Editor’s note: This story is part of CNN’s commitment to covering issues around identity, including race, gender, sexuality, religion, class and caste.
Berlin (CNN) — “We can do it!”
When tens of thousands of desperate migrants made the treacherous journey to Europe in the summer of 2015, some leaders responded by closing their nations’ borders.
But Angela Merkel chose a different option, throwing open Germany’s doors to more than 1.4 million asylum seekers, and calling on her countrymen and women to welcome them in.
It is regarded by many as the defining moment of Merkel’s 16 years in power; within the space of a few months, Germany became home to the world’s fifth largest refugee population.
More than five years on, meaningful integration remains a problem here. 11.4 million of Germany’s total population of 83.1 million are foreigners, of whom nearly 5 million are citizens of the European Union and have the right to vote in EU and some local elections.
But as many as one in seven German residents – about 14% of the population – cannot vote in federal elections, according to MigLoom, a charity that campaigns for the rights of the country’s migrants.
Obtaining German citizenship is a notoriously long and complicated process. According to Germany’s Federal Ministry of the Interior, a person must live legally in Germany for at least seven years, learn German, pass a naturalization test, and may in many cases have to renounce any previous citizenship – a potential obstacle for those who want to keep ties with their birth nation.
The country’s powerhouse economy was built, in part, by immigrants that filled the demand for cheap labor during the country’s post-war boom while remaining locked-out of Germany society and democracy. In the 1960s and 70s, the so-called “guest worker” scheme brought millions of workers from Turkey and lesser-developed countries while offering no language training, little protection from discrimination and few easy paths to citizenship.
Under Merkel immigration policies were eased and access to integration classes made available to all newcomers, but activists argue more needs to be done. Estimates vary, but today there are still millions of long-term tax-paying residents who, without citizenship, remain disenfranchised.
Members of this sizeable, but silenced, minority say they suffer from systemic discrimination and a lack of representation in the corridors of power.
Germany’s new Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, was voted in on Wednesday, and his incoming government offers some hope for change. In their newly-released agreement, the coalition said they intend to ease naturalization and dual citizenship rules. In addition, they are proposing provisions for the protection of Muslims, Jews and queer life in the country.
CNN met three activists and politicians determined to change the system and open the door for immigrants and other non-German citizens to vote.
‘I wanted to be the voice I was missing in politics’
Syrian activist Tareq Alaows fled Damascus in 2015, and after a dangerous journey to Europe, he became one of over a million refugees welcomed in by Merkel.
But just because the door was open, didn’t mean Alaows felt at home.
“Everyone was talking about refugees, but no one was talking to us,” says Alaows, 32, remembering his arrival in the western city of Bochum. “Our future was being determined, but we were not a part of the conversation.”
Five months into his stay, feeling deeply frustrated and shut out, Alaows resorted to activism, staging a 17-day sit-in at Bochum City Hall to demand a meeting with the mayor. It worked; as a result, he became an unofficial advocate for other refugees.
In February this year, he tried to go a step further, launching a campaign for a Bundestag seat, aiming to become the first Syrian refugee elected to Germany’s federal parliament.
“When I looked at the make-up of the Parliament, there was no one who represented me or my struggle,” he says. “I wanted to be the voice I was missing in politics.” he said.
Many welcomed the campaign, but Alaows says he was targeted by an angry minority who deluged him with daily messages of hate and constant death threats.
He endured the intimidation for weeks, until he was verbally assaulted on a night train. The attack was the last straw, he says. Frightened by the “massive experiences of racism,” he reluctantly called a halt to his election campaign.
In the wake of his decision, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called the attacks on Alaows “pathetic for our democracy.”
Alaows remains politically active as a member of the Green party and spends most of his days advocating for migrant rights.
He says his application for German citizenship was fast-tracked because of his political work; it came through earlier this year, making him one of very few Syrian refugees able to vote in September’s parliamentary elections – a moment he describes as bittersweet.
“For me, as an immigrant in this society where there is structural racism, I must be politically active,” he says. “I cannot lose hope. It’s not an option.”
‘Because I am a woman of color, I am receiving death threats’
The day after Germany’s most important election in a generation, local official Sawsan Chebli juggles meetings from her office in Berlin City Hall.
Chebli’s party, the Social Democrats (SPD), narrowly defeated Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in September’s parliamentary election, giving it a mandate to form the country’s next ruling coalition.
Chebli, State Secretary for Federal Affairs in Berlin’s state senate, hopes the power shift will mean greater political representation for minorities.
Those from immigrant backgrounds – that’s to say, non-ethnic Germans – make up 26% of Germany’s population but account for only 6% of staff in local authorities and 12% of staff in federal authorities, according to Chebli. And none of the 15 ministers in the Chancellor’s outgoing cabinet come from an immigrant background, Chebli says.
“You have to have role models in politics in order for young people to aspire to the same career,” she says.
Born and raised in Germany to Palestinian parents, Chebli’s family was stateless for the majority of her childhood, leaving them unable to work, attend university, or participate in politics. “We were just invisible,” she recalls.
Chebli, 43, is one of the most prominent politicians of color in Berlin – and the only politician of her rank to be assigned state security, she says.
“Because I am a woman of color, I am receiving death threats,” she explains. “Because I am here, and I’m loud, and I fight against the right-wing politicians.”
Chebli wants Germany’s voting law – which allows EU citizens to participate in local and EU elections but bars non-EU residents from voting, except in some local elections – to be reformed.
“It is discriminatory, and it has to be changed,” she says.
With its aging population and low birth-rate, Chebli believes Germany needs immigrants to provide a young and able workforce to sustain future economic growth.
“Germany is going to change,” she says firmly. “Because reality is going to change it, because data and facts and numbers are going to change it.”
‘Every decision is happening over our heads’
On the outskirts of Germany’s financial capital, Frankfurt, lies one of the country’s most diverse cities.
Offenbach has an immigrant population of 63.9%, according to its city council. But local politician Hibba-tun-noor Kauser says the municipal government that runs Offenbach looks nothing like the multi-ethnic city she calls home.
Prior to spring 2020, immigrants with German citizenship made up less than 10% of Offenbach council, according to Kauser. The 22-year-old student says this drove her to stand for election.
“It’s a huge problem,” she told CNN. “The government is supposed to reflect the population, but it doesn’t.”
Almost 37% of residents here – that’s every third person in Offenbach – are unable to vote because they do not hold German citizenship.
Kauser believes that poses a big problem. “Every decision is happening over our heads, over the heads of people who cannot vote, over the heads of marginalized groups,” she says.
In March, Kauser was voted onto Offenbach’s 72-person council at an election that saw the proportion of immigrants with German citizenship serving as councilors rise to almost 20%.
She says it was a huge upset for the city’s mostly white and male career politicians – and gave fresh representation to a marginalized majority.
“It was very overwhelming,” she says. “But my community still counts on me. It’s a very big responsibility and I take it very seriously.”
Activists say the long, bureaucratic application process to acquire citizenship means many immigrants work, live and pay taxes for years here without political representation. They sometimes struggle with the paperwork, fees and have to hire third parties to help.
Kauser’s parents, who have lived and worked in Germany for more than two decades since moving there from Pakistan, are among those disenfranchised because of their lack of German citizenship. Their story is commonplace; many in similar positions feel a deep sense of exclusion.
But beyond the paperwork and the legal hurdles, being able to take part in the democratic process of their new home feels like an impossible dream for many immigrants.
“Many people don’t even know they can participate, so I tell them how they can do it and why they should do it,” Kauser says. “I want to motivate and empower them.”