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Turks in Germany: Developing the Future, Acknowledging the Past

October 12, 2015|

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Selma (left) and her cousin Emine at Café Simitdchi in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Image by Austin Davis. Germany, 2015.

BERLIN, Germany—It’s early evening at Café Simitdchi in Kreuzberg, a borough of Berlin that’s been dubbed “Little Istanbul.” The air has enough of a chill to produce goosebumps, but the traditional Turkish black tea does its job of warming to the core. The area has become gentrified in the past ten years, Selma explains; Kreuzberg has become hip, and the droves of young people moving here are driving up rent prices, forcing many of the neighborhood’s oldest Turkish families into Berlin’s outer boroughs.

Selma, who asked that her last name not be published, has lived in Kreuzberg her entire life. She doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon. She lights another cigarette. “I was one of the originals,” she says.

After World War II, faced with a depleted work force and a booming economy, West Germany struck a unique deal with the Turkish government that allowed for temporary laborers, classified as gastarbeiter (guest worker), to freely enter the country. Selma’s father was one of millions of workers that would eventually enter the country between 1961 and 1973. In 1968, when Selma was four, she and her mother traveled to Berlin to join her father in Kreuzberg.

German media has labeled the Turkish diaspora—now some 3 million persons—as the “problem children of integration.” They question why unemployment and social stagnation continue to plague the Turkish community some fifty years after their arrival.

Dr. Coskun Canan, an immigration specialist, sees the pretense under which the gastarbeiter came to Germany as the root cause.

“It was originally the case that everyone thought that these people would come and work, and then would go back,” he said. Political measures promoting integration did not necessarily even begin until 40 years after the first guest workers came to Germany. “No one really prepared themselves…and it was very, very late until anyone noticed that nothing had been done.”

If there was any policy taking place at that time in Germany, it was zu verdeutschen, or to Germanize; learning the German culture and language became the central and only focus of integration, and continued to be even as late as 2008. At the same time, however, strict naturalization laws and an exclusive education system in Germany diminished the chances for the country’s Turks to achieve equal footing.

A cultural paradox emerged: they became foreign in the land in which they were born, yet estranged from their ancestral home. Theirs is a transient identity.

When Selma was a girl, she felt that she had to forfeit parts of her Turkish heritage in order to be accepted. On school grounds, she was forbidden to speak her native language, even to her mother, who would pick her up after school. She managed to learn German quickly, but she recalls being addressed in “Tarzan-speech” by Germans: a broken-down, demeaning version of the language.

“Integration has to come from both sides,” she says. She feels that German society failed to make concessions.

Considering her own experiences, and those of her fellow community members, Selma wonders about the next generation of Turks in Berlin. She looks around the area surrounding the subway platform of Kottbusser Tor, the heart of Kreuzberg, and recalls the political movements that began here; she comments on how much the area has changed.

The surrounding stores, even the café where she’s sitting, are all Turkish-owned, something she wouldn’t have imagined thirty years ago. She points to a young family—a woman in a headscarf pushing a stroller, her husband on her arm.

“It’s them who we’ve always fought for,” she said.

She knows her community still struggles—she is employed at a school in Kreuzberg where Turkish still hasn’t become a working language, though administrators make a special effort and “use their hands and feet” to try to communicate with native English speakers. Hybrid identities still aren’t accepted, she says, and Turkish-Germans face micro-aggressions on a daily basis; she had another encounter with someone using “Tarzan-speech” in an administrative office with her cousin, Emine, just the other day.

Though the laws of naturalization changed years ago in Germany, Selma has chosen to keep her Turkish citizenship, forgoing her chance to become a citizen of the country she’s lived in her entire life. “I stand close to Turkey,” she said, “And it’s impossible to have a future when you don’t have a past.”