restricted access Germany: Unsung Heroes
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Unsung Heroes
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Frank M. Rafik

[End Page 100]

Hamburg—In 1982, a young Turkish immigrant named Kemal Sahin opened a new 430-square-foot gift shop on a busy commercial street in Aachen, Germany. Sahin didn't want to start his own business, but he had to. It was his only chance to stay in the country. From a farm family in an isolated Anatolian mountain town in Turkey, Sahin arrived in Aachen as a teenager carrying nothing but an old suitcase, two packs of cigarettes, and some money pinned inside his jacket. He worked his way through university to earn an engineering degree on full scholarship. He'd thought this would lead to a good, entry-level job in German industry. "Instead," he recalls, "they told me I had to leave."

Since he was a foreigner, Sahin couldn't obtain a work permit in his field regardless of education, skill, or talent. [End Page 101] There was only one loophole. He could stay if he launched his own business. So at 27, with just 5,000 Deutsche marks (about $2,000) saved from menial summer jobs in a metal factory, he did exactly that.

Over the years, that simple shop where Sahin sold T-shirts, tablecloths, and prayer mats at rock-bottom prices evolved into what is today the largest Turkish-run business outside Turkey. Despite German resistance from many corners early on—locals refused to work for him, distributors wouldn't work with him, banks wouldn't lend to him—Sahinler Holding today dwarfs many German companies in its sector. It boasts more than €1.4 billion ($1.9 billion) in annual revenue and 12,000 employees in 27 subsidiaries scattered across 15 countries, including the United States.

Sahin's rocky path to success is now legend for those who have heard the tale. A young man's last-ditch effort to avert deportation turned into the third-largest fashion and textile producer in Europe. Some young Turkish-Germans cross the country to Aachen's cobble-stoned streets, seeking his advice and encouragement. "Sahin was my role model," says Veli Demirdizen, who emigrated from Turkey in the 1980s to study business and now owns his own multi-million euro clothing company here. "He still is."

Wrong Public Mindset

With a long-standing focus on the problems of Germany's 3.5-million-strong Turkish minority, the community's positive contributions remain in the shadows. When Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan visited Berlin in November for the 50th anniversary of the gastarbeiter (guest worker) labor agreement, he said Germany's biggest immigration failure was that its "politicians do not acknowledge enough the integration of the three million Turks" living in the country.

That needs to change if the country is to prosper in the future. Unlike the United States or Britain, Germany flat-out denied being a country of immigration until recently. It chose instead to hope that the gastarbeiter who helped rebuild the country starting in the 1960s would eventually leave. As a result, Germans treated the ever-growing ethnic minorities as foreigners.

While German politicians still dance around the issue of integration, a select few Turkish Germans have set out on their own to change the mindsets of both ethnic and non-ethnic Germans. Ambitious Germans of Turkish background are quietly infiltrating professions that are at the core of the nation's prosperity—politics, media, science, culture, sports, and certainly business—turning Germany into a truly multicultural nation. And they're letting their brethren know that despite all obstacles, they can do the same.

Cem Oezdemir, the Swabian-born son of a guest worker from Tokat in Anatolia, is co-chair of Germany's Green Party. Fatih Akin, born in Hamburg to Turkish migrants, is an internationally acclaimed film director. Mesut Oezil, a third-generation Turkish-German, achieved global fame as star soccer player on the country's first-ever multicultural team during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Ali Guengoermues, who emigrated from Tunceli at 10, is the first chef of Turkish background to win [End Page 102] a coveted Michelin star. Even those who aren...