In memory of the first generation

The author Fatma Sagir has written the book Alphabet der Sehnsucht about the first generation of Turkish migrants in Germany. It is a story of longing and a search for acknowledgement. 

“These people are part of our German history, they made the Germany we know today.” Fatma Sagir talks about the guest workers, Gastarbeiter, the first generation of Turkish migrants who came to West Germany in search of a better life. Her parents are part of this generation and Sagir weaves their stories, longings, fears and dreams together in her new book Alphabet der Sehnsucht, Alfabet of Longing. The book is a mixture of prose and poetry examining themes such as life and death, racism and the remembrance of the men, women and children who’s stories are intertwined with West Germanys from the early 1960s until today.

Fatma Sagir

In her book, we meet a young girl growing up in West Germany and experiencing racial abuse in school. She finds solace in the library, escaping into a world of books and wonders. Still, after years of reading everything she could lay her hands on, she was missing the books telling her story. Where were the tales reflecting her experiences as daughter of two Turkish guest workers? Who wrote about the racism and the feeling of living two lives, divided between her parents birthplace and her own home?

Q: Why is it important to tell this story of the first guest worker generation now?  
Sagir: I want to shed light on the accomplishments of this generation. Their stories needs to be told for the next generation, in order not to be forgotten. For me it is important to create an emotional bond to their experiences. It is a way to help society remember this part of our shared history. I hope the book will be read both by people with and without a history of migration. Once you have emotionally connected with these stories, they are harder to forget.

Q: What should we remember about your parents generation?
Sagir: First of all we must realize that they were here! I sense a notion in our society saying ‘what the guest workers have accomplished is not that important to us today’. But that’s a great mistake. We need to influence the way our history is written for the sake of our parents and grand parents, but also for the coming generations to be able to feel a connection with their roots. To know where we come from.

Q: What are the main differences between the first and the following generations of Turkish people living in Germany?
Sagir: My parents lived double lives. They worked hard in Germany and lived very sparsely. But they put a lot of time and money in building a house back in Turkey, filled with the best of German household products from Bosch, Miele, Grundig and the likes. They lived there every summer and dreamed about moving back when they got old. But they never did. This split between two countries I think is different. The younger generations work harder to belong to Germany and establish a life here. They might still visit their parents places of belonging in Turkey, but as visitors, not as home comers.

Let me explain another generational contrast with an example from my own family. A young family member is at her day care and helps a new child translating from Turkish to German. The reaction from the teacher is sharp “hier wird Deutsch gesprochen” (we speak German here), discarding the value of being bilingual. My parents would probably have kept their heads down and not made any commotion about it. But this girls parents demanded a meeting with the pre school and made clear, that they wouldn’t accept this kind of treatment. This change in attitude towards society is important. Young generations are refusing to ignore injustice and demand a right to belong.

I think the generations share this trauma of not being accepted as valuable members to society. But the contrast lies in the reaction. We won’t tolerate to be treated differently than anyone else. And we insist on our place in society.

Q: What can society do to keep the memory of your parents generation alive?
Sagir: I think we should work on our memorial practices. An obvious place to start is our schools, but even our literary canon should be influenced to reflect the contributions of the first migrant genrations. We have a lot of memorials in Germany reminding us of our past, but there is no central memorial commemorating the guest workers. In Cologne, a museum of immigration is under way, that is a start, but I think we need more.

Q: Like the Dönermuseum?
Sagir: The Döner is a central piece of our youth and night life culture that is impossible to imagine without the contributions of the first generation of Turkish migrants.

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