The Guest Worker Identity Crisis

As debates in the US on immigration reform and a potential guest worker program have stalled, KJZZ’s Tony Ganzer is looking at Germany’s guest worker past for a potential look at the United States’ future, including what we may here see in Arizona.  In the 1960s and 70s large numbers of Turkish immigrants helped rebuild Germany in an “Economic Miracle” but nearly half a century later, the country and some of its immigrants and their children are having a hard time getting along.

“We are not just Germans or just Turks, we are the best of both worlds,” says Bertan Boyacioglu, a college student studying economics in Berlin. 

He speaks four languages, including his native German and Turkish, and he’s part of a movement of German youths with Turkish heritage who call themselves Deukisch: not quite German, and not quite Turkish. 

The Deukisch generation is trying to find its place in life after a guest worker program.

“We’re working hard to get this whole image thing correct.  It’s a very sad point when you open the daily newspaper, and at side one you see ‘Turkish guy shots down two men’ and everyone around you, your neighbors, come in like ‘What happened in your community’ and you’re like ‘I’m not really involved in that sort of thing,'” Boyacioglu says sitting in a large coffee shop in Berlin with friend Zeynep Balazümbül, whose grandparents came to Germany as guest workers. 

Balazümbül says many in the German Turkish community feel as if they don’t fit within their new and past countries– they have a hard time being accepted in Germany, and an equally difficult time being accepted in Turkey.

The Deukisch Youth are trying to find themselves in life after a guest worker program.

“Someone asked me where I’m from, and I said I’m German and she was like ‘Oh come on.’ If you have one person who tells you ‘Oh come on you’re not German’ that one bad experience is enough to just give up and say they just don’t want me,” Balazümbül says.

She is also a student–studying law–and she says guest workers built up Germany, and the government expected the workers to return home.  Many did–12 million guest workers flowed into Germany working in factories and the industrial sector, and only about 4 million stayed. 

There are now 2 million Turkish immigrants in Germany, the country’s largest minority.

“A lot of people in the Turkish community are frustrated, and we’re just trying to state the point that we are both German and Turkish and we’re trying to send a message to the people,” she says.

“But we should not forget the migrants themselves often thought of themselves and their stay as very temporary,” says Thomas Faist, a professor of transnational relations and the sociology of development at Bielefeld University, in Germany.

Thomas Faist

“The guest worker programs started with an agreement that migrants should be employed at the same conditions as natives,” he says. “So there should be no difference in terms of social and work-related rights.  The readiness for migrants to take on jobs Germans didn’t want anymore was the main qualification.”

Faist says though the intention of a guest worker program is temporary labor, workers begin families, and children attend school, and soon enough the temporary labor has roots in the new land.

“It really is true, that in the 1960s and still in the 1970s labor migrants were looked upon as labor power, not as fathers and mothers and children.  It’s not labor migrants anymore it’s real people, with real needs,” he says, adding that for him one of the most candid and important observations of guest worker programs came from 20th century Swiss author and journalist Max Frisch, who said “we asked for workers, but we got people instead.”

Faist says it’s that perspective of thinking of workers as only workers, which could cause faults in a society.

“We should get used to this pluralism,” says Barbara John, who was the commissioner for immigration and integration for the Berlin senate from 1981 to 2003.  She says societies need immigrants for new ideas, and new ethos, but there must also be a system for encouraging success among poorer communities.

“We lack incentives for migrants and not just migrants, but people with a poor education, to climb up the social ladder,” she says. “That’s one of the difficulties of a welfare state.”

John says Germany’s welfare system encourages a laissez faire attitude among families, because a person can make more money on welfare than by working a low-paying job.

And though Bertan Boyacioglu with the Deukisch Youth is unhappy with government action with immigrant populations so far, he remains optimistic.

“There are a lot of Turks, but also in these poorest neighborhoods there’s great potential,” he says.

The issues of Germany’s 50 years of immigration can’t be solved with 7 or 8 years of legislating, he adds.

And he believes that unless Germany realizes immigrants are people and not just workers, the system will break down.

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