Settling in The Turkish Recipe for Integration

Thousands of Turkish workers began coming to West Germany in 1961. Those who stayed sent for their families. Thus began Germany’s greatest mass integration experiment. More than a half century later, a group of Turkish immigrants, now successful entrepreneurs, advise the new wave of arrivals.
Business women from Turkey share their insights about work in Germany.

More than a year after Germany began taking in more than 1 million refugees from Syria, Iraq and other war-torn and poverty-stricken corners of the world, a debate is raging over whether Europe’s largest economy can integrate so many foreigners into its tightly regulated economy.

With doubts rising about the willingness of some German companies to absorb the new arrivals into their workforces, five women who arrived as economic refugees to Germany from Turkey in the 1960s and 1970s offer a resounding answer: Yes, we can.

Ayten Çakar, Emine Baltacı, Gönül Avcu, Halime Karademirli and Aynur Özdemir are all successful Turkish business women who set up successful businesses in Germany. For most, their first and last stop was Berlin, called “Little Istanbul’’ by Turks for the fact that it is the third-largest urban grouping of Turkish-born natives after Istanbul and Ankara.

In interviews with Hürriyet IK, Turkey’s largest daily newspaper, and Handelsblatt Global, Germany’s leading English-language business daily, the five women described how the newest arrivals can find the same footing in German society they once did – through initiative, perseverance and hard work.

“When I arrived in Berlin after getting married, I didn’t know a single word in German,’’ said Aynur Özdemir, who is now the owner of a domestic cleaning business that employs 500 people in Berlin’s southeast Treptow district. “I was afraid to even go out of my flat.’’

Laborers from Turkey, who often came to Germany from the southeast Anatolia region, helped fuel then-West Germany’s “Wirtschaftswunder’’ or economic recovery in the 1950s and 1960s.

Most of the first Turkish “guest workers’’ who came in 1961 planned to return home one day to Turkey. But in the end, most stayed. The Turkish population of West Germany rose dramatically after guest workers were given the right to bring over their families to Germany in 1974.

Whether it is a refugee or an immigrant, integration always entails the challenge not only learning the language, but also to be able to successfully participate in all areas of life, like education or employment.

Now, more than a half century later, Turks are Germany’s largest ethnic group, with 3 million claiming ancestry by birth or from a parent or more distant relative, according to the German Federal Statistics Office. About 215,000 Turks living permanently in Germany also have Turkish passports.

Turkish immigrants, their children and their grandchildren now contribute significantly to Europe’s largest economy, according to labor market experts. Of the 3 million in Germany, more than 1.2 million are part of the workforce.

More than 1 million work full- or part-time, and about 87,000 run their own businesses. Manufacturing is the most popular industry for this labor group, with about 400,000 working in this sector. Trade, tourism and transport follow with 381,000, plus 329,000 in other service industries.

Gülistan Gürbey, a professor at Berlin’s Free University and an expert in migration and integration policy, thinks most of Germany’s newest wave of refugees, like the Turks, will eventually stay in Germany instead of going back to their original countries.

Most will try to build new lives. Ms. Gürbey said the challenges will be similar.

“Whether it is a refugee or an immigrant, integration always entails the challenge not only learning the language, but also to be able to successfully participate in all areas of life, like education or employment,’’ she said. “This is the only way to talk about a successful integration for both groups.”

She said the cultural, religious and geographical proximity of the new refugees and the integrated Turks will generate empathy.

Some Turkish immigrants also fled persecution and torture after Turkey’s military coup in the 1980s. According to Ms. Gürbey, violence against refugees spreads fear among migrants. Attacks directed at Turkish immigrants in Solingen and Hoyerswerda in the 1990s are still in memory. Violent acts can often unify and promote solidarity among immigrants, she said.

Many Turkish migrants to Germany, mindful of their own experiences, are actively helping the new wave of refugees. Hanifi Aydin, the owner of the Aydin Döner Produktion and the leader of Turkish Humanist Employers Unify, a business owners' group, is one of those migrants.

Living in Berlin since 1977, Mr. Aydin backs Germany’s refugee policy and claims that Germany needs the newest wave of people for its aging workforce.

“As the Humanist Employers Unify, we decided to help refugees not only by food or clothing but also creating job opportunities,” said Mr. Aydin, who is also co-founder of European Döner Production Association, a group that represents the makers of the lamb-beef fast-food cooked on a spit.

Working with the German Job Center in Berlin, his association has created 80 new jobs for refugees. Aydin says the Unify will continue to create more jobs for the new arrivals.

“We can’t be certain that we will not be in the same position in the future,” he said.

Many of the first wave of Turkish immigrants came to Germany with next to nothing, such as Ms. Özdemir, the owner of the domestic cleaning business, who moved from Tunceli in eastern Turkey, with her parents and 12 brothers and sisters in 1987.

Ms. Özdemir came to Germany because her husband had received a job in Berlin.

The first year in the German capital, with no language skills, was hard, she said in an interview. But eventually, she got up the nerve to take a German language course. While she was learning German, she waited five years to get a work permit from German authorities.

Her first job was working in a factory that printed pictures on balloons.

There, she saw a job ad from a hospital looking for a cleaner. She applied and was accepted.

She worked at that hospital for five years. She was promoted and became responsible for organizing shifts for 150 employees. She was working so hard her colleagues encouraged her to start her own business.

But she didn’t know how so she took a course in starting a business organized by the municipality. A consultant at the German chamber of commerce advised her to set up a cleaning business based on her experience.

Thus began her new life. She founded Forever Clean in 2000. In the beginning, Ms. Özdemir and one assistant were the only people working for the company. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) headquarters was the first to hire her new business.

Ms. Özdemir, who still describes herself as a field worker instead of an administrator, continued to clean offices for eight years. Sometimes, people were confused when she told them she was the owner of the company. Today, more than 500 people work for her in Germany, Austria and Turkey. They clean primarily offices, airports, churches, hospitals and restaurants.

A Nurse Turns Entrepreneur

Ayten Çakar was born in Isparta, a town in southern Turkey, and moved to Berlin with her family in 1979 as a child. She studied nursing in Germany and started working at hospitals. She saw how doctors and nurses had trouble communicating with Turkish patients because they didn’t have the language or understand the culture.

So in 2003, she set up Can-Vital Pflegedienst, a health care company that provides services mostly to Turkish people living in Germany.

Her company is authorized by the German health system to supervise treatment for families receiving government financial aid. Today, 50 people work for Ms. Çakar’s company. She’d like to hire more but says it’s hard to find willing employees, even though she offers above-average wages. The reason, she said, is Germany’s social welfare benefits are too generous, and discourage people from taking employment.

This year, she plans to start offering daycare services. Patients will be transported from their homes to a facility for treatment and social contact, and then brought back home. She also has plans to open a nursing school and an intensive care center.

A Life-Changing Meeting with a Physicist

Emine Baltacı was just two years old when her father, a miner, moved her and her family to then-West Germany from Kayseri, a city in central Anatolia. She began working for an insurance company while attending vocational school. After graduating, she worked at the firm and rose to become a regional manager.

In 1992, she set up her own company, Avantaj Versicherung und Finanzen, which sells financial consulting services. Through her work, she met an 85-year-old physician, who gave her an idea. He told her about a patent he owned on nano heater panels, which are small low-cost heat sources.

She liked the idea and bought his patent. Then, she set up a company, Nanofuchs, in 2015, which makes and sells the panels. The firm cooperates on research and development with Yildiz Technical University in Turkey. She hopes to eventually set up her own factory in Turkey.  The company now employs 12 people.

From Cashier to Beauty Academy Founder

Gönül Avcu was born in 1974 in Berlin. Her family left Balıkesir, a city in western Turkey for West Germany in 1969. She worked as a cashier at an electronics retailer. Her marriage broke up after 17 years, leaving her to raise her two children. She decided to set up her own company and a friend working at a beauty center recommended she consider the cosmetics industry.

Ms. Avcu took a course in cosmetics then began to work as an intern at a cosmetics center. While taking a workshop on a device that removes unwanted body hair, she convinced a manager she could sell the devices to Turkish-owned cosmetic centers. So began her new life as an entrepreneur.

She targeted cosmetics centers owned by Turks first in Berlin, then across Germany. She liked the money but not the long hours, which kept her from her children. So she agreed to go into business with a friend who owned a hair salon. She shared rent in return for using a small room as a beauty center. She earned €400 in her first month, which increased to €4,000 in under a year. Her customers grew rapidly. She moved to a bigger place and set up Lamedin Kosmetikschule in 2012, a cosmetics center and a school for beauty specialists. Each year 250 students, mostly of Turkish, Arab and Russian descent, register at her school.

From Factory Worker to Music School CEO

Halime Karedemirli was 18 years old and the mother of a 19-month-old baby when she heard about German companies recruiting women for their factories. Both she and her husband were unemployed at the time. She had no work experience, didn’t know a single German word, and had to leave her husband and baby behind for about a year.

She moved to Berlin alone, in 1972, and started working as an assembler at a factory where home appliances were being produced. She worked there for five years until her second child was born. Her second job was at a company producing electronic devices. In eight years there, she became a volunteer instructor in the education division of the company. She eventually bought and ran a restaurant. Today, she owns the Konservatorium für türkische Musik Berlin, a music school. She set up the school place in 1998 with her husband, Nuri Karademirli, a musician. The idea came from the Turkish composers Avni Anıl and Alaeddin Yavaşça. Currently, there are 180 students and nine instructors at her conservatory. Ms. Karademirli says she doesn’t view the school as simply her livelihood. She thinks her mission is to keep Turkish classical music alive for Turkish people living in Germany. Some of her students are so accomplished, they have received invitations to appear on stage with important orchestras such as Berlin Philharmonic.


Deniz Türsen is a journalist from Turkey's Hürriyet IK who spent several months writing for Handelsblatt Global.