Germanyʹs Turkish migrants
The need to be somebody

As the UKʹs Windrush scandal of a few weeks ago demonstrated, European countries still have much to learn when it comes to integrating and treating migrants with respect. In "Der ewige Gast" (The Eternal Guest), Can Merey draws on his father's experience to explain why many Turkish immigrants have never really felt at home in Germany. By Ulrich von Schwerin

"We are overjoyed at the birth of our son Can (pronounced: Chan)", Can Merey's parents wrote in his birth announcement. His father Tosun and his mother Maria wanted a Turkish forename, because having a German forename with a Turkish surname appeared strange to them. Little Can was also born with Turkish citizenship and at the time of his birth in 1972, had little prospect of attaining a German passport. But not only did the pronunciation of his forename require explanation in Germany, it also identified him as a "Turk" throughout his life.

Now a journalist and Istanbul correspondent, Merey has written a book that grapples with the history of migration and integration in Germany, viewed in the context of his own family's story. In the book, "Der ewige Gast" (The Eternal Guest), Merey writes that having a Turkish name in Germany not only caused chronic irritation because it was always being mispronounced, it also made it more difficult to find work and a place to live, thereby "measurably hampering future opportunities".

The subtitle "Wie mein tuerkischer Vater versuchte, Deutscher zu werden" (How My Turkish Father Tried to Become German) already gives us some idea of how his father Tosun fared. The son of an Istanbul paper manufacturer first came to Germany as a language student in 1958 and began a business management course in Munich in 1961 – the very same year that Germany struck a recruitment deal with Turkey to meet the manpower shortage in the land of the Wirtschaftswunder.

"Integration could hardly have been better"

Later, Tosun married the Catholic farmer's daughter Maria and started a family, in which only German was spoken from the outset. The marriage between the Turk and the Catholic girl from Upper Bavaria may have been unusual, but it was accepted by both families. There were no major intercultural difficulties, with the secular Muslim Tosun readily adopting the Bavarian penchant for wheat beer and roast pork.

"Integration could hardly have been better," writes his son today. "However, in his twilight years, Tosun is now facing the bitter realisation: his attempt to find a new homeland in Germany has failed." In his book, Merey attempts to understand why his father has not succeeded in "becoming a German", and why the latter, to the incomprehension of his son, became an admirer of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in later years.

In his book, Merey deftly tethers the life story of his father to the history of German-Turkish relations and the frequently tortuous debate on how to deal with Turkish guest workers initially welcomed with open arms, yet before long shunned. He presents a convincing argument that integration is not a matter for immigrants alone, but that it is also essential for the indigenous population to recognise them as part of society.

The one who doesn't quite belong

Tosun's example demonstrates how difficult this was for Germans to do in the case of Turkish migrants. After all, despite his German studies, his German wife and his job as a senior member of staff in a German company, he remained the "Turk" to the very last. Although he almost totally adopted the German language, customs and way of life, he was regularly made to feel that he didn't quite belong.

While people were initially interested in him in the early days, after the early 1970s Turkish workers were increasingly viewed as a burden. "Cities like Berlin, Munich or Frankfurt can barely cope with the invasion" wrote Der Spiegel in 1973 under the headline "The Turks are coming – save yourselves if you can" using language reminiscent of the war. Within 12 months, "Kreuzberg's Turk colony" was swelled by "an entire brigade".

As hostility towards Turks became more pronounced, Tosun initially tried to convince himself that this was directed at the more lowly labourers and not at him as a qualified and educated man. Even when the xenophobia came in the form of fatal arson attacks in Molln and Solingen, he still couldn't relate it to his own situation. But at the same time he noticed that professionally, he was coming up against a "glass ceiling", because as a "Turk" he was not being entrusted with certain tasks.

Erdogan supporters in Cologne (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Never truly accepted: as a consequence of this perpetual rejection, Merey's father Tosun has turned his back on Germany. "I'm expected to wave the flag for Germany," he told his son. "But I can't, because I am somehow not regarded as an equal." It is this "broken pride" that led his father in old age to turn to Erdogan, to the incomprehension of his family, Merey explains

In a bid to escape these feelings of resentment, he began representing his German employer abroad – first in Tehran and then in Cairo. But even there, he wasn't completely accepted within the company, while his sons were branded foreigners and experienced discrimination in their German school. At the age of 56 and out of frustration at the situation, he finally took early retirement and over the years that followed, worked to establish a small hotel business in southern Turkey with his wife Maria.

Turned his back on Germany

Using his father's example, Merey shows how essential it is for integration that immigrants are accepted as part of society. Just how self-evident this can be is demonstrated by the example of Merey's aunt, who emigrated to the U.S. instead of Germany. As she told her nephew, she never once suffered discrimination because of her Turkish roots. "No matter where you come from, you can become a full-fledged American," she said.

In Germany on the other hand, a foreign-sounding name is enough to have you labelled as a foreigner. Even when he worked as a national political correspondent for the German Press Agency, writes Merey, he was regularly praised for speaking such good German. Although the comments were well-meaning, he continues, this is "an indication of how even in the subconscious minds of liberal-minded fellow citizens, there is a deeply-rooted idea that people like me can never really belong."

As a consequence of this perpetual rejection, Merey's father Tosun has turned his back on Germany. "I'm expected to wave the flag for Germany," he told his son. "But I can't, because I am somehow not regarded as an equal." It is this "broken pride" that led his father in old age to turn to Erdogan, to the incomprehension of his family, Merey explains.

Whenever Erdogan was criticised in Germany, Tosun defiantly backed his position. "I think I often defended Erdogan to be contrary," he says today. When Erdogan's authoritarian tendencies became evident, Tosun finally stopped speaking out in his favour. But many Turkish-Germans are likely to vote for Erdogan in upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections on 25 June. Those who want to understand why should read Merey's book.

Ulrich von Schwerin

© 2018

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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