Newcomers, Not Refugees

September, 2015

Berlin -- On several streets around my area of Kreuzberg I see welcoming signs stenciled onto sidewalks proclaiming "Willkommen!" and its equivalent in a language that looks to me like Arabic. But so far I have seen no refugees, at least none that I am aware of.

A usual place for refugees to gather is Oranienplatz, but it is empty. No new refugees are to be seen around the two neighborhood mosques, either, or around the U-Bahn stations G├Ârlitzer Bahnhof or Kottbusser Tor. They are streaming into Berlin, I understand, but are sleeping on sidewalks around a processing center in another part of the city.

Der Tagesspiegel newspaper last weekend interviewed a few refugees during a welcoming picnic over in Tempelhof, the former airport famous as the destination of the 1948 Berlin Airlift. A huge building there, built by the Nazis, may be used to house them temporarily. The paper also gave op-ed space to a Syrian who has been in Berlin four months. The Syrian, who speaks English, suggests that the term for the new arrivals should be "Newcomers," not "Fl├╝chtlinge" (refugees).

The term may catch on. Germany needs workers and does not need the unrest that sometimes comes with them. The term for the great in-migration of Turks four decades ago was "Gastarbeiter" (guest workers), a euphemism that nevertheless implied that at some point the guests would return to their homeland. The Turks are hardly guests anymore. Two hundred thousand live in Kreuzberg and have been here going on four generations.

Last Sunday I met my Turkish neighbor Osman, who lives two blocks away on what was once disputed property between East and West Berlin. He had stared down two opposing governments just to make the little plot into a productive garden. I have often given him a wave when walking by in recent years, but never met him. Sunday was his 90th birthday; a family celebration spilled out into the street and I was finally able to meet the old man personally. Sensing I knew no Turkish, he simply smiled, shook my hand, and pressed upon me his name, "Osman, Osman."

Despite their longevity here, many Turks have not assimilated, even those born here. The language of commerce is German, but the language and the dress in many of the streets is Turkish. Perhaps it will be different with this wave of Newcomers.