Germany shuns "foreign" families

Immigrants and their German-born children find themselves cut off from state benefits.

Published January 6, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Ayse Barzani was a 25-year-old mother of two when she got the unexpected
news that she was pregnant again.

The young Kurdish refugee, who asked that her real name not be used, was
scared. Her husband's salary barely covered the costs of raising two
children; she didn't know how they could afford a third.

In the United States, Barzani would have had few options besides
welfare. But in Germany, at least theoretically, the government provides
-- financially -- for growing families.

"Everything that you don't have in America is everything that we do have
in Germany," says Guenter Kolb, spokesman for the social benefits office
in Baden-Wurttemburg, the southern German state where Barzani lives.

But the magnanimity of the state has its limits; and Barzani, an
immigrant with refugee status, learned that she is not the intended
beneficiary of the "everything" that Kolb proudly mentions. Most
importantly, she is excluded from a stipend that non-immigrants with
virtually the same financial profile receive to help them stay at home
and raise young children.

Back in 1986, the German government began offering federal subsidies
designed to encourage parents to have more children and to stay at home
with them, at least during their earliest years. The country's
plummeting birth rate -- and average of just 1.8 children per household
-- inspired the creation of the stipend, which works on a sliding scale.

Under the guidelines, in a family where one parent works less than 19
hours a week and the annual household income is less than about $50,000,
parents can receive about $315 a month for the first seven months of a
child's life. After that, depending on the parents' income, families are
eligible to receive anywhere from about $22 to about $315 a month, until the
child is 24 months old.

Four German states extend the federal aid to offer parents with little
income an extra year of financial aid. In Baden-Wurttemburg, the
supplemental state subsidy is around $210 a month for parents whose
monthly income is less than $1,300.

Barzani came to Baden-Wurttemburg in 1992 after fleeing southeastern
Turkey with her husband and their two young children. They won political
asylum but were not granted German citizenship. After her third child
was born, Barzani began receiving federal benefits of about $315 a
month. But when she applied for state child-rearing money,
Baden-Wurttemburg officials turned her away. As a Turkish national, they
argued, she did not qualify.

The family found that it could not make ends meet without the state
money. Although they could have applied for welfare, Barzani did not
want to have to depend on social assistance when she could support her
family with money that is meant to be available to Germans.

In a lawsuit against the state, she argued that she and her husband, as
legal residents who pay the same taxes as other Germans, are entitled to
the same benefits. In August, she won the suit, but has yet to receive
the approximately $2,520 she is owed retroactively. The benefits are
being withheld as Baden-Wurttemburg's social welfare office tries to
convince Germany's highest court to overturn the decision. A judgment is
expected this month.

Whatever the federal administrative court decides, the ruling will apply
to every state with programs that extend payment of child-rearing money.
Millions of children growing up in Germany will be affected, but the
greatest impact will be on the Turks. They make up the largest
immigrant population in the country, and many do not have German

"She was certainly not aware of the impact she would have," says
Barzani's lawyer, Juergen Blechengar. "For her, the motivations were
personal. She was concerned with how she could support her family
without going on welfare. It was a matter of pride.

"She just wanted the same benefits that others get here."

The case is being argued at a time of significant tension between
Germans and the country's foreign residents. This fall, the German
People's Union, a far-right political group, won seats in the
Brandenburg state parliament on a platform of anti-foreigner
nationalism. And, more than 30 years after the first of millions of
Turks were brought in to help rebuild post-World War II Germany, many
second- and third-generation German-born foreigners still have not been
granted German citizenship.

Meanwhile, legislative steps -- all of them controversial -- have been
taken to bring immigrants into the national fold.

On Jan. 1, the German government began offering citizenship
to all legal immigrants if the immigrants request it. But many Turks
now say they aren't interested. They say they still feel like strangers
and outcasts in Germany, and that citizenship will not make them feel
any more welcome.

Also this year, children who are born in Germany will automatically get
German citizenship. It is especially disheartening to the immigrant population that
such a long and costly legal battle has been launched over just two
years' worth of benefits. This case, they say, reinforces how alienated
they feel in Germany.

Turks feel "generally frustrated," says Blechengar. "Turkey no longer
feels like home, but Turks aren't made to feel at home here either." And
because the Turks are not citizens and don't have the right to vote,
Blechengar says, German politicians aren't keen to support their demand
for equal rights.

In western Germany, an increasing number of women are focusing on their
careers instead of raising families, despite incentives such as
child-rearing money and paid maternity leave. And in the former east,
many young women say they would rather enjoy the new freedoms of
democracy than be weighed down by family commitments.

On the other hand, the religious and social culture of Turkey encourages
mothers to have many children -- and many of them have had large
families on German soil. The fact that these women are not offered state
child-rearing benefits, say advocates for the immigrants, is blatant
ethnic discrimination.

"It's an injustice," says an embittered Remziye Sezgin, 34, of the
states' unwillingness to pay child-rearing benefits to immigrants. She
and her husband, both Turkish, operate a travel agency in Karlsruhe,
Baden-Wurttemburg. She says her three children did not benefit from the
state's largess and points to her teenager.

"My daughter was born here. But not even her daughter will receive [the

Germany -- the largest social welfare state in Europe -- has paid
federal benefits to foreign residents since 1980, when the European
Union ruled that legal aliens were eligible for the same programs as
natives. But Friedhelm Repnik, legal expert for the social benefits
ministry in Baden-Wurttemburg, argues that the E.U. ruling does not apply
to his state's child-rearing money.

He maintains that state benefits already are legally selective, because
recipients must live in the state and be financially needy. Therefore,
he reasons, it is legal to select the recipients of the benefits based
on nationality. He maintains that the state's stance is not

If the state awards benefits to Turkish parents, Repnik says, "there
will be an even stronger pull [for Turks] to move to Baden-Wurttemburg."
Foreigners, a majority of whom are Turkish, already make up more than 20
percent of this large state's population. Overall, immigrants make up
about 9 percent of the German population.

In 1998, the state paid out about $65 million in state child-rearing
aid -- more, says Repnik, than was anticipated. To pay benefits for the
approximately 8,000 Turkish children who are born in Baden-Wurttemburg
each year could cost as much as $8.5 million a year.

"The big deficit is in the lack of equal treatment," says Gokay
Sofuoglu, president of the Baden-Wurttemburg Turkish Assembly, a
community and advocacy group.

"A child is born here, grows up here and still doesn't receive the same
benefits," Sofuoglu says. "The Turkish mother and father are raising
children, just like the German mother and father."

But Kolb says there is a difference. "The state child-rearing money was
originally founded only for the state's children," he says. "We are
under no legal requirement to give this money to foreigners."

One family who will likely benefit if the high court rules in Barzani's
favor is the Verts. (Their names have also been changed.) The Verts are
ethnic Syrians and Orthodox Christians. They left their village in
southeastern Turkey in 1986 after witnessing violence against other

Jozef Vert says the disparity in benefit awards means that "Germans see
us as a second class. We are truly foreigners. We have always been
foreigners -- in Turkey and now in Germany. I feel as though we are
banished on both sides."

Unlike Barzani and her family, the Verts do not have refugee status.
Because they are in Germany on a temporary visa, Jozef and his wife
Miriyam were not even eligible to receive federal child-rearing money.
Last year, they finally won the right to those benefits and now they are
awaiting a ruling on Baden-Wurttemburg's benefit to low-income parents.
Meanwhile, the family says it cannot pay its bills each month.

"It is so expensive to live in Germany," Jozef says. "Every month it is
something new for the children. We can't afford the necessities -- do
you know how expensive shoes are?"

"What is the difference between our kids and German kids?" he continues.
"If Germans need that much money to raise their children, so do we. A
child's soul is a soul."

For Miriyam, the main issue is staying at home with her children. "If I
had to go to work, then I'd have to find a baby sitter, and I don't want
to do that. I want to raise my own children."

Ironically, that is exactly what Baden-Wurttemburg hoped for when it
created its program. If she were of a different nationality, Miriyam
would be a model citizen.

By Allison Linn

Allison Linn works for National Public Radio in its Berlin bureau. She also is a contributor to the Associated Press, ARTNews and the German newspaper Die Welt.

MORE FROM Allison Linn

By Ayla Jean Yackley

Ayla Jean Yackley is an editor and writer for the English-language section of the German newspaper Die Welt, and a regular contributor to Wired, the Chicago Tribune and other German and American publications.

MORE FROM Ayla Jean Yackley

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Germany Middle East World War Ii