Immigrant Fathers in Germany: Fear of Jihad’s Call

A life of toil, little time for their children, and in the end, the ultimate rejection. The terror that haunts immigrant Muslim fathers in Germany: that their sons will abandon a Europe that cradled them but never really accepted them for the abstract contentment of jihad.

Kazim Erdogan is adamant. “My daughters would never go off to do jihad in Syria.”

Erdogan, a social worker, immigrated to Germany exactly forty years ago. In the beginning, “I remember I felt like a three-year-old, because I could not speak the language,” he says in now-impeccable German.

His two daughters are 21 and 24 years old. He never misses an occasion to talk to them about how to “solve conflicts non-violently, and about the consequences of war,” he says.

About twenty German women have gone off to fight in Syria, but it is overwhelmingly men who are susceptible to the call of jihad, says Erdogan, “because in Muslim culture, they are raised from a young age as if they were heroes or sultans.”

A teacher-turned social worker and mediator, Erdogan has headed a social services non-profit, Aufbruch Neukolln since 2003, and started a talk therapy group for fathers in 2007.

For weeks, the group, composed mostly of Turkish immigrant men, has been consumed by a single topic: the young Germans who have left to do “jihad” in Syria. There were 270 German citizens in Syria at the beginning of February, according to German intelligence.

Why a group for fathers? “Because German society spends too much time talking about “immigrant workers” [“gasterbeiter”] instead of talking to them,” Erdogan says, sitting in his large office in the Neukolln youth services center.

With its large and substantially Turkish immigrant population, this is the neighborhood from which Erdogan’s talk therapy group draws most of its members. He says that men here have been “cut off from the education of their children” by their work obligations, and when they run into problems, most turn “to the mosque to pray or to the cafe to drink.”

From two members in 2007, the fathers’ group has grown to over a hundred now: 80 Turks and 20 fathers of other nationalities.

The idea is simple: give fathers a chance to talk about themselves, and to become fathers again, to play a role in the lives of their children. As for those who have left for Syria, Erdogan says, “we need to break the silence, come right out and say that it might happen to anyone. Too often, the shame for these families is too much and they say nothing.”

His experience serving the youth of Neukolln has taught the founder of the fathers’ group a number of useful lessons for parents.

“I have seen too many families who disparage their own children right in front of me,” he says, “Telling them ‘you are worthless, I am ashamed of you,’ and the like.”

This is precisely the wrong attitude to take, Erdogan says; a child should always find comfort in his own family, or else he will end up seeking it elsewhere, in particular in the arms of radical groups.

Kemal is a 43 year old divorced father, a member of the group for the past five years and a volunteer with Erdogan’s nonprofit. He has taken this advice to heart, doing all he can to develop a closer relationship with his sixteen-year-old son. Unemployed since the factory where he worked was shut down in 2009, Kemal says frankly that “When I first joined the fathers’ group five years ago, I was having suicidal thoughts.” Talking to his son, whose grades in school were worsening, seemed insurmountable to him. “We needed to first learn to trust each other,” he says. The real breakthrough came the first time he broke down and cried in front of the other fathers. After that, he was able to start talking to his son about his feelings, ask him about his own problems in school, in short, to get more involved in his life.

Meetings with a therapist followed, first father and son separately, then together. Wiping a wrinkled forehead, Kemal remembers “how difficult t was to learn to accept criticism from my own son, to hear that I had never done anything with him, that I never spoke to him, that I helped everyone out but him.”

Therapy also allowed him to see beyond his son’s grades, up to that point the only thing that had seemed worth measuring. Still, Kemal happily points out that “His grades have gone from Cs to Bs.”

Deeply experienced in understanding family conflicts, Erdogan advises fathers “don’t trust appearances.”

For him, parents need to “go and see for yourself what is being said in the mosque where your child prays, what they are teaching there, talk to their friends.”

A good disciple, Kemal says he knows that even if his son’s grades are improving, “I can never be out of touch with him, because that is when the problems will begin.” He suggests approaching the subject obliquely.

turkish-german221Berlin. Photo CC by Frank M. Rafik.

“I first asked my son what his friends thought about jihad, what people were saying at school.”

His son’s answers horrified him.

“I realized that there was a climate of hatred developing at the school, hatred against minorities, and against other communities.”

Yusuf is one the earliest members of the fathers’ group, a political refugee in Germany since 1987, who describes himself as a ‘leftist, and internationalist, an anti-capitalist.’

A retired teacher, Yusuf accuses the “capitalist system” of using jihad as a pretext to sell weapons. He accuses the media of helping radicalize young people, by showing a biased image of the conflict in Syria.

“Journalists lie when they say that Assad is the only one killing the Syrian people. It gives our young people the false impression that the way to save the world is to go off and fight in Syria.”

Yusuf says he takes care to get to know the romantic partners of both of his children: a 25 year old son training to be a mechanic, and a 31 year old daughter who is a dentist. “I ask them directly, ‘what do you think about jihad?'”

Despite all of these precautions, the risk of being ‘blacked out,’ of their children becoming radicals under the radar of their parents, still exists. Are there foolproof signs of radicalization that any parent can be on the lookout for?

Not really, says Erdogan. Still, he says that the best hope is for parents to work on closer relationships with their children, be on alert, pay attention to those around them.

The relationship Kemal developed with his son allowed him to repair the damage done by certain of his friends at school.

“He told me about a Palestinian friend who was full of hatred,” he says. “So we signed this boy up for our group’s soccer team, because he was so gifted. There is less hatred in him now; his father is proud of him, and is more involved with him.”

Kemal is reminded of another of his son’s friends, who was pulled back from the brink. “A very depressed boy,” he says. “who had fallen under the influence of an imam who was telling him he needed to go kill a Christian so he could get into paradise. We got him to a therapist, who really was able to save him. If it weren’t for that, he’d be in Syria right now.”

Suleyman, another of the early members of the fathers’ group, is convinced that the only real way to avoid being ‘blacked out’ is to spend a lot of time with your children.

Thirty six years working in the construction sites in Berlin, this retired tile-setter who has spent seven years with the fathers group, and has mixed feelings about his own success. “I was working too hard,” he says. “I only had two days off a month, and just did not have enough time with my family.”

Retiring came just in time for Suleyman, who proudly lists the tasks he has set for himself.

“It has been five or six years now that I have been bringing my three grandchildren to school every morning. And right now I am helping my daughter to move.”

He still has one major regret: his failure to have a real relationship with the youngest of his sons. “Drugs destroy everything,” he says, gazing into his teacup.

What happens if a father’s involvement just is not enough to deter a son’s determination for jihad? For Kemal, the answer is clear.

“We have no other country but Germany,” he says. “We must protect our democracy against violence. The government must invest in more psychologists, more educators, because it is about our children’s future.”

The German government is not doing its best to help these lost young souls, Kemal says.

“They still call us migrants here,” he says. “What we need is, like in the USA, the feeling that we belong to the nation.”

Alexander Abdelilah