Immigrant's Plight: Leaving Germany on Bus of Broken Dreams
Like other Eastern European immigrants, Ivan Stoyanov came to Germany to work and make money for his family, but found himself living on the street. Instead of helping him stay, Hamburg paid for his bus ticket back to Bulgaria.
When he boarded the bus in Hamburg that would take him home, Ivan Stoyanov managed to repress his doubts. Leaving Hamburg behind, the carpenter from the Bulgarian village of Kadiköy focused, instead, on thoughts of his beautiful wife Aliya and his two clever, grown sons, Sevgin and Sevdin.
But later, back in his village, with only a dirt road separating him from Aliya, Sevgin and Sevdin, Stoyanov finds his courage abandoning him. For a moment he wants nothing more than to turn and walk away, out of shame. As dogs bark in the darkness-shrouded village, Stoyanov wonders, how can he return home without money, a failure? What will his family live on? He stops in front of his family's hut and sets his bag down beside him. His breath catches and his hands shake. But he knocks at the door, calling, "Aliya, I'm here!"
Over 1 million people moved to Germany last year, a higher immigration rate than the country had seen in 18 years. There are engineers from Bulgaria, craftspeople from Spain, cooks from Poland. As for Ivan Stoyanov, he came to Hamburg in the fall of 2012 to earn money. But his is not a success story. Stoyanov was first cheated by fellow Bulgarians, then run off by German employers. He ended up collecting deposit bottles and living on the street.
The German economy needs skilled foreign workers, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared at a demographics summit this May. Her government is making an effort to attract qualified workers from other countries. But it hasn't developed any plans for immigrants who end up failing here, often because they don't match the needs of the job market.
A Night-Time Departure
Stoyanov slept badly during his last night in Hamburg. At 3 a.m., he quietly made his way out of the room at a homeless shelter called Pik As. (The name translates as "Ace of Spades.") He pulled on his clothing in the hallway, not wanting to wake the others asleep in the room. Then he shaved and shined his shoes.
A small man with short, gray hair and a tired face, Stoyanov was wearing wide-cut dress pants and a freshly washed sports jacket. He wanted to look his best when he saw Aliya again. The night guard at Pik As nodded goodbye to him, then Stoyanov made his way down empty streets and past boutique stores. The bus station was brightly lit, with monitors blinking out their destinations: Kiev, Oslo, Bratislava.
Stoyanov lifted his bag into the luggage compartment of a bus and climbed on board. The air was stuffy and space was tight. A young girl onboard was screaming. Stoyanov closed his eyes. There was no reason to gaze back wistfully as the bus pulled away. Hamburg had been the scene of his worst defeat.
Stoyanov bought his ticket to Bulgaria from bus operator Eurolines for 130 ($170). The city of Hamburg covered the cost, preferring to pay for his trip home rather than make it possible for him to stay.
The New Demographics of Homelessness
Throughout Germany, cities and towns are complaining of a growing number of homeless immigrants, saying the European Union's eastward expansion and the euro crisis have increased the number of people coming to Germany from poorer European countries. In the federal state of Lower Saxony, a group of Romanians is living in the woods south of Oldenburg. In Munich, the Evangelisches Hilfswerk, an aid organization, has set up emergency shelters.
Hamburg, for its part, has initiated a pilot project to return homeless people from Eastern Europe to their home countries. Just in the month of June, 98 people took the city up on this offer. Stoyanov hesitated for quite a while, hoping until the end that he might still find a job. "In Bulgaria, you're worth nothing if you can't provide for your family," he says.
Most immigrants from Bulgaria and Romanian do fine on the German job market. According to calculations from Germany's Federal Employment Agency, these two groups have a higher employment rate than the average foreigner living in Germany. But Ivan Stoyanov belongs to the smaller group of Eastern European immigrants who fled difficulties in their homelands but have found nothing in Germany but exploitation and misery.
Men like Stoyanov work in construction, but are hired on as "independent contractors" so their employers don't have to provide health insurance and other benefits. Women work as cleaners, or find private positions as caregivers for the elderly. But if they get sick or lose their jobs, these foreign workers are on their own. Then the German companies or families who were happy to make use of their labor often declare themselves not responsible.
The Path to Germany
It was another man from Stoyanov's village who led him to Hamburg last fall, with the promise that anyone could find work in Germany. There was no work for Stoyanov in Bulgaria, so he discussed the idea with his wife, who said, "Go! What are we supposed to live on here?"
Stoyanov is no stranger to living and working in foreign countries. When his company, a nail-making factory, went bankrupt after the political changes of 1990, Stoyanov retrained as a carpenter and found work in Greece -- at a shipyard, at construction sites, as a seasonal harvest worker. He would often return to Kadiköy in the summers with gifts and money.
All that changed when the euro crisis hit in 2010 and Greek companies looked for ways to cut costs. No one needed laborers from Bulgaria anymore. Stoyanov and his family ran out of money. He sold his horse and carriage for the equivalent of 400. Stoyanov gave half of that to his wife Aliya, while the other half was to help him make a new start in Germany. The trip to Germany cost 100 and he spent 10 along the way for food and drinks, which means that he arrived in Hamburg in September 2012 with 90.
On his homeward journey, Stoyanov's bus stopped in the German city of Kassel and more passengers got onboard. Many of them were immigrant workers, going to visit their families back home. They spoke Romanian, Bulgarian, Turkish. Recently, these bus trips have also come to include more people going home for good -- men and women with closed faces and scarred hands.
The woman sitting next to Stoyanov wore a headscarf and had a deeply lined forehead. She spoke German and said she has worked in Germany for 10 years, most recently cleaning apartments in Kassel. She sends the money to her 15-year-old daughter, who stayed behind in Sibiu, Romania.
Since Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, citizens of those countries may enter Germany without a visa. Although their options on the job market here remain limited, they are allowed, for example, to seek self-employed work. But that means stiff competition and lower pay, complained the single mother from Romania, factors that influenced her decision to return to her daughter in Sibiu.
'Aliya, Don't Worry About Me.'
Stoyanov says he may have been naïve when he set out for Germany, hoping to establish a livelihood. Then again, the acquaintance from his village had promised to organize an apartment and a job for him. When Stoyanov arrived in Hamburg, the man took money from him to pay for the trip, then said he couldn't do anything more. Stoyanov didn't know where to turn and he didn't speak any German. He spent the first nights sleeping on park benches and under bridges, living on a piece of bread a day and smoking cigarette butts he picked up off the streets.
Other Bulgarians he met suggested he look for work in the city's Wilhelmsburg neighborhood, where many Turkish immigrants live. Stoyanov himself belongs to a Turkish minority in Bulgaria. On the streets and in teahouses, he asked about jobs. He helped out at a construction site and at a scrap dealer, but none of these positions was permanent. He was still sleeping on the street, where he became sick after waking up every morning damp from dew. He phoned with his wife just once, telling her, "Aliya, don't worry about me. I'm well." He didn't tell her about living on the street. He didn't think she would understand, anyway -- everyone knows Germany is a rich country.
Stoyanov's bus rolled on through the purple-black night. Some passengers told jokes. A woman nursed her child. The next morning, after about 30 hours on the road, they stopped at a station in the Romanian border city of Arad. The station was surrounded by barbed wire and bearded men stood around plastic tables in front of a small shop, drinking cans of beer. Techno music droned from speakers and barefoot children ran around the bus. Arad is a place where paths cross -- those just setting out for Germany, full of hope, and those like Stoyanov who are returning home disappointed.
- Part 1: Leaving Germany on Bus of Broken Dreams
- Part 2: Hope Turns to Despair
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