In the melting pot – Muslim migrants in post-crisis Bochum

A shopping tour with HazarA shopping tour with Hazar . Foto: Octavian Bâlea. All rights reserved.

by Georgiana Catalina Macovei

Bochum lies in the heart of the Ruhrgebiet (Ruhr region), Germany’s former mining and industrial centre. In the past decades, the area has experienced a profound economic restructuring; the change of Ruhrgebiet and Bochum towards a post-industrial city conglomeration itself is best reflected by the area’s appointment as Europe’s Capital of Culture for 2010. Nevertheless, unemployment in the area is high. Since the influx of Turkish “guest workers” in the 1960s, migrants of Muslim faith make up a significant portion of the area’s population. What impact did the economic crisis of 2008 have on Bochum’s large and diverse Muslim community? Who was affected and what support networks are provided by religious institutions such as Mosque societies?

Bochum and migration – a different approach
There are quite a lot of facts and figures about Bochum and its people. One fact is that Bochum is a city of approximately 380,000 inhabitants in Western Germany, which lies in the heart of the Ruhr region (concentrated around the rivers Ruhr and Rhine), once the largest industrial area in Europe. Going back in time a few decades, Bochum was a city relying mainly on its manufacturing and mining industry. When its last collieries were shut down in the 1970s, Bochum experienced a severe change in the economic sector. The face of the city shifted from industrial to urban. At first this impacted negatively on peoples’ lives - many of them lost their jobs. Since then huge efforts have been made to develop other sectors that would decrease the unemployment rate. Today Bochum functions as a small but powerful academic-cultural conglomerate, fueled by its research and service sectors, striving to recover after the economic crisis that hit in 2008. However, the fact is that the unemployment rate still lingers around 13% in the city.

As far as migration is concerned, Bochum has been attracting people a lot ever since the 1960s, when Turkish Gastarbeiter (guest workers) came to work in the coal mines, and continues to be a migrant magnet up to the present. At one time people came to work in mines; however, nowadays it is the higher educational sector (to name the most relevant) that draws them and that represents one of the centers of interest. The Ruhr University of Bochum (Germany´s sixth largest University) is swarming with migrant students from all over the world.

Overall, 14.7% of the people currently living in Bochum´s 26 districts are migrants or have some sort of migration background. But these are just statistics. While facts and figures may provide an objective and empirical frame to the issue of migration in Bochum, they cannot truly convey the complexity of the matter. They cannot offer in-depth information about why these people migrated in the first place, about their struggles, their failure or success. This article attempts to find out about some of the people that make up Bochum´s melting pot, an attempt to put a name and a story to the numbers.

Bochum and the Islam
Although originating from different countries, more than a third of Bochum’s migrants have something in common: they share the same religion, Islam. Coming in the 1960s with the Turkish migrants who settled in Bochum, Islam has been part of the Ruhr region, thus of Bochum, for decades. There are currently around 20 mosques in the city, which host believers who claim that their faith is not merely a religion but a “way of life”, as they put it. How does it feel like to be a migrant in Bochum; moreover, a migrant with a Muslim background? Does one really have equal chances in finding a job? Does one encounter prejudice? Did the economic crisis impact their lives in a particular way?

The mosques
Out of the approximately 20 mosques in Bochum I chose to concentrate on two, which have distinct characteristics: The Islamic Community Bochum e.V. is particularly interesting to look at, since, as its slogan puts it, it is a place for “18 nationalities under one single roof” - even though, it is normally just known as the “Turkish mosque”. The other mosque is chiefly visited by migrants from Arabic countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco or Lebanon.

The people
According to Muslim beliefs men and women must pray separately from each other. This gender separation should allow people to concentrate better during the prayers and is only exempted during formal ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals. Even Ramadan is celebrated separately in the mosque, and while men used to socialize before the evening prayer, I practically never saw any women in the Turkish mosque. I would occasionally spot one or two of them as the kitchen door opened and closed. Some came every day to prepare the evening meal, which would be served in between evening prayers.

Although the mosque has about 500 members, not all attend prayers regularly. During Ramadan, thirty to forty men, all ages, would gather in the courtyard, eat together and chit-chat over a cup of hot chai. It was practically impossible to get to know them all, so I sometimes just joined other people´s conversations, watched them, or, in the case of the Arabic mosque, participated in one of their seminars. Out of the many encounters, I chose to present the following five.

Tolga
Normally, Tolga would not be one of the first people to meet if your business took you to the ”Turkish mosque“ down the Diberg Street in the heart of the Bochum city center. He usually does not spend that much time in the mosque but, at the time I met him, he was on vacation. After brief eye contact, I came up to him and he stretched out his hand to introduce himself (quite unnatural, I was later told, since Muslim men are not supposed to have any physical contact with women they do not know – handshaking included). A short series of questions and answers followed regarding my purpose in visiting the mosque, and then Tolga exclaimed: ”Well, let me tell you a bit about us“. He tells me “they” (it´s fairly usual for people I have interviewed to employ the plural form, even when talking about themselves as individuals) take great pride to have been among the first Muslim communities to ever emerge in Bochum, dating back to 1976.

”Oh, by the way, can you believe this place used to be a garage before we took over some two decades ago? Now we have two different rooms for men and women to pray [they must under no circumstances pray together], we have a classroom for our children to be taught, a kitchen, a pantry, actually everything we need”, he continues proudly. Tolga is the IT specialist of ”The Islamic community Bochum e.V“ and the one handling its internet site. However, this is not what he does for a living. He works for a well-known oil company and readily admits to be satisfied with his way of life and that of his family. He kept his job during the economic crisis, but the fear of unemployment was there. Nevertheless, if he compares himself to his non-Muslim colleagues at work he claims: ”I didn’t get so stressed out about it, like they did. I just took it one step at a time. Of course I was aware that I could get fired, the threat was there, because the company was planning to move to Hungary, but I thought in case something bad happens, I will try to make the best of it“. His brother-in-law is in a tight spot, however. For the past 25 years he has been employed by a temp agency and has been working for the steel magnate Thyssen Krupp. He worries about his job, says Tolga, dangling in the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring.

Tolga does not have these problems. His wife, he tells me, is also of Turkish origin, but born and raised in Germany, like Tolga himself. Although young – ”around 30“ – he provides for her and their two children: ”Being the only one working, of course I have a lot more responsibility. But I dare say that my family may have more money left at the end of the month than a family that is provided for by two.” We talk about work, managing money, making ends meet. His wife does not work not because she does not want to or because she cannot find a job, but mainly because they, as Muslims, Tolga claims, think very highly of education. The wife should stay home to educatate children, as he believes that the children´s education is better off when closely supervised by the mother. However this does not mean that a woman should not help if her family is not well provided for: ”Like my mother for example, she has to go to work, because otherwise they would not be able to survive only on my father’s salary.”

Tolga claims to live his life according to Islamic tradition. His religious beliefs help him deal with tough situations. He has to make sure that his family is doing well. However, if he lost his job, he explains, he would not panic because he always tries to see the positive side of things: ”One of the main principles of our faith teaches you that in each good thing, situation or happening something negative may be hidden, and each bad occurrence may have a bright side to it“, he says. Tolga considers himself an ordindary case. ”Actually, I´m quite boring. One could never write an article about me in the newspaper, our family is too normal. We mind our own business”. But it is exactly because of that, he believes, they have a happy life.

Tolga is quite self-confident, a trait shared by all my interlocutors who were born and raised in Germany. This self-confidence is also reflected in the way he speaks (his arguments are strong and his discourse is well-structured) but also in the way he looks. I had the feeling everything seemed to match every time we spoke: his big brown eyes were kind and fit the calmness of his speech; his clothes, although casual each time I saw him (since we only talked in the mosque), reflected his inner balance in a way. He is also well aware of the benefits provided by the social system and of his rights as a German citizen. This knowledge may also be responsible for his optimistic outlook on his family´s future. ”Should something happen, the state wouldn´t let me perish,“ he concludes in a positive manner.


Bochum: Ousmane's second home © Octavian Bâlea

Ousmane
I could not help but notice Ousmane in the Turkish mosque. He has a particular aura around him; he captures attention when he talks, always looking sharp, there is not a stain on his white-collar jacket. Ousmane is African. He readily agreed to an interview with me and we met in a small café downtown Bochum. If you ask him about himself, the first thing he tells you is what he does: ”I am a personal fitness and health coach and I am also in the trade business, exporting medicine and food products from Germany to African countries“, he says proudly. His work takes him everywhere on the planet, today New York, tomorrow France. Without a doubt he is a busy man, judging only by the phone calls he receives during our little get-together ”Aha, ok, so on the 28 of November from Düsseldorf Airport. And after that I have to be in Lisbon. Ok. But I think it would be quite all right if I make a quick stop in Dubai for three days, that shouldn’t be a problem, I suppose“, he says, hurrying to put an end to the call as soon as possible while still being courteous.

In Bochum, he tells me, he constantly has to deal with prejudice about his religion and skin color: ”Some years ago I used to wear my hair in dreadlocks (now a clean shave) and at the main station I was always stopped by the police, and they would always ask me the same question: Do you have anything to smoke? Do you have drugs on you? Just because I am black and I favor a particular hairstyle“. He can provide many examples of this kind, from being turned down for a flat to similar incidents. However, he believes that stereotypical judgment is a two-way street. Before, at the age of 16, he left his native Guinea behind, he admits that his heart was stricken with fear of the unknown, of what he had learned in school in history class about the Nazis, whom he associated the German people with. ”As a young boy I used to believe that the Germans stick people in the oven and burn them.” But that thought did not stop him from chasing his dream of becoming a professional football player. When he was 16, he got the offer to play for a football club in Germany, and he took it. Nowadays, he insists that peoples mistake is not necessarily having prejudice, but not bothering to see what lies beneath it. If he had not reconsidered his thoughts about Germans he would have never come as far as he has.

Since then, he has come a long way. He looks back at his football days as he was a teenager as a glorious period. He played for several clubs, but by the time he turned 18, his career was practically over, due to several injuries he suffered. He was facing a terrible question: ”What am I going to do now?” But he did not ponder much and started an apprenticeship as a carpenter, the same trade his father had, which however, did not materialize in a job offer later on. He also came to learn German pretty quickly since he is “a very outgoing and sociable person, and since I was a footballer, girls loved me, so there was always someone I could talk to”, he recollects.

How he came to work in the fitness business was “destiny”, as he likes to call it. “One time during my apprenticeship, in 2000, I entered this fitness competition. I came in first and the prize was a full financed apprenticeship as a personal trainer”. In 2004, he decided to take a risk and become a freelance fitness coach. He started his own company and he now works for himself, supporting his wife Barbara, his son Noah and daughter Marion. His family lives in Vienna, where he met his wife on a business trip. Like Tolga, he believes that his role is to provide for the family. He claims to be old-fashioned in that way, but says he earns more than enough to support his family. He always gets booked, sometimes for three months, other times for more or less, but he is always busy: “Some of my clients got a taste of the economic crisis, but it was but a small loss for them” he adds smiling. As far as work is concerned, he personally did not suffer a negative impact from the crisis.

Through all the ups and downs of his life, Ousmane kept his faith, the most important thing for him. He believes that the mosque can unite the people, and give them a sense of belonging, regardless which country they come from. He feels someone will always have a shoulder for him to lean on in the mosque. He goes on saying with regret that he misses his children and his wife and, although technology has opened new horizons for communication, it can “never replace a hug”. He wishes he could be there for his children, like his parents were always there for him. It pains him to admit it, but he knows this is impossible for now: “I have to see how I can manage best. How I can make do with what I´ve got. I don´t want my name to end up scribbled in the social welfare files. I would be so ashamed”.


A shopping tour with Hazar © Octavian Bâlea

Hazar
When I asked for permission to talk to some of the women who attend the mosque on Diberg Street, I was politely turned down, on the grounds that the women might be shy to my inquiring about their situations. I was also told that women there do not really like to be photographed. Considering this experience, I was quite amazed and excited that I was allowed access to the women´s chamber in the Arabic mosque. I had heard it would be different from the Turkish mosque, and as I stood in front of the two story building I began to understand why. “The Islamic Culture Association” looks quite inconspicuous - the building resembles more a block of flats than a mosque. That is where I met Hazar and Soumia.

“Hello, my name is Hazar, it´s very nice to meet you”, greets a fairly fainted voice belonging to a tiny and fragile woman, whose head is covered by a brightly colored hijab. “I have been waiting for you; come in and leave your shoes at the door, please, it´s our custom, you see”. Entering the women´s room in the Arabic mosque situated on the Waterstreet in Bochum (German – Wassertraße) inspires a feeling of trespassing into a forbidden place or intruding on something that should remain unrevealed. It should not be like that says “sister” Hazar: “We are very open-minded here and we have nothing to hide, no”.

Although small of stature and remarkably slender for her 46 years of age, Hazar has been through quite a lot in her life. She was just a teenager as she stood up to her parents because they opposed her early marriage to her husband, Sabbah, and soon after she would have to be left behind, only if for just some months, as her fiancée emigrated to Germany after finishing his medical school studies. She talks evasively about this time and does not say why they did not get married right there in Damascus, she only tells they got married in Germany, soon after she had followed Sabbah to Europe.

Hazar actually came to Germany hoping she and her husband would go back to Syria one day but things turned out differently. Adjusting to a completely new environment proved to be very difficult in the beginning, not only because of the language barrier, “but also because I was a 15-year-old Muslim wife living in Germany at the end of the 70s. Most people didn´t even know why my head was covered by a funny piece of cloth”.

Hazar dropped out of school when she came to Bochum and has never gone back since, not because she did not want to, but because she had other engagements. However she does not consider this to disqualify her personality or integrity as a woman: “I am a very ambitious person. I wanted to do something with my life. I may have not continued my studies, but I took courses to be able to speak German and I have learned to educate myself”. She even goes a step further in her beliefs: “If I can be quite honest, I may have achieved far more than some people who have finished school”.

In spite of the fact that she has never had a regular job in Germany and has never received a paycheck in her life, Hazar has been active within the Arabic Muslim community in Bochum, basically since it was founded: “Back in 1979 this used to be a small gathering of people. In 1985 we based our headquarters in a room at the University and I have been working voluntarily for this community ever since”.

Hazar is very enthusiastic when she speaks of her work and of her “girls”, whom she tries to assist every Monday evening as part of a seminar that she lectures within the mosque. Some of them she has known since they were little babies. She also teaches Arabic classes and religion to children and these are just some of the activities meant to guide and help the people who attend the mosque and their families. The building that holds the rooms for prayer also hosts seminar rooms and get-together chambers because, as Hazar explains, this is not simply a mosque; to those who come here, it is a place where they forget about their troubles, mingle with the members of the community and socialize. “This is not just a room for us to pray in, on the contrary, this is where our community gathers, so this also has a very important social role in our lives.” The mosque is also a students´ favorite, since it is just 3 stops away from the University. Many of them meet up on Friday evenings and go to the mosque together.

Hazar emphasizes the crucial role of the mother and the wife for the family. There are no concrete figures that testify to the percentage of unemployed Muslim women in Bochum, but educating the young members of the family has been provided as a solid enough reason for staying at home by all my interlocutors. Bringing up six children proved to be as challenging as any other job for Hazar. On top of that, she manages to deal with other engagements.

However, she admits that juggling with her volunteer work in the mosque and her taking up bureaucratic work in her husband´s medical practice means less spare time and more stress: “When I come home from the practice I have to prepare everything really quickly, I have to cook the meals, do this do that, it´s very hectic. I used to have more time before I had so many responsibilities“, she says. Nevertheless, having a job should not impair a mother´s ability to raise her children as well as a housewife can. Being able and willing to take up more responsibility seems to have something to do with the character of a woman, thinks Hazar, not with the spare time she has on her hands.

“And after all, if a family can´t survive on one salary, then the woman should also work”, she continues. This was not her case because her husband did well for himself with his private practice. Her family did not actually feel any crisis, they only heard about it in the news, so to speak: “We are pretty well-off, people who earn above average like ourselves were maybe not as affected by the crisis as other families have been”, she recollects.

In fact, when she thinks about it, she cannot come up with any particular case within the community to illustrate a negative impact of the crisis. Quite the opposite, she goes on “In spite of the economic crisis in Germany, actually at the height of it in 2008, we still managed to raise the sum of money, which was still lacking, to be able to finance the moving of the mosque into these new headquarters. Our will was stronger than any crisis”.


Getting ready for a seminar at the mosque © Octavian Bâlea

Soumia
As I spoke on the phone with Soumia and announced that my previous appointment had been delayed and that I would be running 45 minutes late, I expected her to put off or cancel our meeting. Instead she waited patiently, sipping on a latte and browsing through a magazine in a small café on what might be called a busy square in Wattenscheid, one of Bochum´s districts most packed with “Ausländer” (11.4% according to a study released by the city of Bochum in December 2008).

Soumia explains she got this discipline from her many early jobs that she has had since she was 15, experiences which made her grow up faster than kids her age. She continues by boasting, how she was the only one of all her friends to have a bank account back then and how she earned about 200 Euro a month working in a cosmetics shop in the city centre.

Soumia is a vivacious, cheerful 21-year-old girl who does not need to be asked any questions. She tells her story openly, without any constraints or fears, fixing her big brown eyes on me. But something seems to have changed since I met her the day before in Hazar´s seminar. “I warned you yesterday you might not recognize me, but it´s ok, I remember you”, she says, and in that moment I remember why: “I only cover my head when I go to the mosque, you see, on the one hand not to stand out from the crowd, and on the other hand out of respect for my “sisters” and for the men, who are going there to pray, not to stare at women. But in everyday life I choose not to wear it”. The discussion is briefly interrupted by her husband, who shows up at the café and introduces himself politely. Although she was raised quite liberally, being allowed to work so young and to make her own choices, family is still a strong authority in her life and must be obeyed. She was not allowed to marry until she had finished school and turned 18.

“So by the looks of it, you were born and raised in Germany”, I ask, alluding to her flawless German and self-confident manner. “Yes, my father came to Germany with a forged visa by the way”, she says. “He was in his 20s when he “emigrated”, but soon after everything was ok, he got his papers and has been working with a top company for years. He met my mother here”, she continues.

As for her, she attended a regular school, like any other German child. Growing up in a mixed cultural environment influenced Soumia´s personality and shaped her character. Many specific “German” traits brushed up easier on her than they would do on a migrant who was not raised in Germany. However, she occasionally got teased in school. Kids would sometimes mock her by calling her names like “black head” or “oil eyes”, a local term used in the Ruhrgebiet area to designate any type of “Ausländer”. “But other than that, I didn´t experience much trouble. I would be the girl who would get along with everybody”, she remembers.

After finishing school she decided to pursue an apprenticeship, to learn a trade, in order to be able to get a job later on. She dropped out and decided to get a job as a sales person in a very expensive clothing boutique. Unfortunately, during the crisis small businesses were particularly affected and after only two months of being employed there full-time on a fixed salary, her boss had to dismiss her. The store´s incomes dropped dramatically and there was no money left to pay the employees. She has been looking for a job ever since. “The worst mistake I ever made was to drop out of my apprenticeship”, she regrets, looking back.

Soumia is the only one of all her other five siblings who is unemployed. She would very much want to work in the medical department, as a nurse maybe, but definitely not in a hospital. Not again. Some time ago she was a trainee for a month, working in the hospital, but working in shifts and doing long hours took their toll on her short married life.

However, she could very well see herself working in a private practice with regular hours. But married life and being a woman on top of that has, like everything in this life, she says “advantages and disadvantages”. She thinks many employers are scared off by the fact that she has a ring on her finger: “They think, oh no, if I take her in and grant her the apprenticeship she will be able to work for two years at the most; after that she will get pregnant, be on maternity leave, and I will still have to keep the spot open for her for another year”. And what doctor would want to bring such a disaster upon himself? “Not even one”, she resumes.

The job hunt can get depressing because most of the times she does not even get an interview call. Most of the time her applications just get ignored. She once spoke on the phone with a doctor, who finally asked her to come in for an interview. But that did not work out either.

Sometimes there is no other way than accepting money from the state. According to the Social forum Bochum, approximately 20% of Bochum´s inhabitants receive social welfare. Soumia does not want to be a part of the welfare system anymore, in spite of the pseudo-advantages one might think of at her young age: more sleep, more free time. But having no occupation has a toll on her, as she had been active since she was a teenager. After a while she had the feeling something was missing.

“So what would you do if you had a job and got pregnant? Would you still got to work or would you quit for good, to take care of the children?” I ask, wanting to get her opinion on the gender matter. “I think it is very important that a mother should stay with the child, at least for the first two or two and a half years, until they are old enough to attend kindergarten”, she explains. Six or seven months are just not enough, she feels. Nevertheless she admits that her desire to have something to do, to have a job, even if she is not earning so much would eventually get the best of her. But she does not look down on older women who have chosen to stay with the kids and dedicated their lives to their families. She believes that while the older generations of migrants who settled in Bochum did not have any family here, she can always turn to her parents and siblings for support.

Soumia dreams, makes plans for the future and has high aspirations. How this will change she cannot know for sure. Soumia admits she had to make some compromises after she got married. She had to grow up all of a sudden and face more responsibilities. She cannot act out anymore, because even if she feels like not doing something, she is aware that marriage, like love “is about giving and taking”, as she philosophically puts it. “Of course I´ve changed”, she says, “I´m not at my mama´s place anymore. If you don´t love the person you´re with, then it´s never going to work out, but if you do, it doesn’t hurt to give in”, she resumes, alluding to the role of a Muslim wife and mother she might eventually assume one day.


Coffee with Ahmad © Octavian Bâlea

Ahmad
“A lot of corruption in my country, the Mob controls everything … too much poverty, a lot of diseases, partly conditioned from the extreme heat we experience there … too much corruption in Pakistan” - these would be the words Ahmad would repeat throughout his jumbled-sentenced discourse, uttered in broken German over a cup of coffee and a piece of cake. He had caught my attention ever since I had met him in the Turkish mosque during Ramadan, but although we had not talked much then, I could feel the sadness in his voice.

His story is by far the most impressive of all. Deprived of all his possessions and stripped of his dignity, he was forced by circumstances to leave his home land and flee to Germany in 1997, due to unsteady political climate in Pakistan. The journey was dangerous, first travelling by train from his native town, Lahore, he was smuggled across the borders with a fake passport, and upon landing in Germany he requested asylum. Having lost his father 18 years ago and being an only child, the only person who still means something to him was left behind: his mother. No sisters or brothers to comfort him before he left. He was all alone.

Whenever his mother is brought up, he lowers his eyes and goes on talking with a sort of put-on smile, the way he usually does when I address a more delicate matter: “Your life is not secure in Pakistan, people live under constant terror. I am very afraid something might happen to my mother. She is 72 already but one of my cousins takes care of her”, he adds. He would very much like to have his mother close to him in Germany but “it´s not possible” to bring her here, he explains. The only time he visited Pakistan after leaving, was three years ago, and he also saw his mother, which eased his spirits a little bit. But this is something he cannot do that often: “The plane ticket is very expensive, you see, around 700 Euro”, a price far too high for someone like him, who lives off social welfare, to be able to afford.

Ahmad had never before set foot outside Pakistan before he started his journey to Germany. When he got there the cultural shock was huge: “I came here all alone. One of the most difficult things for me was to learn the language. I attended some language courses but I never could grasp the grammar”, he tells me. In Pakistan, he had always been working after having dropped out of his bachelor studies for financial reasons: “The educational system in Pakistan is like you study ten grades, after that you go to college for two years, and then you can study a bachelor’s and master’s and so on. But you have to pay for everything yourself. I dropped out of university but I completed my college studies”. Ahmad used to be a magistrate or an accountant for twelve years; he worked a lot with numbers, that much is certain: “But it was a dangerous job”, always under pressure to do favors for some people’s dirty business. He fought as much as he could against this corrupt system, but as the situation became too perilous, he had to leave.

“After three or four years I was granted the right to work in Germany and so I did. Through several temp agencies I managed to get a few jobs, mainly in the production department or in warehouses doing hard work”, he tells me. Even before the crisis hit Germany, work was getting scarce in Bochum: “I haven´t been working for around three years now. And especially at the moment, it isn´t a good time “, he adds.

His last job was what in Germany we call a 1-Euro-job, where people in need of a job gather at a particular bureau at 6 o´clock each morning where they sometimes receive assignments for the day, getting paid about 1.30 Euros per hour. “I was mostly separating the parts from electronics. For example, if you destroy a TV set and you take it apart, you have to put the glass in one container, the plastic in another one, and so on”, Ahmad explains. Sometimes people make a good impression on the supervisor of the company where they are being sent to, and they get the chance to come again next day. During the economic crisis “I just got fired without reason”, recalls Ahmad.

He values work and appreciates its advantages. That he is not able to find work may also be explained by reasons other than the economic crisis: “When I go to the Bureau and stand in line for a job, I get the same question always when it´s my turn: “How old are you?”, “51”, I reply, and they say “I´m sorry but we can only take young people, capable of hard labor. But even if the work I had to do was hard, I would still do it, but they never pick me. Life has ended once you´ve turned 50, just like in Pakistan”, he deplores.

Ahmad glances quickly at his watch again. He is keeping track of the time as he still plans to make the evening prayer, after our meeting. He explains he has a habit of visiting several mosques; he does not pray at just one. Praying seems to be his sole motivation to visit the mosque. As I met him in the Turkish mosque he would sit alone in his chair, although everybody was talking to everybody during the Ramadan celebration. So I dared to inquire about the reason he tends to switch his praying place.

“Is this also so you can meet new people?”
“No, not really. In the mosque you pray. You sometimes have some five or ten minutes before the prayer starts, if you come in early, but that doesn´t mean that much if you want to make new acquaintances. You can´t really discuss serious matters in ten minutes. But I guess you could also call this some sort of a friendship”.

Ahmad has a very quiet manner and an extremely low voice; one has to really focus to be able to make something out of what he is saying: “I´m more of a loner, you could say. I don´t have that many friends, probably four or five whom I meet with on a regular basis. Sometimes we like to sit here, where we are drinking our coffee right now, because it´s cozy and it´s not expensive”, he reveals about himself. “And why do you think that it is like that?”, I venture to ask. “Maybe because I am very religious. When I start talking to people they label me as a boring company right away. One friend of mine once told me I go to pray too often and he just left me. He just went away”.

Lack of company could also explain Ahmad´s poor German, he admits it himself. But he cannot help it if, as he puts it, “people just don´t want to start a friendship with me”. I ask if he has ever been in love and he lowers his eyes again and says “This is personal…I can´t…I…no, I haven´t. They probably think I play nice at the beginning, just to fool them, and that after that I will force them to wear a hijab and things like that”, he says and gives a signal that I interpret it is meaningless to go on with the subject.

Even if he does not have a job, Ahmad likes to keep busy. He always needs something to do. If he gets bored he starts reading: “This is really what I do all day long, I go here and there, meet my friends if they have the time, go to the mosque and read newspapers”, he says. This circle of almost mechanical movements and habits repeats itself everyday with the same precision, but this does not bother Ahmad: “I don´t have any wishes, any dreams; not anymore (…) I am happy if I can help people; for example, if a neighbor needs something repaired I do it gladly. This is my only wish”.

This is one of the things that is most striking about Ahmad: this acceptance of his fate (which any good Muslim must do, so I have been told repeatedly), this apparent peace of mind that he would not change a thing in the past: “I don´t think about Pakistan, it is not important for me. I don´t feel that Lahore is home. I feel at home in Germany and I don´t think about Pakistan; I only think about my mother. Really”. I cannot avoid asking this question: “How long are you planning to live like this? Do you have any plans? What of the future?”, I ask. “The future is lost anyways. There is no future for me or any other people like me. The future lies in the hand of the young generation. We, people over 50, cannot grab hold of the future anymore. Nobody can do anything for us anymore”, he says, lowering his eyes once again, like he usually does when we have reached a sensitive spot.

 

Some of the people I have talked to do not look back with happiness. Rather, people like Ahmad, keep the past locked up in a remote corner of their minds. At the opposite pole are migrants like Hazar and Ousmane, who instantly start to smile when they talk about their “other” life and are slightly melancholic. Then there are people like Soumia and Tolga, who only inherited their migration background. Regardless of the reasons that drove them to emigrate or of the events that triggered their birth in Germany, all the people I met would make the same decision again if they had to and have no regrets whatsoever.

 

There seems to be a feeling of solidarity which holds the people within the Muslim communities in Bochum together. The religious factor makes this bond even stronger and has a comforting effect on the people I talked to. The mosque plays a crucial part for most of them. It is not only considered the House of God and a place of balance and of purity, but it also has a very important social role. It represents the perfect opportunity for interaction, social and cultural exchange. The mosque is also a place of study. Children and teenagers are helped during the integration stage of the migration process and beyond. It provides council, refuge and a shoulder to lean on.

Economically speaking, the migrants I encountered (with minor exceptions) were not negatively affected by the crisis in 2008. If anything, they managed to uphold their financial situation, they did not suffer any losses. Some of them did not understand what I meant by crisis, or claimed they were not personally affected. People that noticed a negative impact seem to link their losing their jobs not to the crisis directly, but to prejudice against migrants. Whether this prejudice is based on race, ethnicity or gender, quite a few of the people I talked to have felt discriminated against at some point in their lives. Most of them encountered prejudice at their work place, in school or in everyday life. Although they are aware this is something they might have to deal with occasionally, some are able to take this quite lightly. This was most evident in Soumia´s case, as she tends to blame her current situation (having all her job applications turned down) on the fact that she is a married woman, not on the fact that she has a migration background.

When mentioning their status as migrants during the conversations we have had, many of the people, especially those who have been in Bochum or in Germany longer, were quite unsatisfied with the depiction as “migrants”. They consider Germany to be their home now and while many of them spend their vacations in their lands of origin, they would never go back for good.

 

The article "In the melting pot – Muslim migrants in post-crisis Bochum" by Georgiana Catalina Macovei is part of "Flexi-in-Security", a project by Multicultural Center Prague 2011.

 

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Georgiana Catalina Macovei graduated from the University of Foreign Languages in Bucharest, specializing in English, German language, literature and cultural studies. She is currently majoring in Media Studies/Journalism and English in Bochum.

   

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