Rahim Mohamed: Welcome to Neukölln: Berlin’s “Hipster Ghetto” serves as both cautionary tale and possible model for Canada

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It’s a scene that has become all too common in migrant enclaves throughout Europe: Teenage girls subjected to ‘honour beatings’ for dressing immodestly in public; local playgrounds overrun by pre-teen gangs who charge younger children entry fees; German passersby harassed and harangued as “pig-eaters”; entire city blocks sealed off from police and other emergency personnel.

These are just a few anecdotes of daily life in Neukölln, a migrant-heavy district in Berlin’s south-side. Home to 300,000 residents from over 160 countries, Neukölln is a central front in Germany’s intensifying culture war. 

Once home to a thriving local manufacturing industry and a magnet for low-skilled foreign guest workers and refugees, Neukölln endured a long, painful decline as blue collar jobs began to leave Berlin following reunification of Germany in 1990. By the early 2000s, roughly 25 per cent of the borough’s population (including 50 per cent of migrants) were dependent on social assistance.

Life has been especially bleak in the district’s northern reaches (Nord-Neukölln), where around 80 per cent of young people grow up in immigrant households. Many lack even rudimentary German language skills.

The economic and social frustrations of young residents have given way to a toxic combination of ethnic tribalism and plain hooliganism.

The situation reached a crisis point in 2006, when faculty and staff from Nord-Neukölln’s Rütli high school—dubbed “Germany’s School of Hard Knocks” in the national press—petitioned the Berlin Senate to shut the school down, claiming that they could no longer deal with their students’ violent outbursts.

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Yet Neukölln ultimately found hope in an unlikely form; that of long-serving district mayor Heinz Buschkowsky, a staunch social democrat. The colourful, cherubic mayor, known as “The Big Buschkowsky” to his fervent supporters, deftly managed to balance brutal honesty about the social challenges facing Neukölln with a pragmatic eye for innovative, inclusive policy solutions. His thirteen-year tenure as district mayor, which came to an end with his retirement in the spring of 2015, generated both controversy and tangible improvements for the community.

Buschkowsky scandalized Germany’s priggish political establishment with his polemical 2012 bestseller Neukölln ist Uberall (Neukölln is Everywhere). The book shattered any illusion of benign multiculturalism in Germany, documenting the social disintegration of Neukölln in painstaking detail. This indictment was especially damning coming from an established social democrat and committed ‘social justice warrior’.

The book takes dead aim at the folly of cultural relativism and the reluctance of political elites to speak out about the shortcomings of multiculturalism.

Buschkowsky writes that the situation will not improve “[a]s long as we put forward a policy of tolerance and forgiveness and give signals to people that we have no intention to change these conditions because this neglect of morals belongs to [our] cultural identity and […] openness to the world[.]”

Neukölln’s own integration policy, articulated in a 2009 district manifesto, emphasizes a shared responsibility on the part of both native Germans and migrants themselves. The document also specifies clear limits to cultural accommodation: “Everyone accepts and lives by the containing values and rules of the free democratic basic order,” it reads. “[This] does not mean that everyone has to commit himself to an abstract German cultural identity. But it does mean that a group cannot defy this order and live according to its own norms and traditions in a parallel society.”

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Accordingly, the manifesto prohibits illiberal cultural practices like forced marriages and the exclusion of girls from compulsory educational activities. The latter, controversially, has meant that immigrants who withhold their elementary school-aged daughters from co-educational swimming lessons (required by Berlin’s curriculum) are in violation of district law. 

Throughout his time as mayor, Buschkowsky exhibited a willingness to work with various ethnic and religious civil society groups, so long as such entities embraced basic democratic principles. This allowed migrants themselves to do much of the heavy lifting of cultural integration by helping others in their personal social networks access educational and economic opportunities.

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One initiative that has been especially successful is Neukölln’s Stadtteilmütter (“Neighborhood Mothers”) program. Stadtteilmütter are local migrant women who are trained by district officials to provide social and educational outreach services to families within their respective cultural communities. They take part in training modules on topics like child care, bilingual education, and preventative health care and—in turn—impart these lessons to local families through direct household visits. Stadtteilmütter are paid a modest salary of 1,060 euro ($1,475 CDN) per month for this service.

The Stadtteilmütter program began in 2004 with just twelve women, all Turkish, and now comprises over 140 women who serve the community’s Turkish, Arab, and Eastern European populations—among other groups. The program has reached some 4,000 families with over 10,000 children and has received multiple international awards. The Council of Europe (2016) concludes that Stadtteilmütter and other migrant-led community initiatives have led to “increased democratic participation in decision making and the regeneration of disadvantaged urban areas."

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The more welcoming civic atmosphere has drawn a number of young non-immigrants to Neukölln over the past few years. A lengthy profile published last year in Foreign Policy hailed the district as Berlin’s “hipster ghetto” where “refugees and cool kids are living side by side.” In fact, residents now worry about gentrification altering the borough’s social balance. While problematic in their own right, these concerns reflect just how far Neukölln has come from being a place where teachers and police officers once refused to even step foot.

This story has clear implications for Canada, which has, at times, struggled to integrate newer migrant communities.

As my colleague Candice Malcolm points out in her book Losing True North, limited educational and employment prospects, coupled with linguistic barriers, have left much of Canada’s Somali diaspora siloed in isolated, impoverished suburbs of major cities. Several of these enclaves have been breeding grounds for violence, as upwards of 100 young Somalis have been killed in Canada over the past decade.

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Many of our 35,000 Syrian refugees, who now face similar challenges with English/French language acquisition and finding stable work, risk falling into the same trap. The experience of Neukölln indicates that robust integration policies will be needed to give such at-risk communities a chance to thrive in Canada. Policies that give migrants themselves an active role in integration will likely be the most effective. A special effort should be made to engage women from migrant communities, as the Stadtteilmütter project demonstrates.

Yet the key takeaway from Neukölln’s experience is that the first step towards successful integration is to speak openly and honestly about the social problems that have been created by mass migration. Without acknowledging the shortcomings of our approach to multiculturalism—at the risk of offending a few people—we have no way to improve upon it.  As Mayor Buschkowsky himself has put it, "Every political action begins with articulating the way things are now."