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In German City, an Old Crime Hovers Over E.U. Expansion

As Vote Nears on Talks With Turkey, Many Recall Arson Attack

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 16, 2004; Page A24

SOLINGEN, Germany -- Eleven years ago, neo-Nazi arsonists scrawled swastikas on buildings near a Turkish family's home and in the children's sandbox before pouring flammable liquid under the front door. Five people -- three little girls and two young women -- died in the fire, victims of a terror campaign intended to drive foreigners out of Germany.

Memories of the hate crime are still raw in this western German metalworking city that recruited thousands of Turkish immigrants as cheap labor after World War II but never really welcomed them as full members of society. Despite the arson and other attempts to drive them out, the Turkish community in Solingen stayed put and has expanded its numbers.

At a mosque in Solingen, Fatih Zingal, left, said Germans often treat him as an outsider even though he was born in Germany to Turkish immigrant parents. (Shannon Smiley For The Washington Post)

"It has become better since that day," said Alisan Hizli, who immigrated here from Turkey in 1966 and is now a German citizen and owner of a local travel agency that caters to Turks. "Before, you'd see things like Nazi banners spray-painted on walls or anti-foreigner statements. But now you don't see that. There's a good, strong dialogue with other organizations in town, and we hope it will continue to get better."

Today, the question is not whether people of Turkish descent belong in Solingen or other German cities, but whether Germany and its neighbors will fully embrace Turkey and its 70 million people as an integral part of Europe. Germany is now home to Turkey's largest expatriate community, of 2.2 million.

On Friday, leaders of the European Union are scheduled to vote on whether to begin formal negotiations with Turkey about joining the bloc. Although it would take at least a decade for Turkey to become a full member, the proposal has touched off a debate over whether it makes sense to extend the union's borders to include a largely Muslim country that is geographically closer to Cairo than Brussels.

A similar debate has been underway in Solingen for a generation, ever since the first big wave of Turkish workers arrived in the 1960s. Tensions have subsided since the neo-Nazi attack, but there is still deep frustration among Turks and Germans about how well the city of 163,000 has integrated newcomers who brought a different language and religion.

About 20 percent of Solingen's residents are foreign-born or come from immigrant families. The city government does not keep precise statistics on people of Turkish ethnicity but estimates the number at 10 to 15 percent.

At the largest Turkish mosque in the city, Fatih Zingal, a 25-year-old law student, said Germans often treat him as an outsider, even though he was born in Solingen and has lived here all his life. His parents emigrated from Turkey so his father could work in the factories. Everyone in his family is a German citizen. Two years ago, his father voted for the first time.

"I've got a German passport, but in the eyes of the people, I'm a Turk," Zingal said. "I don't want to always have to prove I'm German. When they say, 'You speak good German,' I don't want to have to explain every time that I was born here. We are no longer the guest-worker family. We want to be treated as part of society."

His friend, Ergun Kilinc, 31, has taken a different path. Although he also was born in Solingen, he lived in Turkey for 15 years to study and work, and is still a Turkish citizen. He returned to Solingen to study for a doctorate in teaching German as a foreign language, but doesn't know whether he will stay.

Kilinc expressed exasperation at what he said was a German unwillingness to tolerate immigrants, even those who do their best to assimilate by learning the language and adopting German customs. "It is hard, and it is sometimes hurtful," he said. "You try and try to integrate, and you get put down again and again."

"The greatest fear of the Germans is that there will be millions of Turks coming to Germany in a huge wave," he added. "But that will not happen. It was the same fear they had with the Portuguese and the Greeks, but they didn't come either" when those countries joined the E.U.

Wolfgang Pohlmann, sipping coffee at an Italian-owned ice cream parlor on the other side of Solingen, said that many Germans are convinced more Turks would flood over the border if Turkey was allowed to join the E.U. and that they do not relish the prospect.

"The fear is definitely there," said Pohlmann, 64, a representative of the anti-immigration Republican Party on the City Council in the neighboring town of Wuppertal. "The problem is not only the people who will come looking for work. It's that they'll also bring their wives and families along. This will be a big drain on public services and the economy."

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