Home Is Where You Grow Up

When certain influential politicians or the media talk about Turkey or “the Turkish” people in Austria, they often omit a long history that has shaped the here and now. They obtain their information mainly from one-sided sources. So instead, let’s let Turkish immigrants – people who grew up in Turkey, see themselves as Turks, and have lived a migration biography –speak for themselves. It is time to listen to what they have to say.

The relationship between Turkey and Austria has a long history. To make this history understandable, we have to go back to the Ottoman Empire, an era that lasted more than 600 years and only came to an end in 1922. So, let’s dig deeper into the history of this empire, into who was involved, and what impact this has on our lives today.

The Ottoman Empire

The term Ottoman is a dynastic appellation derived from Osman the First (Arabic: Uthmān), the founder and first sultan of the Ottoman Empire who ruled for 27 years until his death in 1326. Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, the Ottoman Empire gradually reshaped its institutions to meet the needs of administering and defending an expanding empire.

This empire was not only “the Turks,” however, but was also made up of Kurds, Arabs, Yugoslavs, Armenians, Greeks, and many more people and groups of various faiths. Although conversion to Islam was not officially required, many Christians and a few Jews converted voluntarily in order to secure full status under their new rulers. Others, however, continued to practice their original religions without restriction. One tangible measure of Christian influence in the 14th century goes back to marriage relations, administered by Ottoman and Christian courts.

During its period of prosperity, the Ottoman Empire encompassed most of Southeastern Europe to the gates of Vienna, including present-day Hungary, the Balkan region, Greece, and parts of Ukraine; parts of the Middle East now occupied by Iraq, Syria, Israel, Palestine, and Egypt; North Africa as far west as Algeria; and large parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

In the centuries that followed, the first (1529) and then second (1683) Ottoman sieges of Vienna reflected the empire’s ambitions to expand. These two seminal events seem to have had a lasting impact on Austrian-Turkish relations, with a mythic power out of all proportion to any current threat.

Beyond that, the empire has left a wide mark and is not only continuing to shape enduring identities, but its dissolution also produced, among other things, a wide range of migration biographies.

The first and second generation

In 1964 and 1966, already more than 40 years after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, the Austrian government formed recruitment agreements with Yugoslavia and Turkey, with the involvement of its social partners (Raab-Olah Agreement). As the economy grew in this postwar recovery phase of the 1960s, labor was urgently needed. Thus, Austria followed the example of others, particularly Germany, in seeking to expand its work force through active recruitment.

In 1964, the Austrian Recruitment Commission opened an office in central Istanbul to recruit Turkish guest workers for the Austrian labor market. German language skills were of secondary importance at the time and the Austrian government did not prioritize the acquisition of German or the integration of guest workers into the wider society. Integration into “the host society” was understood exclusively as a “one-sided” adaptation, while the term Fremdarbeiter (foreign worker) – taken over relatively uncritically from the Nazi era – initially prevailed.

Beginning in the early 1970s, however, the term was gradually replaced by Gastarbeiter (guest worker) and later the term Auslandsarbeiter (foreign employee). Gradually, discussions of “guest workers” seemed to be almost exclusively in connection with “problems” as phrases like “the problems of/with guest workers,” “the guest worker problem,” “the migrant worker problem” and “the integration problem” became increasingly common.

My grandfather’s story

My grandfather came to Austria with one of the buses organized for guest workers in 1971, where he and many others worked in the forest and then in a glass factory. His first child, my father, the eldest son of seven children, who was only 16 years old at that time, was also allowed to work in Austria with a mandatory health certificate. Even though my father had not even finished the mandatory minimum schooling, he was allowed to start working in Austria.

In 1975, the factory where they worked went bankrupt, laying off all of its 2,000 employees. So, they found themselves looking for work on their own, without a strong knowledge of German, which was the biggest challenge. At that time, Turks were actually comparatively nicely received. Many young people, including my father, also had to return to Turkey at some point to serve in the Turkish army.

Fathers and grandfathers of this generation still talk about living in a one-room apartment with 8-10 people, about working over 10 hours a day in construction, as road crews and quarry workers, and how difficult it was to not have family around them. They still talk about the numerous difficulties they faced, not understanding the language, or the many laws and regulations. But they also talk about their general treatment, about a time when they were invited, and were not treated as “problems” as they are now.

Later on, the temporary residence and employment permits (following a rotation principle) were no longer renewed. By 1984, the number of registered “foreign workers” had decreased by almost 40 percent. With the end of “guest worker recruitment” those already in Austria had to make a decision either to return to their countries of origin or to stay in Austria for a longer period. Some tried to build a life in Austria; they did their best to reunite their families, and tried to find apartments, schools and then jobs for their children. Others could not handle the language barriers and the lack of support. Adrift, they often returned to their countries of origin.

In 1990 my father came back to Austria on the invitation of his own father. The first years back in Austria were very difficult for my father, especially the language barrier and the laws, which had changed. He also suffered under the separation from my mother, my sister and me, as we had to stay behind. He faced numerous bureaucratic hurdles in order to finally bring us, his family, to join him.

It all depended on the size of his paycheck, his proof of apartment and rent. With great effort, my father managed to overcome all these challenges, documented these requirements to the municipality and, finally, was able to bring us to live with him in the stonemasonry region in the countryside.

The fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and the war in former Yugoslavia in 1991 triggered new migration movements, which subsequently had a

decisive impact on conditions in Austria. The previous “guest workers” were then joined by migrants and refugees from the so-called Eastern Bloc as well as refugees, who fled the Yugoslavian war crisis areas. The perception shift from so-called “guest workers” to “foreigners” in the public discourse became more and more manifest, shifting from the “migrant question” to the “foreigner question,” which has since become an intensively debated political issue.

The third generation’s many identities

While all this was happening, a story that might be familiar one way or the other to many who belong to this third generation evolved – my story. Zehra’s story. After many years separated from my father, at the age of 6, I moved to Austria with my sister and my mother in 1992, during a cold winter season.

Me, this small and lively Kurdish girl who had roots in a small village in eastern Anatolia/Turkey and grew up in Istanbul; a child who had never seen real snow before; a child who never spoke more than one language before; a child who did not know the concept of hatred; a child who could not distinguish between people and countries. I made the most beautiful journey of my life by coming to the land of mountains covered in white and many fir trees. It almost sounds like “Heidi in the mountains.”

I don’t know how long I had been riding in that big car with Anne (mum), Baba (dad), Abla (sister) and a strange man, but I knew I was no longer in Istanbul. I asked my Baba: “Ne zaman varacağız baba?” (“When will we arrive, dad?”). To which my Baba replied, “Az kaldı kızım, az kaldı, sen uyu biz vardığımızda seni uyandırırız, tamam mi?” (“It’s almost time, my daughter, it’s almost time. You just sleep. We’ll wake you up when we get there, okay?”). I started smiling and said, “Tamam Baba.”

I realized that I was getting tired. I was about to lie down on Anne’s lap when I noticed that she was crying. I asked her, “Anne ne oldu?” (“What happened, mum?”) Anne looked at me, wiped her tears with her hand and replied, “Birşey yok kızım, hadi sen uyumaya çalış, biz seni uyandırırız.” “(It’s nothing, my daughter. Come on, try to sleep. We’ll wake you up.”)

I don’t remember how long we drove after that, but I suddenly woke up because I felt like the car wasn’t moving. I pressed my nose against the windowpane and looked out curiously. “Baba, Anne,” I yelled, “uff, bu ne?” (“Uff, what’s that?”) Anne handed me my red jacket, “Hadi, hadi paltonu giyin, çabuk ol Zehra, Halime hadi sende giyin, bir sürü işimiz var.” (“Come on, put on your coat. Hurry up, Zehra. Come Halime, you too, get dressed. We have a lot of work to do.”)

I put on my jacket and opened the car door. My shoes gently touched the ground. Outside I looked around. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

I walked a few steps and touched a white surface. I took it in my hand, smelled it and stuck out my tongue and tried to lick it off. “Anne, bu ne?” (“Mum, what’s that?”) I yelled. Anne enlightened me that it was “kar” (snow). I couldn’t believe it, everything was covered in white snow. I was so stunned that I reached into the snow again with my fingers and wanted to play with it, but then my Anne called out, “Hadi Zehra…” (“Come on, Zehra!”). This was my first encounter with real snow like a fairytale world, a hint of “welcome” to our new world. But for my parents, all of this had an uncertain taste to it.

Far away from the nearest city, all season long, my father and grandfather worked back-breaking jobs in the stone industry, while my mother tried to make her children’s new life as smooth as possible and keep the family together. While my sister and I went to school and got used to the new environment and customs, our mother, a rather shy person who did not understand a word of the German language, worried about how to manage life in Austria without the rest of her family.

The only real goal of the migrant parents was, like all parents, to offer the children a future without sorrow and fear. Some families made a living for themselves in the rural areas; others who had problems finding a job moved to larger cities.

I, Zehra, who grew up in a strictly traditional household, was a young girl not yet aware of where we were and what tomorrow would bring, and I lived like that, without thinking about tomorrow. Friends and school were the most important factors for me, and so Austrian culture and language became a part of my life. One moment early on I will never forget was when I wanted to play with the neighbor kids and I started the conversation in Turkish, the only language I knew:

She looked at me and I looked at her. “Merhaba” (“Hi”) I said with a big smile on my face. Again, she looked at me and without hesitation, answered in German. “Hi. Did you just move here?”

“Ama ben seni anlamiyorum ki. Oynuyalim mi?” (“But I don’t understand you. Shall we play?”) I asked, pointing to the children’s playground.

She laughed and replied, still in German, “Okay, come on, let’s go!”

I was just 6 years old. Without understanding where I had “landed,”

I threw myself into everyday life, surrounded by houses, gardens, trees, cows, and cats. I thought, tomorrow we will surely go back, where it is always warmer, and to the bakkal, amca (grocery, uncle…) who always gave me sweets.

In the meantime, 28 years have passed.

Every now and then I am asked in which language I can express myself better, which languages I speak or what my mother tongue is. Sometimes I have no answer to these questions. Although I have read endless books about what language is and how it can take place in a neuroscientific context.

In my research work with people in a nursing home for the elderly, I have witnessed how some people who never knew what their mother tongue is or was, suddenly, due to an illness, such as dementia, had a need for a language that they could unite with their emotions. People can forget languages they have known all their lives from one day to the next. The brain then accesses its final resources, the ones they had with them since birth.

The fourth generation: still “foreigners”?

Now we have arrived in the year 2021 and in the meantime, a fourth generation is growing up in Austria. The children of so-called guest workers and this new generation born in Austria are still seen as “strangers” or “foreigners” and in many respects treated as such. Politicians and parts of society nowadays talk about “the integration” of “these children” who were born in Austria. Why do young people who belong to the third or fourth generation and thus belong here have to be treated and seen as “foreign children?”

What is less often recognized is that many who have Kurdish or Turkish roots are now active in various professions, in art, culture, medicine, politics and sports, often through the support of their families, and like their parents, are committed to their country Austria and to changing the country for the better.

A critical discussion of integration policy has been missed here for over 25 years. But now laws, rules and restrictions are being introduced and implemented for children who were born in this country and who only know the “here and now.” All of a sudden, they are confronted with restrictions, discourses, and rules about how to dress and behave. All of a sudden, the Turkish and Kurdish languages, which are so close to them, which they have learned from their family, are seen as bad.

We need to stop talking about “the others” and about the integration of people born in Austria! We have to start talking about us.

As it is the word “we” that holds us together.