From Foreign Worker to Citizen

It all began with the Turkish-German recruitment agreement in 1961. The so-called "Gastarbeiter", the guest or foreign workers who came to work in Germany, were initially intended to do so only for a short time. But for many of the migrant workers it was all to turn out very differently. Vedat Acikgöz tells their story

Armando Rodrigues
Armando Rodrigues, the millionth foreign worker arrives in Germany in 1964

​​ On October 30, 1961, it became official. The recruitment agreement between Turkey and Germany was signed and sealed. The idea was to bring in Turkish workers as a stopgap solution to the short term needs of the German job market. Their stay was intended by both sides to be a temporary measure. Most of the migrant workers intended returning to their home country after a few years.

But for many things were not to work out as expected. Germany was to become their home, and for many families has remained so now for four generations. Nowadays, with a population of over two million, the Turks constitute by far the largest immigrant population in Germany. In many cities in the west of Germany in particular, entire residential districts have taken on a very distinctive character of their own as generations of the same families of the former migrant workers continue to live there.

"The people who came here looking for work were very positive and enthusiastic, they had visions and ideas. The plan was generally to come here for a short time, work, and earn enough money to buy something back home that would help secure their future livelihoods."

Murat Güngör from the Documentation Centre and Museum of Migration from Turkey, DOMIT, sums up the motivations of the earliest Turkish workers who came to Germany.

A soup-er welcome

Like many of his compatriots, Yilmaz Kinali intended to stay for only for a few years, enough time to earn a little money before returning home to buy a car.

After a medical examination at the German liaison office his train journey to Munich from Sirkeci station in Istanbul began in April 1964.

The train journey back then took three days. Conditions in the trains were often dreadfully lacking in basic hygiene, neither sanitation nor comfort was a high priority and the stresses and strains of the journey were hardly imaginable by today's standards. On arrival in Munich, the workers were first given something to eat before being sent on to their towns and cities:

"When we arrived in Munich we were given a bowl of bean soup. And there was chocolate and biscuits for desert," Yilmaz Kinali recalls.

Yilmaz Kinali came to Cologne to begin his job with the Ford Motor Company. Things were anything but easy for the new workers from Turkey during the initial weeks and months. With very few of them able to speak German, communication was often a matter of hand and foot signals.

"There was a butcher shop close to where I was living. An attractive woman worked behind the counter. Of course, I could not speak any German at the time. We just stood and stared at one another. If I wanted to buy some beef, I would just make mooing noises like a cow. That kind of thing went on a lot," Yilmaz Kinali recalls.

"I would give my life for this country"

His initial intention of returning to his homeland was relatively short-lived. Now 68-years-old, he has spent the last 42 years in Germany, his children were all born and brought up there. His parents who had lived in Istanbul are now both dead and he sees no reason why he should ever return, he says, with tears welling in his eyes.

"Of course Turkey is my homeland. But if Germany were ever to be threatened I would be the first to man the barricades. I have sacrificed my youth to this country. Maybe the Germans don't want us here, but I would give my life for this country."

Yilmaz Kinali's story is similar to that of many others who stayed – not least because German industry wanted them to do so. Having to train new workers every two years is something they would soon have tired of.

End of the economic miracle

Germany's post-war economic miracle, which had necessitated the influx of the Turkish workers in the first place, came to an abrupt end in 1973 with the international oil crisis.

"In economic terms 1973 was a difficult year for Germany. First came the oil crisis and then the recession. Then came the decision from the government of the day to put a stop to the migration of workers to Germany and to make do with the local labour supply to fulfil their needs," Murat Güngör of DOMIT explains.

The government had miscalculated however. In fact, numbers of foreigners increased as many decided to bring their families from the homeland to Germany. A second attempt to put a stop to the immigration, even to reverse the trend, also failed, Murat Güngör says.

"1984 was a crucial year for Germany and for the migrant workers. Pressure on the workers to return home was coming from the government of Chancellor Kohl. A simple calculation was made. The economy was in a bad way at the time and sending the migrant workers home was seen as a quick fix for the unemployment figures.

"It was a tactic that led to a rise in social as well as political racism back then. This repatriation support law that was used brought social security refunds with it. The few hundred thousand who accepted this small financial package made their way back to Turkey to try to begin a new life."

German homeland

The hoped for mass exodus of workers failed to materialise, however, and nowadays there are more than two million Turks living in Germany. For the younger generation in particular, Germany and the German language are more familiar than Turkey and Turkish. As in the case of 22-year-old Rabiye Yigit.

"I visited Turkey last year, and before that, five years ago. I like it there. But I don't think I would like to live there all the time," she says. "I am used to living here. Turkey is great for a holiday, but to live there all the time? I'm not sure, but I don't think I would like to. Maybe it's also to do with language. I am Turkish, but I don't speak the language very well."

Many of the younger Turks, born and brought up in Germany, think like Rabia. For her, Turkey is a foreign country. Germany is her home.

Vedat Acikgöz

© Deutsche Welle / 2008

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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