By: Dasha Lynch
People often talk about a decisive moment in their lives in which they discovered their passion and finally realized what they wanted to do in the future. My moment came in early August, 2016 as I was working in the Documentation Center and Museum of Migration in Cologne, Germany doing research for my senior thesis. In the (very) cold office of this archive, I felt butterflies in my stomach when the librarian placed a pile of documents on my desk. I realized my future is history (pun intended).
This journey to self-discovery in fact began three years ago during my gap year in Germany as a Rotary Exchange Student. On my daily train ride to and from school I often sat next to women in beautiful Middle Eastern clothing, chatting away in languages I did not understand. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the municipality of Friedland, a stop on our ride, was home to thousands of refugees, and had been as early as 1945 when the Control Commission for Germany – British Element built a camp in the town. The camp served as a way station for evacuees, returning soldiers, and refugees, and to this day, it serves as a reception center for asylum seekers and refugees. These chance train-ride encounters first introduced me to Germany’s rich immigrant culture – and perhaps inspired my specific academic interest in Turkish immigrants in Germany, an interest which has led to studying German and Turkish history and languages.
To pursue this interest I applied for, and received, the Discover Grant and Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Research Grant. My plan was to study second language acquisition by Turkish immigrant women in Germany in the 1960s and 70s, the period of first wave Turkish Gastarbeiter (guest worker) immigration to Germany. Starting in the 1960s, the West German government brought semi-skilled Turkish laborers, mostly from poor, remote regions of Turkey, to take low paid assembly line positions in factories around the country. Generally, Turkish immigrants settled in communities made up only of other Turkish immigrants. This form of isolation, as well as the use of interpreters in the factories that employed the Turkish laborers, made German seem unnecessary, and therefore prevented proper integration of Turkish immigrants into German culture.
This problem of failed integration was particularly acute for women who joined their husbands solely as housewives and caretakers of children. As the NPR article, “Muslim Women Behind Wall of Silence in Germany,” observes, “Many [Turkish women] first met their husbands on their wedding day, only to disappear into a world ruled by rural Turkish traditions — unnoticed by their German neighbors.” As Seyran Ates, lawyer and women’s rights activist, notes, these “women [were] physically living in Germany, but psychologically living in another culture” controlled by the men in their families, hidden behind a “wall of silence.” While this “wall of silence” is clearly an urgent contemporary problem, I was planning to explore the early years of its construction, looking back to the beginning of Turkish immigration into Germany. Though, as some sources point out, Muslim men played a large role in preventing Turkish women from learning German, I hypothesized that the German government’s failure to create effective, culturally sensitive language programs also contributed to this “wall of silence” and to the growing isolation of Turkish women.
I was happy with the concept of my project, but had no idea where to begin or how to approach it. The internet was, of course, a big help in locating various agencies and offices that dealt with immigration in Germany. But contacting these organizations brought no results; they all insisted they knew nothing about the subject. I was beginning to lose hope. And then finally, a breakthrough! Just days before my departure for Germany a random email gave me a lead: Cologne’s Documentation Center and Museum of Migration, DOMiD. Flash forward and I found myself in that cold office with a pile of old papers before me – and butterflies in my stomach.
One might wonder why old documents would give an undergrad butterflies, though fellow historians will of course understand. I was no stranger to reading primary sources, but in the past they had come as scans of originals. These papers, however, contained real traces of people’s lives. As I was reading through them the focus of my project began to change. Instead of passive and silent immigrants, I encountered strong women on these pages who understood the importance of language to integration and organized themselves to demand access to education. The helpful staff at the museum, and one Stanford PhD student working on her dissertation there (and also my new role model), directed me to yet another great resource, FFBIZ, a feminist archive in Berlin, where I found even more sources to support this new image of Turkish women in Germany.
My time researching was too short, but now I know what I’m doing next summer – it’s back to Germany for me!
**Dasha is an Undergraduate History Major here at the University of Rochester.