'Guest Worker' Anniversary Train Revisiting the Reasons for Leaving Home

In the final two parts of a series following former Turkish guest workers on a train retracing their original journey to Germany, Yasemin Ergin learns what her parents and others were working so hard to achieve. As the trip ends, passengers also realize goodbyes remain as tough as they were 50 years ago.

Yasemin Ergin

In the first two parts of this series, read about how the staged nostalgia that accompanied the 50th anniversary trip left most participants cold, and how some of the guest workers didn't just find work, but true love in Germany.


One of the retirees would like to know if the helmets are real. The Serbian souvenir vendor nods and displays the various models arranged on his stand according to color and shape. "World War I, World War II, US Army," he says. Hanging right under the helmets is an impressive array of rosaries. "They look almost exactly like our prayer beads," observes one of our fellow travelers before asking whether a rosary has as many beads as a Muslim tasbih. The vendor doesn't understand the question.

We are strolling through the park of the Kalemegdan, an imposing former fortress dominating a hill in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. The organizers of our train trip from Istanbul to Munich have arranged for a sightseeing visit to give us an impression of the city before getting back on the train and heading toward Zagreb, Croatia.

Some of the curious travelers remain in front of the fortress's moat, which holds some historical cannons and tanks. A few photographs are taken, and then they continue on up toward the citadel. From its walls, one can get a magnificent view of the Danube.

Battal Kizildere, an endearing though rather eccentric 78-year-old, says he's heard that "everything here" once belonged to the Ottomans. Then he asks me whether I consider it likely the Turks will ever take this beautiful city back. Imran Öztürk rolls his eyes in annoyance, and I laugh, though I'm not quite sure whether the question was meant as a joke.

I want to know where Öztürk's better half is. Since the start of the trip, I haven't seen the 73-year-old pensioner from Hamburg without his buddy Nedim Sekerli at his side. The inseperable duo have known each other for 35 years. Öztürk is a large, powerful man, and he always looks a little sad and lost whenever he isn't laughing at Nedim's jokes. "No idea," his says with a shrug of his shoulders. "The Serbs probably kidnapped him." Then he becomes pensive. "Strange, isn't it?" he says. "I've driven through this city so many times, but I've haven't stopped to look around a single time. We always only saw the streets."

The Balkans Will Never Be the Same

Almost everyone in the group has a similar story, including me. My family drove to Turkey every year on vacation, but this is the first time that I have stopped to visit a city in the former Yugoslavia. Indeed, the country was always the most tiresome part of these long, exhausting trips, and we hardly ever saw anything more of the countries we drove through than their expressways, highways and rest stops. The so-called autoput, otherwise known as Yugoslavia's Brotherhood and Unity Highway, was the longest of the many stages of the journey from northern Germany to southern Turkey. It was a seemingly endless drive over incessant potholes that kept my stomach turning. The maddeningly long period of time it took to get across the country alone made me imagine it to be an extremely frustrating place.

But then the political unrest in Serbia and Kosovo happened, and suddenly traveling through Yugoslavia no longer seemed like a good idea. In the summer of 1990, we took a plane to Turkey for the first time instead of the car. At the time, we didn't realize that the Balkans would never be the same again. The images of war and destruction in Yugoslavia that dominated the news in the following months and years were all the more shocking because, despite my misgivings, I still felt I had a connection to this country that was disintegrating under such bloody circumstances. Suddenly, I felt guilty about not taking a serious interest in Yugoslavia while it was still peaceful.

Back on the train, the mood is a bit more sedate than usual. Although Ferhat Dursunbek continues to make jokes that Imran Öztük and Nedim Sekerli react to with their usual sarcasm, there is a slight feeling of melancholy in the air. Many of the travelers look exhausted, and they are no longer as talkative as they have been over the last two days. They are now addressing me as "güzel Kizim" ("my beautiful daughter") rather than "Yasemin Hanim" ("Miss Yasemin").

'That's What We Worked So Hard For'

I'm chatting with Zeynep Yildirim, who first moved to Germany in 1988 after marrying a widowed guest worker. Her favorite place in her new home is Phantasialand Brühl, an amusement park close to where she lives. When I tell her I've never been there, she is stunned, as are some of the other fellow travelers who live near the western city of Cologne. While Croatia's harsh landscape passes by outside, Zeynep raves about the attractions at the amusement park, which she visits with her family twice a year.

Later in the afternoon, a small concert is held in the train's conference car. A singer hired for the trip by Turkey's national public broadcaster, TRT, accompanied by a musician playing a baglama, a type of Turkish lute, entertains the crowd with old folksongs. People dance to some of the pieces, but most of them are slow, doleful tunes. Many of the former guest workers sing along, and some of them wipe tears from their eyes. Even Imran Öztürk looks moved. Later, he tells me that for a while he was the head of a record label in Hamburg that distributed music by artists of a very particular type of music. The genre, which had its heyday in the mid-1970s, was called "Gurbet Türküleri," which translates to something like "songs for those living in a foreign land."

Shortly before we arrive in Zagreb, there is a slide show on the same issue. Mehmet Ünal, a photographer who documented the lives of Turkish guest workers in Germany between 1977 and 2010, presents the travelers with an overview of his work. The photographs from the early years show assembly-line workers, welders and miners. The images start to become more varied beginning in the 1990s, showing vendors, business people and policewomen. One of the pensioners leans toward me and says: "Do you see? That is what we worked so hard for -- so that our children would have a chance to choose their jobs for themselves -- just like you."

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