silos stem from temporary work visas that were never expected to become permanent, and fears of how immigrant groups may infringe on or eliminate German culture. One can understand – Germans have fought through two world wars, national socialism, the fracture of east and west, reconciliation, the formation of the European Union, and a worldwide financial crisis to re-define, build and maintain their culture, history and heritage. This is hard, tiring work. But it is exactly this perseverance and commitment to bettering oneself that makes me believe it is time for Germany to truly become an immigrant nation.

Whether the current government is brave enough to admit it or not, Germans will soon have to make an ideological choice. Will this country be one of openness, of tolerance, where people are exposed to Germanness while simultaneously embraced for who they are? Can Germans see an immigrant as a fellow German if their skin is darker, their Deutsch rougher, and their ‘German’ blood untraceable? Can embracing difference, appreciating variations, and encouraging different processes be imbued into German culture? Can Germans accept that though this will be hard work, it will move the country forward and make it more prosperous in the long run?

Do Germans even want this? That’s the real question. With Donald Trump as President of the United States, Vladimir Putin using the world as his personal playground, Great Britain fractured and reeling, and rising tensions threatening the stability of Europe, Germany has inadvertently taken on a moral authority. Though it’s not a role Germans like, it’s an opportunity, and it’s time.  It’s time for Germany to show the rest of Europe how real integration can work, and how it can address the very problems at the root of today’s political instabilities. There’s already work being done, as Germans in cities from Augsburg to Lübeck give their time to help settle refugees, teaching them the languages and customs while learning about where their new neighbours came from and how they live. Here in Berlin, and at Hertie, I’m encouraged by exchanges between foreigners hungry to experience the German way, and Germans curious to understand who their neighbours, colleagues and fellow students are beyond sampling their cuisine or taking a vacation in their country. How can this happen outside of the Hertie bubble? It can be something small, such as offering residency forms in German and English, French, Arabic, Spanish, etc., or big, like introducing policies that incentivise companies to hire employees who don’t speak German to encourage skilled, international workers to settle in Germany. This work needs to grow, both in our personal lives and in the Bundestag if we are to accept the inevitability that the future is simultaneously local and global, not national. It will take political bravery, a committed and engaged citizenry, and substantive patience and understanding. Germany has the authority and the opportunity. I can only hope it will have the audacity.

Emma Krause is a class of 2019 Master of Public Policy candidate at the Hertie School of Governance, interested in energy, climate and urban policy. She spent the past year working on energy, climate, and sustainability projects for the German consulting firm IFOK GmbH. Prior to coming to Hertie, she worked for the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources on solar PV policy, renewable energy financing, and municipal sustainability. She has also worked for former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s political committee and on the 2012 Obama Campaign. She obtained her Bachelor’s in Communications and Political Science from Emerson College in Boston. When not working or studying, she can be found on her bike in one of Berlin’s many public parks.