My TED Talk on Cultural Diversity @ TEDxBerlin Salon

My parents left Istanbul in 1978 to temporarily settle in Frankfurt. At least that was the plan. At that time already 3 million people from Turkey had left their homes and loved following the strong demand for labor in Europe. My father, an engineer and my mother a lawyer, decided to move to Germany, not to get a temporary job, but rather to help people from Turkey to cope with day-to-day challenges in their host country. After the military coup 1980 in Turkey, my father was announced a political offender and my parents were not allowed to enter Turkey for the next 15 years. A temporary stay became permanent and my family had to face the reality that Germany was their new home. I and my three older sisters grew up in Frankfurt. Having socially and politically active parents, who, together with friends founded one of Europe’s largest NGO for Turkish People in Western Europe, gave us the chance to be very sensitive in topics of Muslim living and cultural identity in Europe. My parents taught us in early years that cultural diversity was a great chance, that change and the unknown can frighten men, which is why talking to each other was essential to avoid a continuous alienation. They said that the truth may hurt sometimes but needs to be spoken out loud if we want to maintain normality.
I often remember this very important lesson when I think of the current situation of refugees in Europe and especially in Germany. And I wish that everyone would have been taught this lesson. That’s why today I would like to speak with you with this exact spirit. I have no doubts that all of you believe in the enrichment through cultural diversity. But in times where extremism experiences a rise, believing is not enough. We need to raise our voices to shut down all those, who want for us a future behind high walls.
In times of despair, people who are caught in a crossfire of social, economic or political events, may decide to march towards lands that offer hope and perspective. In this context, the phenomenon called migration is as old as human existence. Back in the 1980’s Germany had already invited over 2 million Muslim immigrant workers mainly from Turkey, who played a key role in building todays Germany from the ruins of the II. World War. Considering that the first temporary guest workers came in the early 60’s and 20 years later, these guest workers were still in Germany and became fathers and mothers, everyone started to realize the inevitable truth – a truth that was not spoken out loud yet: They wouldn’t go „back home“, but rather bring their families and start their new lives in Germany. Starting to publicly talk about this reality took another 10 years and until then both German society and immigrants were left alone with inconvenient doubts about their common future.
Some were asking if Islam was compatible with democracy and European values. Or if integration of Muslims was possible. And if these new traditions and cultures were a threat to the future of the free world. I remember when I was confronted with these questions for the first time. I was asked to join another school class to share my experiences of how it was like to grow up between two cultures, if I had difficulties in integrating into society and whether my sisters were raised liberal or were oppressed by my father. I haven’t felt alien until then, but I definitely did after this day. Between two cultures? I was just a 10-year-old Turkish boy from Frankfurt. And I could speak two languages, which was very beneficial. And integrated? Well if they meant, if I came along with the guys from my neighborhood; we had our differences. But from Mustafa to Philipp, we sure were united when some guys from Offenbach lost their ways to our streets. It was so normal to be a Turkish boy in Frankfurt – until it was not.
I don’t blame my teachers for treating me differently from other pupils. Because – like most Germans – they had a lot of questions but never got answers. No one ever talked sincerely about the situation that millions of Turkish people were actually going to live the rest of their lives in Germany. It seemed like a veil of silence was drawn over us.
Not having an open and sincere debate at the very beginning of migration and postponing it for all these years, led to a situation, where emotions and prejudices filled the gap – surely on each side. What a wasted chance. Imagine the late 80’s: no racist attacks on Turkish homes like in Solingen, no 9/11, no War on Terror, the so-called Islamic State didn’t exist and no refugees were sighted on European borders. Actually it was much harder to be prejudiced then the other way around. But now, after all these waves of negative events, we all face the elementary challenge to define our common future in a state of emotional turmoil. In a state were the first generation of immigrants and those who had invited them do almost not exist anymore and where there is no one left to ask. It seems like today the young generations look in each other’s faces, not knowing where to start. And know, more strangers are coming.
Do I sound depressive? Well, I assure you am not. Matter of fact my aspiration for our future has gained new strength in these days. They say with every crisis comes opportunity. The refugee crisis has reminded us of what goes around comes back around. That globalization means that local actions will have global impacts. That a war in the Middle East can have a direct effect on your idyllic world right here in the heart of Europe. But it also reminded us to take responsibility for our actions and to care for those who are in need, regardless of their religion and ethnicity. We have the opportunity to make right this time, altogether. By taking a look in the side mirror, by learning from the past. By listening to what my parents said 30 years ago. We have been there before and we don’t have to wait another 30 years to debate on whether the refugees are a part of Europe or not, or whether they are going to turn back home. In 10 years from now hundreds of thousands of newborns, juveniles and grownups will hopefully think of Germany as their new homes. And we know now, that embracing the refugees today and treat them as a part of our future, will give them perspective and hope in a time, when dying on their way to Europe was a better option than staying in their ruined countries.
So what to do about it? The refugees need something familiar to hold on. Something that brings a piece of normality back to their traumatized souls. Something that plays an important role in their live and allows a soft landing in this new environment. The good news is, that we have all we need for this soft landing. A treasure that is yet to be excavated. Almost 90 percent of all refugees that fled to Germany are Muslims and their religion plays an important role in their daily life.
Let’s take the mosque I use to visit in Frankfurt as an example. We had a community of 200 Muslims. Since last year, we count 450, and almost all new members are people from Syria or Afghanistan. And with mosque I mean a place that is much more than you might think of. Who of you has ever visited a mosque in Germany? Not so many as I see. Well you should! And you will be surprised. The prayer of a Muslim sums up to 24 minutes in 24 hours. So what use has a mosque during the remaining time? Well, they serve as social centers for the community. You will find a coffee house for social chats, an education room that is used for school lessons and seminars, a youth room and a library. Coming back to my friends from Syria and Afghanistan; They did not only came to the prayer but also started to spent time in our social facilities. Which made me start thinking. We have about 3000 mosques in Germany. All of them almost completely financed by the first generation of immigrants who came 55 years ago. They established them not only to satisfy their religious needs but also to create a social retreat. A soft landing in a new environment. However, this retreat created a normality, which was only limited to a location. And neither active Muslims could explain what important social work they were actually doing, nor was the society really eager to find out.
But what if we could turn todays migration challenge into a chance by actively inviting the non-Muslim community to shift their social work into our mosques. We have this big infrastructure. So let’s use it! Imagine for one second how refugees witness the voluntary help of Muslims and non-Muslims, working shoulder by shoulder in social facilities of a mosque in Germany. Just by our normal behavior, we would exemplify our values to our new friends. That diversity is as normal as breathing for our society.
So together with my wife and a couple of friends from the Center for Arts, Research and Education we have initiated a pilot project that aims at using our mosques as social spaces for refugees. We just started with one of potentially 3000 mosques and were amazed by the number of interested volunteers of all shades. We have witnessed non-Muslims and Muslims coming together not as strangers but inherent parts of our society, to discuss about how to help those in need, to find out, that there is much more that connects us than the other way around. And to welcome our new friends, neighbors, or colleagues together and give them confidence that we can shape a future together, where diversity is normality.
We have to act if we don’t want to leave the field to xenophobics. So when we wake up tomorrow, let’s make sure that we are compelling when we say that we support cultural diversity and above all let’s make sure that we find or create a way, where embracing cultural diversity is not just a nice TEDx title, but actually can be lived.
Thank you.

Mehmet Alparslan Çelebi
Blogger / Social Activist / Refugees Activist / Speaker for Topics on Muslim & Turkish Identity in EU