Successful integration From Turkish Apprentice to German Meister: A Migrant's Tale

Assimilating millions of foreigners, especially Muslims, is Germany's biggest challenge and font of conflict. Here is one tale of integration working – and blessing migrants and Germans alike.
Assimilation is what you make of it.

Willi Heinz Gebel is a retired master electrician in Dusseldorf and an unassuming pioneer in Germany – and I'm not saying that because he happens to be my father-in-law. Soft-spoken and almost shy, a voracious reader and an equally tenacious autodidact, he used to drive his apprentices nuts by constantly playing classical music on the job sites. But one of those apprentices was so good that Willi Heinz passed on his firm to him. This was no ordinary bequest, because the apprentice was Meysem Olgar, an immigrant. To this day, Meysem is the only Turk in Dusseldorf to own a traditional electrician's firm, called Max Knettel e.K., which is 108 proud years old.  The story of Willi Heinz and Meysem, which began long before more than a million migrants fleeing war and poverty poured into Germany, is an uplifting tale about how integration can succeed.

The two tradesmen provide a much-needed counterpoint in a country, Germany, that often appears torn by the challenges of assimilating people of different cultures, ethnicities and religions into a what is otherwise still a mono-culture. German anxieties and divisions about "multiculturalism" run deep and explain why so many German voters on September 24 abandoned the large mainstream parties and went to the anti-migrant Alternative for Germany instead. The tensions between Germany and Turkey have made everything even worse, bringing identity conflict even into the homes of the roughly four million Turks living in Germany.

German anxieties and divisions about "multiculturalism" run deep.

Meysem’s story, too, could easily have gone the wrong way, as so many other tales do. What made the difference was the presence of a dedicated teacher, a boss-turned-mentor, and and open-minded and supportive wife – and, of course, persistence. And therein lies a lesson for Germany today.

Meysem was born in 1964 in Antakya, in Turkey’s southeastern quadrant along the Syrian border. The city, once part of Syria, still has an Arabic-speaking minority, from which he stems. In the 1970s, his father, like many Turks, was recruited as one of hundreds of thousands of Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, to come to Germany and help man the production floors of factories roaring full blast during the country’s post-war economic miracle. Meysem's father worked in the Mannesmann pipe factory in Dusseldorf, and gradually brought his family from Turkey to live with him.

Meysem is fully plugged into Germany, both professionally and socially.

So, after completing primary school in Antakya, 14-year-old Meysem left his mother and an older brother in Turkey to join his father. Once in Dusseldorf, he entered a lower secondary school, in a class consisting only of foreigners. His German teacher, Elizabeth Wienbeck, an English instructor by training, had been tossed into the course with no special materials or guidance. “I’m amazed at all the materials and support available today that simply didn’t exist back then; I had to figure everything out myself,” says the passionate instructor, now aged 75, who still voluntarily teaches German as a foreign language.

For tenth grade, the last and final year in this type of school, Ms. Wienbeck evaluated her students and recommended that Meysem, thanks to his persistence and progress, should pursue an advanced degree in a class with Germans. “He felt totally overwhelmed at first and complained to me, but he put his head down and passed,” she recalls. This was Part I of successful integration: the presence of a dedicated teacher.

So Meysem, then aged 17, fired off applications for a vocational education, which has a long tradition in Germany. He was hoping for an apprenticeship as a technician or electrician for radio or television. Rejections poured in. Was it his Turkish name? Was it his application? Eventually, the employment agency got involved and sent Meysem to Max Knettel, my father-in-law's firm, which was looking for an apprentice.

“I noticed a few errors in his resume,” recalls Willi Heinz from the meeting with Meysem and his father. “He told me that he worked on it with a couple of German students from his class and that obviously he wasn’t the only one struggling with the language – I had to chuckle.” Willi Heinz also remembers a remark from Meysem’s strict father: “If my son doesn’t listen to you, just whack him.”

Meryem and Meysem met and married in Antakya but call Dusseldorf home.

There's a bit more that you need to know about my father-in-law. He had, until Meysem showed up, no real interaction with Turks, socially or professionally. The farthest he had ever traveled was to the northern German island of Norderney. He was a war child, born in 1931, whose education during the final years of the war was piecemeal at best. He began an apprenticeship at 15 to help support his widowed mother and three sisters, and took night and weekend classes to graduate from secondary school and later earn his certificate as a master electrician. His life had been no walk in the park.

Just like Meysem’s, in a way. Maybe there was a mutual empathy between the two – this very German “Meister” (master) and his very Turkish “Lehrling” (apprentice). “Mr. Gebel really made an effort to help me learn German, become an electrician and even earn my master’s certification,” Meysem recalls. He became, in fact, Dusseldorf's first Turkish master electrician ever. “I could talk to him about a lot of stuff, as a father and a son do.” This was Part II of successful integration: the presence of a mentor.

Eventually my father-in-law thought of Meysem not only as his best apprentice ever but also as almost a surrogate son. Meysem knew all of the customers and intuited how Willi Heinz wanted his shop run. As my father-in-law began thinking about his retirement, he started seeing Meysem as the worthiest heir to the business.

Meysem’s thoughts, meanwhile, had turned to a young Turkish woman named Meryem whom he married. Also from Antakya, she arrived in Dusseldorf in 1988 at the age of 18, speaking no German at all. At this point, my mother-in-law, Lieselotte, stepped in. As in many family business, she was a quiet but essential partner in the firm. She explained to Meysem that if he really wanted to take over the firm, he needed his wife to be just such a partner – taking calls, managing the books and helping with this and that.

Meysem took the advice and had a word with Meryem, who signed up to their common project. But it was hard for the young woman, who didn't speak the language, didn't know the people, didn't fathom the customs. “The first year here was terrible; I was so lonely and lost and cried all the time,” Meryem says. “I wanted to go home.” But she stayed and, unlike many other Turkish wives, took German courses, got her driver’s license and graduated from secondary school.

In the end it was Meryem who convinced her husband, who still had self-doubts, to take over the firm in which she would become his partner. She assimilated quickly and enthusiastically, mixing easily in their sons’ kindergarten, school and soccer club, in her husband’s firm and in their local community. “I’ve always tried to reach out and form friendships,” she says. So much so, in fact, that German friends once asked if she, a Muslim, would consider becoming the godmother for one of their children. (She was honored by the gesture but graciously declined.) This was Part III of successful integration: a supportive spouse.

Their two boys, Cem and Can, are also part of this story. The older, Cem, spent his youth playing soccer, including four years in the Dusseldorf professional soccer club Fortuna, then completed high school, where he was class spokesman, and is now studying engineering in Dortmund. His younger brother, Can, also completed high school. He’s now a journeyman in his father’s business and might take it over one day. The entire family today has German citizenship.

The story goes on from there, fanning out to his extended family – nine siblings altogether, more than half of them born in Turkey. With Meysem's support, one sister studied business, another became a banker, a third trained as an office administrator. The family is happy in Germany, and Germany is happy with it. That's integration when it works.


John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]