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Europe's Minority Politicians in Short Supply

Akguen, 51, won her Cologne seat in 2002 after a campaign in which her opponent said, "don't vote for the Turk, vote for me," and one man at a campaign event told her "only people with German blood are allowed to be in the German Bundestag." Some members of her party thought her Turkish name would cost them 10 percent of the vote. She won anyway, getting 43 percent of the popular vote. "It was the miracle of Cologne," she said.

Trailblazers in Sweden

Sweden, with 9 million people and a 349-member legislature, has a somewhat more diverse parliament, with a half-dozen members who trace their ancestry to Eritrea, Ghana, Congo, Turkey and Chile.


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Sherifay, the Muslim lawmaker from Egypt, recalls coming to Sweden when she was 21 -- following her Eritrean husband -- and not speaking "one word of Swedish." She took a job putting price tags on clothing -- an experience that gave her an opportunity to talk to Swedes and learn the language. After the youngest of her four children entered school, she continued her own education and became a primary school teacher.

Two years ago, Sherifay, 50, was recruited by the Social Democratic Party to run for office. She found that making her way into Swedish politics as a black Muslim woman wasn't easy, and even today the challenges remain. She still gets hate mail, including e-mail from a regular writer from neighboring Denmark who has used a racial slur and said he "felt sorry for Sweden" because of her. Now all her mail is screened by security agents.

Sherifay calls herself "an Afro-Swede" and appreciates the opportunities her adopted country has given her. But as a Muslim and elected official, she feels a certain added weight. "It's our interest, even our duty, to show that we are not terrorists," she said.

One of Sherifay's colleagues in parliament, Nyamko Sabuni, moved to Sweden at age 12 when her father, a political refugee, fled Congo. She grew up in the suburbs surrounded by Swedish children and learned the language readily. Assimilation was easier for her.

Today Sabuni, 35, avoids speaking out on minority issues, saying she doesn't want to be pigeonholed. She depicts her African heritage as a mere detail. "I don't reflect, really, on my background," she said. "I speak Swedish. I act Swedish. I don't see myself as an immigrant or a minority. I want to see myself as a young Swedish woman with kids, who's involved in politics."

To Stand Apart or Together

The question of separateness -- whether to stand apart as a minority, representing the group's views, or to play down the differences -- divides Europe's minority politicians. It is also a debate many carry on regularly with themselves.

Coruz, the Dutch politician of Turkish descent, said the debate started within his family. After being courted by several parties that were eager to add immigrants to their member lists, he decided to join the Christian Democratic Alliance (CDA), which he found to be most closely aligned with his views.

"I was the first Muslim in a Christian Democratic party in Europe," Coruz, 41, said over coffee in a hotel lobby in his native Haarlem. "When I first joined the party, my father thought I had become a Christian. He said, 'Don't you know what the 'C' stands for in CDA?' "

After the family debate came a party debate: Are Muslims welcome in a party that is largely secular but has roots in the Christian church? Can a Muslim immigrant be elected to the Dutch parliament as a Christian Democrat? Coruz's response was: "If you accept me as a member, you must also accept me as a member sitting in one of those blue seats in the Dutch parliament."

Since his election three years ago, Coruz has specialized in human rights issues, terrorism and juvenile justice. He has stayed away from immigration issues to avoid being typecast as the "immigrant politician." But at the same time, as an ethnic Turk, he knows he has a special responsibility to the Turkish community in the Netherlands, which -- whether he likes it or not -- sees him as its member of parliament.

Coruz uses his life story as a model for Turkish youths in the Netherlands. His father, a fisherman, came to the Netherlands and worked first in a factory making socks and later in a factory making train wheels. His father paid for him to have private English lessons and used to physically drag him off the soccer field when he thought his son was spending too much time playing sports.

Today Coruz blames Dutch Turks for being stuck in a "ghetto" mentality, concerning themselves mainly with an "immigrant agenda" and not fully assimilating.


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