The Known, Yet Unknown Community

Leaving home behind is always a hard decision. Sometimes it is a necessity, you have to leave the country you were born in just to survive. Other times, it’s related to a new beginning, a search for a better life or a need for change. The reasons are many. Whatever the impetus, it is always hard to leave your home, habits, and everyday routines, and most of all, your loved ones. 

With this in mind, it is easy to imagine the difficulties Gastarbeiter:innen faced. 

May 15, 1964 was a crucial date for the workers who came to Austria from Turkey. These people, who left with such big dreams, gradually, after years of working, established a life here and acquired a new home. They came without knowing the language, often living in shared rooms, under an agreement for temporary working status. Even the workers didn’t plan to stay in Austria. All those involved – both countries states and the workers themselves – saw it as a temporary stay,. 

They planned to work in Austria until they have enough savings to buy a house or launch a business in Turkey. The Turkish state assumed that the workers would not only bring their savings back with them, but also knew knowledge that would strengthen the economy at home. 

However, beginning in the 70s and 80s, the Gastarbeiter began to bring their families to Austria as well. Children were often born here and went to school side-by-side with the Austrians, while the parents postponed their return. Sometimes they hoped to save more; later they wanted to wait until their children’s finished school. But primarily, it was Turkey’s economic and political situation, that blocked a way forward for their families in Turkey.  They simply couldn’t imagine a future there that made sense.

At the beginning they shared rooms with others from their home town, and would go  shopping together because of the language problem. After their families arrived, they continued to live together, to support each other in everyday life.  

Over the decades, there are many stories of success and achievement, but also tears, home sickness, anger, disappointment. There has been happiness and sacrifice, some nice surprises and lots of hard work, and of course discrimination, the frustration of being used by populists in Turkey as well in Austria. Still, the community, like any other, has enriched Austria, with its culture, language and way of life. 

Visiting Turkey in Summer / “İzine gitmek”

For the first generation, in particular, it was very difficult to stay away from home that long. Think about a time without the internet, when phone calls were expensive as were the airline tickets, when pictures were not taken digitally. People wrote each other letters, sent cassettes with voice recordings (even this was unusually high-tech!) to their loved ones back home. So, the summer vacation was a big event, the chance to go back to Turkey, and visit their loved ones. Many traveled by car, especially the bigger families. It was far cheaper and allowed you to bring more presents and on the way back, to bring supplies they couldn’t find in Austria. 

This longing to go to Turkey each summer is still a reality for many. 

After the coup d’état in 1980 and for several years following, many leftists had to leave and apply for asylum in countries around the world, especially in Europe. Others left because of civil war and conflicts with the Kurds. Among their contributions, these refugees brought Turkey’s special understanding of secularism, shaped by the reforms of Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s, which has had a major influence on the Islamic associations in Austria. 

In order to understand the dynamics within the Turkish speaking community in Vienna, we must look at current events in Turkey. Even though the community here has its own structures and dynamics, Turkey has an important influence on Turks in Vienna.

“The Newcomers” – Students

In academic year 2020-2021, over 2000 students with Turkish citizenship were studying in Austria. There are many reasons they come.

The last decades, political changes in Turkey pushed many to study abroad. In Austria, the education was good and compared to other countries the tuition affordable. 

Architecture, economics, fine arts, music, engineering and medicine are the most popular fields of study, not only for a bachelor’s but also graduate degrees. And while some have returned to Turkey after their studies, others also chose to stay in Vienna and became part of the city.

One of the biggest challenges is the language, with the expectation that you complete the C1 advanced level within four Semesters.  A second challenge is a work permit, which  students from non-EU/EEA countries don’t automatically receive with a student residency permit. They are allowed to work a maximum of 20h/week and only if the employer is willing to apply for the permit, which can take two to six weeks. In addition, Turkish students are excluded from most scholarships. Tuition fees are also higher than for students from EU countries. As with all third-country nationals, Turkish students pay double the EU rate, or, €747,42 per semester. 

Religion & Beliefs

The largest ethnic groups in the community are Kurds and Turks.

The majority of migrants from Turkey belong to the Sunni Hanafi school of law. The Alevis form the second largest group. There is a large Alevi community, estimated at 10-20 percent of the community from Turkey.

In addition to that larger religious groups, Orthodox Armenians, Assyrians and Turkish Jews are all part of the community. 

Regional Associations

There are several types of events, where the community comes together, which we can divide into two broad categories: the traditional and the culture-related events.

The traditional includes religious festivities, weddings, circumcision ceremonies, engagement parties and even funerals. As in most cultures, weddings are particularly important occasions, and before the pandemic, you could have gone to one every week, and the German channel Düğün TV (Wedding TV) broadcasts weddings from around Europe live. 

The culture related events include concerts, theater, art openings, talks, screenings  etc. Before the pandemic, there were Turkish Theater Festivals, where plays, actors and other performers from Turkey came to Vienna stages, where Turks would meet, despite differing political views and backgrounds.

A pinch of Turkey

Through it all, many long for a smell, a taste, maybe even a sound, that reminds them of home. Those comforting familiar things! 

In Vienna, it’s a pinch of Turkey, which you can find if you know where to look.

Favoriten is one of the centers of the Turkish community here. After Favoriten; Simmering, Fünfhaus, Ottakring and Brigettenau.  The markets, too – Naschmarkt, Brunnenmarkt, Meiselmarkt, Hannovermarkt, Viktor-Adler-Markt – are rich in Turkish culture, important market places, where you can find familiar smells and hear the melodies of the Turkish language. 

Creating a new Home

After moving to another country, in most cases you still have a connection to where you come from.  The sad part is sometimes you miss a place that no longer exists, which can not exist. Even the version of you from that time no longer exists. But still you find yourself longing for this non-existent version of a place and of youself that remains as a memory, as a dream of something you cannot have anymore and is thus all the more  romanticized.

These “memory seeds” you bring with you to your new home, to grow something new and that might be very beautiful 

Having spent half of my life in Vienna, one of the most unexpected things that I have learned has been to understand and see Turkey in a different way. Sometimes you need to take a step back to see the picture as a whole.

And so too with the community here. It will remain as a known, yet not-so-well-known, community for me as well, until perhaps one day I will see it, too, from the outside.