Our history of immigration to Germany, which began in 1960, almost exclusively mentions men. But there is another side of the coin. As German authorities announced their need for female labor in the early 1970s, Turkish women set off for Germany.
In an effort to learn about their challenging lives, I have listened to the stories of two immigrants, Leman hendek and Meryem kangallı, whose journeys began in İzmir and Adana, respectively. They took the initiative to leave for Germany on their own, paving the way for their families. Theirs are tales that we are not accustomed to hearing.
The news stories about Turkish immigration to Germany, which began 50 years ago, are generally accompanied by photos showing young boys carrying wooden suitcases and getting on the train in the Sirkeci station in İstanbul. Those images generally don’t include women. As a matter of fact, some time had to pass before Turkish women began immigrating to Germany. Their husbands’ positions as guest workers had to be upgraded before they could bring their families to Germany, and women and children were able to take their places in this history of immigration. However, there are also some women who went to Germany on their own, and helped their husbands to come later.
In the early 1970s, some German companies announced their need for labor and they expressed a strong demand for women in the workforce. The number of Turkish women who went to Germany in the first year of immigration was 46. In 1973 this number had skyrocketed to 140,000. They left behind their husbands, children, parents, sisters and brothers. In those years, it was a bizarre occurrence for women to go abroad, and it was also bizarre for the women themselves. Leman Hendek was 21 years old when she found out that the daughter of a painter who was their houseguest in İzmir had gone to Germany. “Good God! What laid back people they are!” she had thought to herself. But less than one year later, in 1971, she found herself in Germany.
To save money for education
At that time, men generally saved money to buy a house or a car. Hendek went abroad in order to pay for the university expenses of one of her relatives. Her original intention was to work for four years until her relative completed university. But things didn’t work out that way. She is currently 61 years old and still lives in Germany.
In an unusual twist on the traditional story of male immigration to Germany, Hendek returned to Turkey 9 months after she had left to marry her husband and bring him back with her. Hendek did not suffer from the culture shock of coming from a small Anatolian town and immigrating to a big and modern European city. Indeed, Hendek moved from İzmir to a small German town that was very isolated. Smiling, she remembers how her boss described the tap water as a state-of-the-art technology when he first showed her the house that had been allocated to her. “I don’t know what their image of us was, but I lived in İzmir until the age of 21, and I never lived in a house with a wasgrıın (washroom) located outside. I was shocked to learn that the washrıın was located outside the house in Germany. At that moment, I wanted to go back to Turkey,” she remembers.
Hendek, a seamstress, was accompanied to Germany by five women whom she met at the labor exchange office in İzmir. On the plane, they cried the whole way. Some had left their children behind, others left their newly married husbands. They all hoped for a good life and a welcoming community as they ventured towards the unknown.
A train station filled with newly arrived Turks
Eventually they arrived at the Munich train station. Hendek can hardly give an exact number of people in the crowd she saw at the station. “Image a whole wedding hall of people. All of them are Turks and there are also some women among them,” she remembers. The translator who was supposed to accompany them had disappeared. A man on the train told them that they would get off at the Aschaffenburg station, but they should not hurry. How could they hurry? They didn’t dare leave their seats, fearing they might miss the station.
Hendek still vividly remembers the moment she arrived with six women in Aschaffenburg. “We, six women, huddled together like small lambs when we got off the train. We made an agreement among ourselves. If someone came and told us something, we would not look at him or her because we heard that the Turks who had come to Germany in 1960 were villains. A man approached, whom we assumed to be the boss of the workplace. There was no translator. He didn’t know Turkish and we couldn’t speak German. He stopped and pointed at two of us. He produced a sound mimicking a sewing machine and we understood that he was the boss,” she recalls.
Today, with her husband and two daughters, Hendek lives in Grosswallstadt, near the town where she first arrived. She takes pride in her daughters -- one is a teacher and the other is a newscaster. Her eyes shine with pride and joy when she says that her daughter -- the teacher -- has a student who is the grandson of her first boss. She recalls with amazement, given her own story of immigration, how she could have felt worry when she sent her daughter away to another city in Germany for a university education.
Leaving six children behind
One and half years after Hendek’s arrival, another story of separation from the homeland began in the Munich train station. The heroine of this story had great troubles. Meryem Kangallı had to leave her six children behind when she left for Germany. She remembers the exact date, May 26, 1972. She first traveled from Adana to İstanbul before flying to Munich. At that time, Germany required larger numbers of women workers. She came to Germany as a young woman at the age of 33. One of her daughters had to go the Germany, the “homeland of sorrows,” before her, at the age of 14.
With her husband suffering from tuberculosis and seven children to care for, Kangallı had a difficult time making ends meet. Her husband was staying at a sanatorium in Kastamonu and she was cleaning hotels, but she could hardly sustain the family. Kangallı was working day in and day out but her family was still living in destitution. Then one day they heard that Germany had started to accept women workers. She applied for the position in 1968 and was initially rejected. Two years later, she made her 10-year-old daughter apply for the position and say that she was 14 years old. Her daughter was accepted. Their plan was to send the daughter to Germany in advance and file a request for Kangallı to come join her. After the arrival of her mother, the daughter would return to Adana to take care of her sisters and brothers, and her mother would work for several years to save money and eventually return to Turkey as well.
At this point in the story, Kamber Kangallı, Meryem’s second husband with whom she has been married since she was 55, laughs and interrupts, saying, “She is still supposed to return.”
Kangallı’s daughter couldn’t file a request for her mother, but Meryem Kangallı was accepted the second time she applied to work in Germany. At first she worked in a canned food plant in Bremen in the north. She had left her six children in Turkey, and she had a difficult time reuniting with her daughter who was already in Germany. Her daughter was in the small southern town of Schveningen, where they live today. Six months passed before they were reunited. During the New Year holiday, Kangallı’s daughter came to Bremen and canceled her contract in the south and took her mother in. Together, they started to work at a factory together. After staying in a dormitory in Heim for two months, they rented a house. One year later, they managed to bring all of Kangallı’s remaining children to Germany.
Meryem Kangallı is now 75 years old, she lives with her husband in Germany and her children all live close by. We ask how many grandchildren she has. “I don’t know, honestly,” she responds. “Suna has two, Servet three...” she starts to enumerate. Apparently, it is a high number.
We wonder whether she could learn German. “Don’t ask,” her husband interrupts. Meryem Kangallı sheepishly says, “40 years have passed since my arrival, and still I can’t speak it.” But she rushes to add: “How could I learn it? We would start work at 6:00 in the morning and we would quit at 4:00 in the afternoon. I worked with Turks all day. After that late hour, I would care for my seven kids. After all this, how could I learn German?”
We ask if she regrets coming to Germany. “I have never expressed regret. We’d be in a deplorable state if we had not come here. Now all my children are employed,” she says. However, she still feels regret for having left her children behind. Any mention of those days makes her eyes tearful. “Those days were hard not only for me, but also for my kids. The biggest ordeal was suffered by my daughter, Perihan. At that age, she had to act as both the father and mother of the family. It is a bleeding wound, a deep sorrow inside me. I left them behind, dispossessed and without a father. It still wrenches my heart.”
Hendek and Kangallı are two living examples of a unique tale from the 50 years of Turkish immigration to Germany, examples that have been partially ignored and forgotten. They spent their lives trying to spare their children from the suffering they had experienced. Don’t you think the stories of these women deserve appreciation?