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What It Means To Be German


And I'm Rachel Martin in Berlin, Germany, where we are covering the run-up to the German elections.


And it sounds like what could be a very good day for the sitting chancellor, Angela Merkel, right, Rachel?

MARTIN: Yeah. Come Sunday, that's what voters are expected to go to the polls, she and her party are poised to win what would be a rare fourth term. But, David, I should say, even though she's doing well in the polls at this point, she's taken a lot of heat in the recent past for how she handled the refugee crisis, the migrant crisis which was at its height back in 2015. In the past couple of years, Germany has taken in more than a million refugees, most of them from Syria, most of them Muslims. And that is provoking this debate here about what it means to be German.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking German).

MARTIN: So this is sound from a citizenship class. They've been happening for about the past decade or so. We went to one of these classes designed to teach newcomers how to speak German and also how to just fit into the culture here. And all of this is, of course, part of the prep for the citizenship test, which is what you have to pass if you want a German passport.

MARTIN: A man named Mohammed al Taeh just passed this test. I met him two years ago here in Berlin during the height of the refugee crisis. He had fled the war in Syria, was living in an apartment building back then used as transitional housing for Refugees. He told me he had left everything behind.


MOHAMMED AL TAEH: I don't know anyone in Germany, but I hope I can bring my family here. But we are not staying too much time. When our country has come back, we are come back to our country.

MARTIN: Things have changed in the past couple of years - Mohammed's expectations about going home, for one. His life though has changed in a way that is even more important to him.

RIMAS: (Foreign language spoken).

RAWAH: (Foreign language spoken).

RIMAS: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: His 4-year-old daughter, Rimas, and his wife, Rawah, finally got their German visas in early April. After weeks of traveling, they made it to Berlin. Rimas is now 4 years old. Her pigtails peek out of her white fedora-style hat with pink trim. She's wearing little black boots with sparkles and tights - pink ones. She carries around a doll that she brought from home.

AL TAEH: From Syria to Turkey to Lebanon till now. She was with her from three years.

MARTIN: She looks well-loved. This doll's been through a lot.

Rimas and her mom are catching up to Mohammed. He's had a couple of years to get used to this culture and this language. Mother and daughter are just getting started. It helps, though, that they have a place to call their own.

AL TAEH: Here will be my office...

MARTIN: But - so you have three rooms?

They just signed a lease on this new apartment in a suburb of Berlin. It's a community with a lot of immigrants from Syria but also from Lebanon, Afghanistan and Jordan. It was an unfinished apartment, and Mohammed and Rawah did all the construction work, finishing the walls and the floors, painting. There are still boxes everywhere.

AL TAEH: Here will be Rima's room.

MARTIN: Clearly, she likes butterflies though, I can see.

AL TAEH: And the pink.

MARTIN: The pink. Yeah, well, you know, why wouldn't you? We sit down on the couch in the living room. The afternoon sun casts shadows on the coffee table. Rawah presents coffee with cardamom and Syrian sweets.

Oh, that's beautiful. Thank you. That's so kind.

Rawah sits down in a chair, Rimas right next to her. I ask Rawah, what is the hardest part of her new life? Her German neighbor, she says. Now, it's worth noting that when people here say German, they mean white Germans. She says a while back, this neighbor was giving her a hard time. He complained that they were speaking Arabic too loud. He wanted to know why she insisted on wearing a headscarf. Eventually, he called child protective services and accused them of not taking good care of their daughter. Rawah was pregnant at the time. She says she was so stressed about the situation, it made her sick.

AL TAEH: And I kept bringing her to the hospital and we lose the baby.

MARTIN: I'm sorry for that.

They still want to expand their family. They're laying down roots here, at least they're trying to. Mohammed tells me at this point, the government is helping him pay his bills - half of his rent and about $100 a month for living expenses. Eventually, he wants that to end.

AL TAEH: I didn't get any help from here.

MARTIN: Oh, you want to be financially independent?


MARTIN: So no help from the government?

AL TAEH: No help. I pay my tax. And my daughter would be proud for me.

MARTIN: You think she can build a life here? She's going to be a German.

AL TAEH: She can be German, but she will stay Syrian. She has decide what she can not lose it.

MARTIN: So that's the story of a family just starting out in Germany. Across town, though, we meet a woman who has spent 30 years building up a life here.

NAWAL EL FOULY: (Speaking German).

MARTIN: We're in the district of Neukolln in Berlin, in a boutique that sells headscarves and long black dresses for Muslim women. Nawal el Fouly works here. Originally, she's from Lebanon. And when she was 19 years old, she followed her fiance here to Germany. Nawal shows me an item that's all the rage these days - the burkini.

It's not very long.

EL FOULY: (Speaking German).

MARTIN: Ah, the hose, the pants, are underneath. It's the same material as a swim suit. And it's very nice. So you can get a burkini in navy blue with a little pink accent or black and pink.

Nawal has piercing green eyes, and her headscarf is a similar shade of green. I ask her, after all this time, does she feel German?

EL FOULY: (Speaking German).

MARTIN: "No," she tells me. In her heart, she's still an Arab woman. I ask her what she thinks about the immigration debate in Germany and those who would rather keep people like her out. And she gives a surprising answer.

What is the problem?

EL FOULY: (Speaking German).

MARTIN: She says, "there are too many refugees here. It's too difficult for them to find accommodation. It's too difficult for them to find jobs. There just aren't enough resources," she says. Nawal clearly sees her own story as separate from those immigrants coming to Germany today, immigrants like Mohammed and his daughter, Rimas.

AL TAEH: (Foreign language spoken).

RIMAS: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: As we leave his apartment, Mohammed is curled up with Rimas, teaching her some words in German, the language of her new home.

David, right now, refugees like Mohammed and his family feel like they can build a life here. Voters will go to the polls on Sunday. And one of the issues that will motivate their vote will be what they think about the Germany of the future. Will it continue to be the kind of place that would welcome other refugees like Mohammed and his daughter? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.