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The Father Whisperer of Neukölln

Kazim Erdogan has won many awards for his self-help group for Turkish men, most recently the "Panterpreis" awarded by the taz newspaper. The message of the "Fathers' Group" is that macho sayings are not helpful.

"What is the secret?" Kazim Erdogan smiles benignly. We are talking about the "Fathers' Group" that he has established in Berlin-Neukölln. It's a group for Turkish men where they can discuss their understanding of their role as a parent, about raising children and relationship problems. And their feelings. It is a group for those who have reputation of being opposed to integration, or macho men who have lost touch with the times or those who carry out honour killings. So, the secret is? Erdogan smooths down his pinstripe suit and tidies his grey hair. He says, with mild irony,  "We are now the weaker sex. We need help. Speak to the men yourself and you'll find out."

Twenty men, who have come together on a Monday evening, are sitting there on wooden chairs, holding a cup of sugary tea in their hands. One of them, Aydin, explains why he is involved with the group. Aydin is 40 years old, wears trainers and health service spectacles. His community ostracises him because he brings up his children aged 7 and 14 alone: "You are doing women's work," they say. He did not know how to cope with this behaviour for a long time. Bite back? Act deaf and say nothing? Now he has found a solution. "If someone insults me, I simply invite him to my home. When these people see that everything is clean and tidy, they soon shut up." Now Aydin affirms his role as sole parent. It has been a long journey, he says proudly. His sense of self- respect radiates from him.  This is the awareness Aydin has gained from the Fathers' Group.

Social background and arranged marriages as problem areas

a man listens in"We have a bad reputation but no one has talked with us face to face!" Source: York Wegerhoff

Kazim Erdogan explains that there are often single parents in the group. "Here in Neukölln we have long since overtaken other areas of Germany in terms of the divorce rate." Lots of relationships break down because of the stress of the social background. But marriages arranged by parents are also at fault. Often the partners' personalities are simply not compatible and conflicting ideas of marriage roles also collide. "Women quickly learn from the television that they don't have to simply follow orders," says Erdogan. The men are confused, out of their depth and baffled. Violence is also frequently discussed in the group. And when a marriage collapses, some men become lone parents.

But it does not have to go that far, Erdogan believes. Dealing with children can bring the potential for a lot of conflict in a marriage. "It is not enough, simply to be present in the family," says Erdogan. He speaks of being actively involved in bringing up children, communication rather than withdrawal, setting boundaries and avoiding pressures. These issues are part of the current thinking in raising children. Erdogan explains them to these Turkish fathers. Many live from casual jobs or are unemployed. Erdogan was also a casual worker when he came to Germany, later he was a school teacher and school psychologist for many years. "Exactly, "piskokaputt!" he jokes around with the fathers. This word, a mixture of Turkish and German that one of the men coined means something like "mentally ill." Erdogan finds the right tone.

External appearances are also discussed. "Turks have a bad reputation but no one has talked with us face to face." Erdogan regularly invites guest speakers. A senior prosecutor has recently visited. He spoke about young people falling into criminality, prior to that, Gesine Schwan came to talk about opportunities in education. The guests enliven the groups - but they are also multipliers. Erdogan leads the group on a voluntary basis but he also knows exactly what he's doing. His goal is to see changes and to move the participants on in their attitudes and life.

He began with two participants having distributed flyers in coffee houses. Today the group is advertised by word of mouth. Every week, twenty-plus men come and many spin-off groups have been established, the latest in Austria. The idea has hit a contemporary nerve but much is due to Erdogan's sense of humour. He asks his German visitors: "What? You don't speak any Turkish? Have you not integrated into this society?" A light-hearted allusion to an awkward subject. Everyone laughs together.

Offensive clichés

Yusuf, 56, an unemployed vocational school teacher comes to the group regularly. The discussions inspire him but he also finds space here to air his complaints. "Recently, a German said to my face, 'You Turks only look after your sons and neglect your daughters' - just because I had said to him, ' I have one son and one daughter,' instead of saying it the other way round!" This attitude particularly annoys Yusuf. His motto, that he throws into the conversation several times, is "Men and women have different bodies, and that is all." This is the equivalent in Neukölln of Simone de Beauvoir's maxim "You are  not born as a woman, you become one." 

Certainly, Yusuf is a showcase participant; not everyone here is a male de Beauvoir or the Turkish counterpart of Jan-Uwe Gorge, the well-known German expert on families. It is a self-help group. Take, Salim, 36, for example. He is interested in resolving conflicts in relationships. He admits he was often aggressive towards his wife, from whom he is now divorced. The conflict revolved around their daughter. "Now I realise that there isn't one way to bring up a child." He now has his anger under control. "This is something I learned from Islam. The word "Islam" actually means 'peace'," he says. Salim is not an average Muslim. He wears a white robe and a long beard, the marks of a devout believer. Clearly he places his religion above many other issues but he emphasises once again that it was Islam that helped him to find greater composure in his relationship. And yet Salim also says, "Yes and the Fathers' Group helped me with this issue, too."

Thilo Guschas, 30.11.2011

Additional Information

Kazim Erdogan

Photo Gallery "The Father Whisperer of Neukölln"

Here are some impressions from one of the sessions of the fathers’ group, founded by Kazim Erdogan in Berlin Neukölln.

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The objective of the long-term dialogue between state and Muslim representatives is to promote co-operation and social cohesion.

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