Leaving Germany for Turkey: Ethnic Turks Encounter 'Kültürschock'

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More ethnic Turks are now moving out of Germany than in. As the German economy lags, a Western education helps professional Turkish Germans find work in a booming Muslim nation. But they aren't always welcomed "home."

Photo Gallery: The New Young Turks Photos
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The first time Ömer Küçükbay felt homesick for Germany, he was lying on a cot in a military barracks north of Antalya. He was 20 years old, it was 2 a.m., and an officer was bellowing at him that he should go keep watch. First, though, someone had to translate the officer's command, since Küçükbay spoke no Turkish. He was fluent only in a Bavarian dialect of German.

The son of Turkish guest workers in Eggenfelden, Lower Bavaria, he had signed up for military service in Turkey on a whim, to express affection for country he really only knew from family vacations. "But somehow I was always just a foreigner in Germany too," he says. "To the kids in my class, I was simply a Turk. So I wanted to see what it's like to be Turkish."

The experiment lasted three months, at which point Küçükbay got tired of being yelled at and crawling through dust. He went back to Eggenfelden and swore never to return to Turkey.

Reversing the Trend

That was 1991. Since then, things have turned out differently, partly because of Küçükbay's father, who suffered a heart attack in his homeland, and partly because of a girl from Istanbul Küçükbay fell in love with. He opened a teahouse, married and learned Turkish.

Today the 38-year-old works in a call center in Istanbul. He has made a life for himself here, working for a German company where almost all of more than 250 employees are Turkish Germans, and nearly all have a similar story to tell. Theirs are stories of growing up in Germany as the children of guest workers, only to emigrate back to try their luck in their parents' home country. The reasons vary -- they came because they felt excluded in Germany, because of a formal deportation, because family called, or to pursue a career.

The stories often involve well-educated, well-integrated Turkish Germans -- the vast majority of emigrants who return to Turkey are young academics moving for economic reasons. Around 40,000 Turks and Turkish-descended Germans left for their parents' country of origin last year, or 10,000 more than the number of immigrants arriving from Turkey. A decades-long immigration trend has reversed.

A Model of German Integration

According to a survey by the Dortmund-based Futureorg Institut, one-third of all Turkish-German college students now plan to pursue a career in Turkey, not Germany. "They have far better opportunities to advance there than in Germany," says Marc Landau, head of the German-Turkish Chamber of Commerce. Mercedes Benz, for example, employs Turkish Germans as 30 percent of its mid-level and upper management in Turkey.

Most of these returnees go to Istanbul, where the job market is richest and where culture shock is manageable. This was the case for Emine Sahin, 37, an architect who calls herself a "model of integration" and pretty much had it all -- a sheltered childhood in a small western German town, German neighbors, German friends, good grades in school -- yet chose to leave. A job as a construction engineer took her from Frankfurt to Izmir on Turkey's west coast. Shortly afterward she joined a British real estate company in Istanbul. Now she works as a consultant for a German drugstore chain looking to open new markets in Turkey.

Sahin says she was never discriminated against in Germany on the basis of her name or her background; many things were simply more petty and less dynamic there than in booming Turkey. "Not everyone has realized yet what potential well-educated Turkish Germans hold," she says. "Someone who moves between two worlds can cope better with globalization. Really, the Germans should be bragging about us."

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