German Youth Work Speaks Many Tongues

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By Isabelle de Pommereau

Frankfurt, Germany—Here in Europe’s most multicultural city, youth work is administered in a way that would seem, well, foreign in most of America.
In a country that not long ago clung to the notion that only ethnic Germans merited the full benefits of German law and services, easing the integration of foreign youths into society has become a major focus of government-funded youth work here. That shift has changed the nature of most youth workers’ jobs and turned Frankfurt (pop. 660,000) into an international model for serving immigrant youth.

The effort is epitomized in youth worker Jochen Woehle, who walks the streets of the working-class Hausen neighborhood on a mission: to help youths get and keep jobs. Armed with a cell phone that’s on around-the-clock and a computer database that tracks each youth’s job searches, Woehle pushes school and work as the key factors for foreign youths’ integration.

The city government essentially pays him not to give up on teens like Antonino Cigna, who since arriving from Italy has vandalized a taxi during a drinking spree and failed to show up at a job Woehle found for him.

Woehle can’t give up on such youths because half of the school-age young people in Frankfurt are non-German. They represent 180 cultures, and include children of Italian, Turkish and Moroccan “guest workers,” Afghan asylum seekers and Yugoslav refugees.

“The streets in Frankfurt belong to foreign youths,” Woehle says. “That’s the city’s power.”

And its challenge. The Hausen Youth Work Center – set in a neighborhood of roaring traffic and high rises hastily built when the city needed space for its guest workers and asylum-seekers – is among a panoply of 100 youth development programs in the city, ranging from midnight basketball to outreach programs to neighborhood youth centers.

They constitute a $21 million network paid for by the city and run primarily by nonprofit agencies that mirror Frankfurt’s myriad political, religious and ethnic colors: from the Catholic Church’s Caritas to the Socialist Party’s Workers’ Welfare Organization to the Youth Sports Association.

“In the past, one used to talk about the need for youth workers to have social abilities,” says Nassif Khalil, who is from Morocco and is one of three Frankfurt police liaisons with immigrant groups. “Today one talks about the need for youth workers to be able to deal with different cultures.”

Less Reaction, More Prevention

The two main principles guiding youth work here were established during the socially progressive Weimar Republic in the 1920s, with the country’s first children and youth welfare law. The law declared that youth work is the responsibility of municipalities and should be delivered through a plethora of providers. The first responsibility, however, remained with families; city youth departments intervened only to protect children in jeopardy.

Still, social workers were not trained to deal with different cultures. Immigrants were expected to work here for a while and go home.

That philosophy changed as social problems exploded in Germany, in part because of the swelling number of immigrant families in the 1980s. (Today about 9 percent of Germany’s 82 million inhabitants are from foreign countries or descendants of foreigners. Germany has more foreigners (7 million) than any other Western European country.)

The national government decided that youth work should focus on “creating the conditions to make it possible for children and youths to grow up in a normal [healthy] environment, and not only on solving problems,” says René Bendit, a researcher with the Munich-based German Youth Institute.

The result was a children and youth welfare law in 1991 that asked municipalities to focus on “preventive” rather than “reactionary” youth work. The law called for “integration measures,” such as having youth workers speak the languages of foreign youths.

With its broad demands on municipalities, the law makes Germany one of the more progressive countries (along with the Netherlands and Scandinavia) in the delivery of youth services, says Bendit, who has compared youth work delivery models in European countries. Two different models include France, where the central government assumes most youth work responsibilities, and Scandinavia, where the state plays such a central role that it provides services that parents used to provide.

The German law created a more comprehensive and focused system of service delivery than one typically finds in the United States, where national and local government funding breeds a hodgepodge of youth programs, with few targeted for immigrants throughout one city.

Consider what happened in Frankfurt.

Youth Funds ‘Will Never Shrink’

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the blue-collar jobs that had traditionally gone to immigrants dwindled as the city evolved into a service-oriented bank and information technology center. The prospect of escalating social unrest prodded city policy-makers to boost youth services, remembers Guenter Sehnert, who was in charge of preventive youth work at the Frankfurt Department of Youth and Social Affairs.

The 1968 student protest movement fostered a climate that gave birth to new initiatives, from day care centers for working mothers to walk-in youth centers that would be open all day to everyone. In 1976 the city bought an abandoned factory and turned it into Frankfurt’s first comprehensive youth center – the International Youth Center (IYC). Since then, 40 more such centers have opened throughout the city.

Most of the youths at these city-funded youth programs come from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds, and most are foreigners. German-born youths usually belong to tight-knit clubs or private organizations.

The IYC, located in a huge complex spreading over several floors, provides foreign youths with job training, recreation and a place to hold events that help them maintain their cultural identity.

With a budget of $750,000 and a staff of eight, the center is a magnet for foreign youths in the rough neighborhood of Konstabler Wache, the city’s main shopping artery.

There, 60 percent of the youths are foreign. Roughly 60 youths attend the center’s open recreational area every day.

A dozen so-called “tough” children (who have quit school) attend a program in cooperation with the local education and social services departments, where they work on concrete projects ranging from cooking to metal work.

“The center showed me the right way,” says Murat Odabas, a young Turk who grew up in the neighborhood and now works at the Frankfurt Airport. “Either you’d come here or you’d be in the streets.”

But it was the social vision of the Red/Green Frankfurt city council in the late 1980s that gave the Frankfurt youth work system its biggest push, remembers veteran youth outreach worker Ruediger Niemann.

Daniel Cohn Bendit, who’d just joined the city council as a Green member, saw in this new contingent of jobless immigrants the seeds of trouble. He called for a mechanism to ease the integration of foreigners into city life, which led to the creation of a Department of Multicultural Affairs.

Today the department’s still a unique phenomenon in Germany. It shows that in Frankfurt, “the foreign problem isn’t some local fire that needs to be put out at a given point, but it’s part of the city’s day-to-day administrative duty,” says Gaby Strassburger, a migration researcher at the University of Essen who conducted an evaluation of Frankfurt’s integration policies last year.

Among other things, the department offers free German language classes with baby-sitting for young mothers, sends mediators to housing projects to defuse conflicts, and holds cultural sensitivity training workshops for police.

Also in the early 1990s, Frankfurt doubled its budget for after-school youth services – also called “preventive” youth services – to $20 million. Many youth program managers say this is when several key services were born.

Among them is Street Work, where teams of educators seek out and talk with the most unreachable youths, mostly foreigners. Another is the Children’s Bureau, a crisis hot-line service for youths and police officers who work with them.

In 1993 the four parties governing the city signed a “contract for social freedom” to ensure that, regardless of the government’s political color, the funds for preventive work wouldn’t be cut. Since then, although funds for other departments – such as culture – have often shrunk, youth services providers have seen their overall budget remain at roughly $20 million.

“Politicians in Frankfurt have always seen youth work and its financing as eminently critical,” says Sehnert of the Department of Youth and Social Affairs. “The money will never radically shrink or be questioned. It’s like ensuring us a piece of social freedom.”

Bringing Service To the Youths

School, apprenticeship, job – this is the pattern that youth workers say should shape a young person’s life here. And yet most of the 70 young people who visit the Heideplatz Youth Center every day do not fit that structure. Most of the center’s clients are Turks and Moroccans. Run by the Protestant Association of Social Youth Work, the center offers an array of services, such as nighttime sports and daytime counseling. It has a $450,000 budget and four employees, including a Turkish youth worker.

The center’s free-flowing atmosphere is by design. “If we had this structure” typical of German institutions, “nobody would come,” says Director Ludwig Seelinger.

The young people that most youth workers deal with find it difficult to fit in. “Ever more young foreigners have problems with institutions,” says Khalil, the police officer from Morocco. “The problem isn’t so much that the youths don’t speak the language, but rather that the parents haven’t gone to school.”

Over the past few years, officials from various agencies and nonprofit groups have worked more closely to better serve foreign youths, says Officer Rolf-Dieter Baer, one of two Frankfurt Police youth coordinators. For instance, the police take a more proactive role in sports activities. (See story, page 12.) Police from different cultures accompany youth workers on visits to families of troubled youths. There are more foreign-language speaking youth workers than ever before.

At the Heideplatz Youth Center, a representative from the drug prevention or counseling office visits each Monday. Someone from the juvenile justice department comes once a month to offer counseling and answer questions about issues such as renewing a residence permit.

But in a banking and service capital like Frankfurt, finding a job remains the No. 1 hurdle for immigrants.

The task is particularly difficult because of Germany’s segregated school system, which divides children at age 10 into three groups according to performance. Only the top students who attend high school, or “Gymnasium,” get the high school diploma (“Abitur”) and go on to universities. The middle group attends junior high school, or “Real Schule.” The rest attend vocational school, or “Hauptschule,” which is where many immigrants land.

“That the decision about a child’s future comes so early is a real problem for all the children who come to school with language and social deficits,” says Strassburger, the University of Essen migration expert.

In Hausen, 70 percent of Woehle’s clients at the Youth Work Center have gone through the Hauptschule. Their chances of getting good jobs are notoriously low.

In Frankfurt, one out of seven foreign youths – more than 14 percent – leaves school without a diploma, compared with 6.5 percent for German-born youths.

Woehle spends his days trying to change that.

There Is Hope

Woehle helps youths write resumes and application letters, scours local job ads and acts as a middleman between the city bureaucracies and the youths. Do they need a lawyer? He calls the juvenile court. Do they have problems with the unemployment agencies? He calls the agencies.

It took one year, more than job 80 applications and Woehle’s close supervision for Jakob Kidane of Eritrea to land a three-year apprenticeship in the accounting department of a social service organization in Frankfurt. The 18-year-old is one of 150 young people, mostly male immigrants, who knocked on Woehle’s door last year.

For youths such as Kidane, having an ally like Woehle is crucial. Kidane’s family arrived 10 years ago. His mother, a cook, and his father, a painter, cannot help him with questions about the German education or work systems.
Woehle, Kidane says, “adopted the whole community.”

Still, youth workers say such efforts are far from enough to deal with the increasing complexity of foreign youths’ lives. Crime and violence among certain ethnic groups, including Russian Germans and Moroccans, is rising. In a country with strict immigration rules, the precarious legal status of many young people makes it even more difficult for them to find jobs.

“From a quantitative point of view there are more youth programs, but it doesn’t mean we have enough,” says police officer Khalil. “We have more and more problems with foreign youths because the youths have more and more problems with themselves.”

One thing that youth workers here have in common with their American counterparts: They relish small victories. Woehle has stuck by Cigna, the Italian who is now in his early 20s, for years with one goal: Make him realize that his life needs structure, or he will be miserable.

“Slowly, he’s getting it,” Woehle says. Cigna is back in school.

Isabelle de Pommereau can be reached at


Jochen Woehle, Director
Hausen Youth Work Center
Workers’ Welfare Organization
Mühlwiesenstrasse 6
60487 Frankfurt-Hausen
011 49 69 789 957 16

Roland Frischkorn, Director
Frankfurt Organization of Sports Clubs
Elbestr. 48
60329 Frankfurt am Main
011 49 69 2608 285

Rolf-Dieter Baer
Frankfurt Police Youth Coordinator
Friedrich-Ebert-Anlage 11
60327 Frankfurt am Main
011 49 69 755 8034

Peggy Zittier
Kurt-Schumacher-Str. 41
60311 Frankfurt am Main
011 49 69 212 315 52

Guenter Sehnert
Frankfurt Department of Youth and Social Affairs
Zeil 57 (Konstabler Wache)
60313 Frankfurt am Main
011 49 69 212 33410

René Bendit, Researcher
German Youth Institute
Nockherstrasse 2
81541 Muenchen
011 49 89 62306194

Sports with a Big Goal: Integrating Young People

When the Sachsen-hausen Youth Center closed in 1993, leaving the Frankfurt neighborhood of 52,000 without services for disadvantaged kids, two youth workers from disparate fields saw a chance to act – but they had to move fast.

Local youths, mostly foreigners, began gathering at night in a school courtyard. Trouble simmered. Neighbors complained. The police came. A task force of social workers, school officials and politicians tried to figure out what to do.

Then Roland Frischkorn and Rolf-Dieter Baer walked into the picture. Frischkorn is a politician-turned-businessman with decades of volunteer work in youth sports. Baer is a police officer with 30 years in the juvenile field.

“I said, ‘This can’t go on, that the police criminalize youths just because they want to play soccer. This is counterproductive,’” remembers Baer, one of two youth coordinators in the Frankfurt police department.

Frischkorn headed the muscular umbrella association for Frankfurt’s youth sports clubs which, with 50,000 members, is the city’s biggest youth organization.

To these two men, the problem was obvious. Most of the youths causing trouble on the streets were from foreign countries. In Germany, middle-class youths usually belong to sports clubs. Foreign youths usually do not, because the clubs’ rigid membership rules often turn them off.

The young foreigners came from all over the globe. “They couldn’t reach out to one another because they didn’t speak the same language,” says Baer.

Frischkorn, who had been youth secretary for the German Trade Union and a deputy social affairs commissioner in Frankfurt, wanted to use sports to ease the social integration of young immigrants. Baer saw sports as perhaps the only activity that could bring youths closer to one another and get them to know the police better.

Cost concerns ruled out opening a youth center. And the men decided that their new program would forgo the rigid structure of the German sports clubs. Targeted at 15- to 21-year-olds, it would combine the philosophy of a youth center with the characteristics of a sports event.

The goal: Give youth a chance to play basketball in the emptiest of hours – at night – and for free.

To do this, Frischkorn and Baer had to win the support of bureaucracies, such as the schools and the health department, that had a reputation as uncooperative. They had to seek private sponsors, a relatively new concept here.

In 1997 the city sports department provided access to school facilities and paid for the insurance. The Frankfurt employment office found two trainers, and the city’s sports department agreed to pay their part-time salaries – $15,000 in all. The police donated balls – and came to play.

The result is a project long known in America but initiated for the first time in Frankfurt: Midnight Basketball, or “Midnight Sport,” for it alternately offers soccer and basketball games every Friday from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. in eight schools throughout the city. With an annual price tag of $50,000, Midnight Sport serves an average of 150 youths per night.

Until this program came along, sports and youth services in Frankfurt operated in separate worlds. Sport was seen as a means to fitness. Youth services was social work. “The police had never used sport in the context of preventive work,” says Baer.

“A big wall was taken down,” remembers Sylvia Schenk, then Frankfurt’s commissioner for sports and women’s issues, and now the president of the German Bicycle Association. “Cooperation between social service agencies and sports organizations wasn’t taboo anymore.”
Over the past five years Midnight Sport has grown to include afternoon sports sessions as well.

Frischkorn reflects on seeing police officers on the court with local teens. “I come from a time when the cops are the bad guys, they’re for repression, and social workers are for prevention,” he says. Thanks to sports, those two worlds have come closer together.

Marks of Progress
Key points in the evolution of youth work in Germany

1920s – Weimar Republic

Germany’s first Children and Youth Welfare Act
• Lays out the two main principles of youth work delivery: Municipalities are to play a planning role, delegating the delivery of youth services to nonprofit groups; youth work remains primarily the prerogative of families, with direct government intervention only to deal with severe problems.
• Mandates that the federal government ask for an independent study on the status of youth, children and/or family services every legislative period.

1989 – Special legislative commission

Creates a new conception of youth work:
• It should focus on prevention.
• Social integration of foreign youths and families becomes a central theme.

1991 – New Children and Youth Welfare law

• Spells out guidelines on youth work delivery: Local youth departments assess needs and send requests for proposals to youth service providers. A panel made up of an equal number of representatives from youth departments and nonprofit groups reviews the proposals and selects a provider. One goal is to insure that providers represent a plurality of political, religious and cultural organizations. Only when a nonprofit can’t be found is the city called in to administer a youth program.
• Says federal government pays only for “innovative” projects of a national scope.
• Mandates that municipalities pay for integration programs for immigrant youth.

1998 – Social Democratic government of Gerhard Schroeder

Makes immigration issues a priority:
• Government eases citizenship law.
• The integration of foreigners into society becomes a topic of national discussion.

2000 – Legislative study on the status of families of foreign origins

• For the first time spells out the needs of long-term immigrant residents, including challenges for young women brought from other countries to marry men in Germany.

2002 – Immigration bill passes
Among other things, it would:
• Promote the integration of long-term foreign workers by mandating that they bring only children younger than 12, so that the children would be more likely to attend German schools and learn the language.
• Create integration services, such as free language courses.

Creating a Place Where Outcast Youths Linger

It’s close to midnight at the Konstabler Wache, the Times Square of Frankfurt. Outreach worker Peggy Zittier is done with her night shift. She’s criss-crossed Frankfurt’s inner city by foot, looking for young people who need help. As she unlocks her bike to ride home, a familiar voice rings out:


It’s Mounir Elboudali. Peggy smiles, somewhat grudgingly. She has known Elboudali for several years, from the time he lived on the streets as a teen. “I got fired,” the young Moroccan says. “I’ll stop by tomorrow.”

The next day, Zittier sits in her office – a large and inviting room where she and four other outreach workers share three desks and several pots of coffee. Their agency, Streetwork, was created 10 years ago in response to rising youth violence and delinquency in Frankfurt. The agency serves about 300 youths a year on a $400,000 budget.

Zittier is almost buried behind piles of files – files on her “clients,” youths who don’t have families, don’t go to school, don’t attend youth centers. For nine years, it’s been her job to reach them.

Besides hooking up with them on the streets, Zittier works the phones with the bureaucracies that serve youth, from unemployment to immigration, from housing to social services. Now she holds the “open session,” when the youths come to discuss problems.

Elboudali arrives. The 22-year-old has been fired from the part-time job that had sent him working from one big hotel to another. His resident permit has expired, meaning he’s here illegally in the eyes of the police and his chances of finding another job are slim. But with no job, it will be hard for him to get his resident permit extended – a Catch-22.

The hotel job had been a lifesaver after Elboudali left his grandparents, because “I had no place, no free space.” He slept for a while on the streets. Zittier rescued him, he says, putting him up in a hotel before helping him find a studio apartment.

He and 20 other young people (almost all boys) walk in on this day to find what Elboudali calls “a listening ear.”

Most of Streetwork’s clients are from Turkey or North Africa. They often start life in Germany with a social and educational deficit greater than that of other ethnic groups, and they get frustrated. Their Muslim upbringing clashes with German ways. Fathers force their sons to sell pretzels to supplement the family income, and arrange marriages for their daughters.

The young people come to Streetwork with a standard litany of problems: no permanent home, no job, no residence permit. More often than not, their troubles are related to conflicts brought by moving from their homelands to Germany.

On this grim afternoon, the young people trickle in gradually. But when the time for open session ends, they linger over coffee. Over the past five years, the number of “older youths” needing help has grown as it becomes harder for young people to support themselves, says Karsten Hochmuth, who works with Zittier.

The young people come with open-ended as well as concrete questions. Mustafa has left home (where eight siblings shared two rooms) and wants to know how to find an apartment. A young woman is forced to marry a distant cousin. She’d rather go on with school. A young man says he was fired. Can the youth worker see if the firing was legal? Mahsa Mohammadi of Iran, 16, was kicked out by her mother’s boyfriend and has been sleeping on the streets or at friends’ homes.

Amid this woe, sunshine walks into the room. A 17-year-old girl stops by to show Zittier her grades. She is back in school after a three-year interruption that started when she fled her home at 14. She lived on the streets for a year. She did “crazy things,” she says. No agency could reach her.

Until, by word of mouth, she heard about Zittier, who set her on the path that has brought her back to show off her grades.