German Minorities Still Fight To Be Seen, Heard Barack Obama's election was met with euphoria in Europe. But it's unlikely that a minority there will reach such prominence any time soon. In Germany, for instance, national identity is still strictly linked to ethnicity — and nonwhites still face considerable barriers.
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German Minorities Still Fight To Be Seen, Heard

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German Minorities Still Fight To Be Seen, Heard

German Minorities Still Fight To Be Seen, Heard

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The election of Barack Obama got people thinking in Europe. It forced Europeans to ask if minorities in their countries could ever reach such prominence. This week, we'll examine the way that Europe treats its minority groups, and we begin in central Berlin. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from a country where your identity is closely linked to your ethnicity.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: This is a small theater club in the Neukoln district. White and black young people sit on assorted chairs and stools. Tonight's reading is a work about the lives of black people in Germany. Author Sharon Otoo stands on the small stage.

(Soundbite of talking and laughter)

POGGIOLI: The daughter of Ghanaian parents, Otoo is angered that German society labels her and the estimated half-million Afro-Germans as foreigners or treats them as non-existent.

Ms. SHARON OTOO (Author): When you take white as the norm and everything else as deviant from that, and your advertising is always targeted at white people, or when you write school books, and they're targeted at white children, this is for me a racist experience.

POGGIOLI: Otoo is part of a group that monitors racism in the media, repeatedly denouncing ads depicting minorities as comical figures and newspaper use of physical attributes to describe different races.

Another member is Carl Camurca, son of a German mother and an African-American father. He identifies culturally with the land of the poet Goethe but says he is repeatedly stopped by police demanding to see his permit to be in Germany.

Mr. CARL CAMURCA (Former President, Berlin Chapter, The Initiative of Black Germans): White Germans do not perceive themselves as racist at all. Basically, the idea is, there are no other races in Germany. Germany is a monoracial country, so we can't be racist. It's pretty easy.

POGGIOLI: There is no national debate on racism, yet surveys consistently show most Germans don't want foreigners in their country. And there have been on average 70 race-related killings annually in recent years.

Turks, the biggest minority group with nearly three million, are in their fourth generation. But it was less than a decade ago that Germany abolished the law granting citizenship only to those with German blood. And even the official, newly-coined term people of migrant origin reflects reluctance to accept that a fifth of the population is not of German stock.

There are hardly any minorities in the mainstream media, police, judiciary, or politics. One of the few elected officials is 23-year-old Green Party member Sinan Senyurt, whose grandparents came from Turkey. Councilor of a Berlin district, he slams his fist on the table, insisting he's fully German.

Councilor SINAN SENYURT (Zehlendorf District, Berlin, Green Party): (Through translator) Calling me of migrant descent is a subtle way to separate me from them. It's discrimination. I was born here, so why do people tell me I'm disadvantaged just because my grandparents were migrants? Maybe I am not a pure German, so call me a new German.

POGGIOLI: John Matip Eichler was born in Leipzig, son of a German woman and an exchange student from Cameroon, a father he hardly knew. He says racism was as intense in communist East Germany as in the West.

Mr. JOHN MATIP EICHLER: After World War II, it was difficult for our mothers because we had this word which was called rassenschande. It's a shame of race. That means a woman who was engaging with especially a black guy, that was a shame for the family. So sometimes these women were also forced to give their children into orphanage.

POGGIOLI: Eichler's mother defied society and raised her mixed-race son on her own. But since the fall of communism, an outbreak of racist violence in the former East Germany has made it an area that's too dangerous for minorities, so Eichler won't let his children take school trips there.

And throughout Germany, people still ask him, where are you from? With the unspoken follow-up, when are you going back? All minorities wonder when will we finally be considered Germans?

Mr. JAN TECHAU (Europe Analyst, German Council on Foreign Relations): I have no idea. That's the one big question that nobody has an answer to.

POGGIOLI: Jan Techau of the German Council on Foreign Relations says the German concept of identity is based on exclusion.

Mr. TECHAU: For hundreds and thousands of years, identities were created by excluding those who were not part of the crowd, by drawing up borders. And this is why becoming a German when you are from Africa or Asia or Turkey or elsewhere is such a difficult thing because not only do you have to subscribe to everything that's normal here, you also have to overcome this exclusion barrier.

(Soundbite of musical "The Streets of Wedding")

Unidentified Girl (Singing): I can just imagine to flip the switch and turn on the light. Could this be my chance?

POGGIOLI: 100 students created the score, lyrics, and choreography for a unique musical, "The Streets of Wedding," the tough inner-city district of Berlin where their school is located.

The musical was a runaway success and toured throughout the country. It's an examination of life in Wedding seen through the eyes of the students themselves, nearly all of migrant origin, socially disadvantaged kids with few prospects in German society.

(Soundbite of ringing bell)

POGGIOLI: At the Ernst-Schering School, young performers gather to discuss how the musical transformed them. Jennifer Hunze is of Polish origin.

Ms. JENNIFER HUNZE (Student, Ernst-Schering School, Germany): (Through translator) Before, to many people, I wasn't visible. I didn't speak out either, but I felt like a ghost, you know? They didn't take any notice of me. But now, I know that I have to, you know, speak out, and then they will take notice of me.

POGGIOLI: Most of the students had never been out of the district of Wedding before going on tour. And in a country where only 10 percent of minorities pursue higher education, many of these young performers now want to go to universities.

The man responsible for motivating the kids is musician and composer Todd Fletcher, an African-American. Long before the Obama campaign chose its slogan, Fletcher helped the kids write a song with the refrain, yes we can. He says it had a real impact.

Mr. TODD FLETCHER (Musician; Composer): Because the yes we can attitude is crucial. Without that, there's no hope for these kids. And they need someone saying, you can do things because their entire lives they are told, you can't do it. You're not going to succeed. You're not going to make it out of this ghetto.

POGGIOLI: John Eichler, the Afro-German from Leipzig, says just as the musical's message empowered the kids in Wedding, the election of Barack Obama is giving all minorities more self confidence. He hopes German society will finally wake up.

Mr. EICHLER: The perceptions will change because we have all these stereotypes about people of African descent - of course, sportsmen, entertainers, all this. And now, we have a first family, and we talk about Harvard, and we talk about taking over responsibility in a country, and this is completely new, and that opens the eyes.

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

INSKEEP: So that's the view from Germany. And tomorrow, we'll hear about immigrants in Italy.

Unidentified Man: We are considered as ghosts, something just less than human beings. No one is interested in your condition, your future, your past - no one at all.

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