Guest Workers Still Find Germany Less Than Welcoming

Guest Workers Still Find Germany Less Than Welcoming

1:49pm Sep 20, 2015

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Our own Rachel Martin is in Germany, where she's been following how that country is handling the huge influx of migrants and refugees. Rachel has been reporting on how this moment is raising questions about German identity. And she joins us with the story of one man who's part of Germany's largest minority population, the Turks.

Hi, Rachel.


WERTHEIMER: So, Rachel, why did people from Turkey come to Germany in the first place?

MARTIN: It started a long time ago, in the '50s and '60s, when Germany created these economic agreements with a bunch of different countries - Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey. There was a labor shortage after World War II and this program was designed to bring in so-called guest workers to kind of fill the void. Basically, Germany needed people to do industrial labor, and those people got stable jobs with good salaries and return. Now, they were supposed to stay for a few years and then they were supposed to go home. By the 1970s, most of the guest workers were coming from Turkey, and they stopped going home. They stayed in Germany. They brought over their families, and they built a life here.

WERTHEIMER: So have they been able to assimilate into mainstream German society?

MARTIN: Some have but it's fair to say most haven't. There are still what Germans call these, quote, "parallel societies" - they talk about this a lot - these tight knit communities where people who live there only speak Turkish and don't have social ties with the broader German culture. Now, in part, that's because Germany didn't want them to be part of the culture for a long time. We spoke with one man named Imran Ayata. He's a writer here in Berlin. And his parents came to Germany from Turkey under this guest worker program. When I spoke with him, he told me that even though he was born here in Germany, his identity is complicated.

IMRAN AYATA: Till today, I don't feel German or I don't say, directly, I'm a German. So I have a German passport and German papers and, of course, I live here and I will live here. But so that I was growing up with a feeling being part of the society. And that's why it's not very easy to - for me to say I'm German.

MARTIN: Do you feel Turkish?

AYATA: Definitely not, no.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

AYATA: You know, I think that identity is not only based on ethnicity or feeling part of a country. To be honest, something like home is a very difficult category for me. I like maybe Turkish songs or Turkish poetry, but I like, as well, German literature, as well. So it's difficult in these categories to say I'm here or there.

MARTIN: When you were growing up, did you - was your family integrated into the larger German society or did you grow up in a neighborhood with mostly Turks?

AYATA: They were not integrated because, you know, the politics in Germany, till the last few years, was still based on the focus that one day these so-called (unintelligible), the guest worker, they will go back to their homes. Most of them didn't. But the politics was still like that, that not investing on those people, not in saying, OK, we support them. We invest in their education to help them to learn German. So it was nothing done for my parents or people in this period coming to Germany to do efforts in integrating them.

MARTIN: How did your parents feel? I mean, were they OK with that? Did they want to become part of the larger German society?

AYATA: I think it's very difficult. It was very difficult for this generation to say, OK, we're focusing on integrating this society because if the society looks at you as saying your main thing - you're a worker. You have to work. So the first priority thing in your life is, OK, I have a job here and I work.

MARTIN: So your generation has had a different experience.

AYATA: Automatically, yes, because we started from a different level than our parents did. You can see this very clearly in the field of culture. In the '90s - 1990s - it's come up as German-Turkish hip-hop music. And it was all, you know, explained as the new thing that young people born here, grown up here, that they mix up the languages while doing hip-hop. Even in literature, you know, we have now a few very I would say successful writers with the so-called...

MARTIN: Turkish-Germans.

AYATA: Yes, with this how in German they say (speaking German) migration background.

MARTIN: Yeah, I've noticed that phrase come up a lot.

AYATA: Yeah, it's very funny. It's a very German way in defining such phenomenons.

MARTIN: I guess it's also a way to soften the word (speaking German), which - outsider somehow seems more harsh. But someone of migration background, somehow that...

AYATA: Yeah, I think every decade has its own phrases. You know, (speaking German) was in the first years, and it was clearly a political term saying these are people who are - (speaking German) means you don't have any rights in sense of voting, et cetera. And then it came up this thing like (speaking German), which means, like, foreign citizens. It's not exactly a good translation for that. And then it came up immigrants. And then it came up migrants. And then it became people with migration backgrounds. And now we have this new phrase, the new Germans, which is very funny because you ask yourself, who are the old Germans? So I think, at the end, all these terms or these definitions are a result of how racism and anti-racism is changing.

MARTIN: Do you think this will be a different country when your daughter is out in the world as an adult, trying to make her life here? Do you hope that she stays and builds a life in Germany?

AYATA: Well, I think hope is not a good - (laughter) how do you say, it's not a good attitude to have hope (laughter) as the main thing you believe in. I think the dynamic is not from above, it's if there is a movement, if there is a will to change the society, which I see a lot in different fields, there is no way that you can freeze in a way that you are. So you have to change. You know, the main question is in which direction and which ways this will change, but it will change definitely.

MARTIN: That was Imran Ayata. He's a writer in Berlin. And he told me one more really interesting thing. He is big into music and a few years ago, he produced a compilation CD of songs that were written by Turkish guest workers. They're sort of a satirical look at what it was like to be a foreigner in Germany back then. We're listening to a bit of one of these songs now. It's titled "Turkish Mann." And the lyric here is playing on some common stereotypes. It says, I can't speak German. I smell like garlic and paprika. I come to Germany to work. I'm supposed to work on the assembly line, make some cash and get out.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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