These four Turkish women grew up in the Dutch cities of Rotterdam, Hengelo, Oss and Zwolle. A few years ago, they chose to leave Holland for Turkey. Their future, they say, is in Turkey!
published in February issue Red Magazine, the Netherlands
“Look!” says Arzu enthusiastically when the twilight falls in Turkey’s capital Ankara. The city is built on hills and everywhere in offices and apartment block the lights are turned on. “The lights of Ankara! I remember being here on holidays with my family. Thirteen I was, and I was on the balcony looking out over the city. ‘One day I will live here’, I thought.” It took her till the age of 36 before Arzu Yildiz (now 38) finally packed her suitcase. Here she finds the space that Holland couldn’t offer her.
Arzu was born in Ankara, but lived in the Dutch provincial town of Zwolle most of her life. She and her family moved there when she was five. When she looks back at her life in Holland, she realizes she has always tried to break away from pressure: her family, later her marriage, the Turkish community in Zwolle. But she never found a good balance, which in the end lead to depression and lethargy.
Materially, she was doing well. She had a managerial position at a big bank, and her husband owned a bar that was doing well. Two children, a beautiful house, a nice car. “But I was not happy. Now I realise I was homesick. Homesick for Turkey. Whenever I was in Turkey, I would immediately feel lighter, healthier, happier.”
In the Netherlands, says Arzu, she didn’t belong anywhere. Not with the Dutch, who called her and her husband ‘VIP Turks’’ because of their prosperity. And not with the Turks: “During my marriage I was not really accepted because I regularly went to Turkey without my husband and children. And after I divorced, parents saw me as a bad example to their daughters.”
In Turkey she doesn’t feel other people judging her. Ankara is too big for that, too anonymous. She is the driving force behind a school where Turks who want to go to Holland are prepared for their immigration exam. The business is doing well, she makes a good living and can afford a good private school for her twelve year old daughter and nine year old son. “I have to work hard, of course, and I have to do everything on my own. But I’m happy here. In Holland, I took antidepressants for ten years, here I phased out the medication without any problems. I’m free here.”
Second generation Turks
Arzu is part of a growing number of Turks who want to move back to Turkey. The number of emigrants to Turkey has never been as high as in 2007 (the most recent year for which statistics are available). In that year 2,335 people left Holland for Turkey. The numbers had been high before, especially at the end of the 1990’s, but the percentage of emigrants who were born in Holland is rising significantly, from around thirty percent at the turn of the century to more then forty percent in 2007. Probably many of these are second generation Turks, like the women in this story.
Even though it has not been researched, this rising emigration might have a lot to do with the growing Turkish economy. There is also the changed attitude of the Dutch towards ‘foreigners’, but usually that is not the main reason to leave. Leaving Holland is only realistic if you have an alternative, and Turkey offers that more and more. Especially for better educated men and women who are multilingual, which is often the case with young Dutch Turks.
Gülşen too came to Holland as the daughter of a ‘guest worker’. And she too feels free in Turkey, just like Arzu. She radiates it when she defies Istanbul traffic on foot, when she talks with her students after the Dutch lessons she gives, and when she spontaneously does a little dance with a flower seller on the street. Gülşen Araci (41) tells how her life in Holland lead from one disappointment to another: “There was only one way to break the circle: leave Holland.”
Gülşen graduated from the Arts Academy. And after that? Name it and she did it. Selling kitchens, running a fashion shop, working as a volunteer with foreign women, social worker, and for four years she was a member of the city council in the provincial town of Hengelo. “Being in politics didn’t suit me, but I managed to function as the token immigrant”. Her all time low was when she was declared seventy percent unfit to work due to back problems. “Horrible! I had health problems, yes, but I was definitely able to work! I wanted a regular job, but I never had exactly the right work experience, or my education was just not suitable. Then the social security offered me another course, for example on how to apply for a job effectively. Come on, I could write a proper letter, I just never fitted the exact picture!”
Gülşen wanted to get back control over her life. Turkey pulled. “I knew I could feel at home there, my parents sent me to school there for a few years and I always felt good in Turkey. But in Turkey, you are really on your own, without any safety net from the government.” Love made the step easier: Gülşen fell in love with a Turk living in Turkey, decided to get married, and up and left. “All of a sudden, I was living in Istanbul with a husband and a job.”
And while the love for her husband cooled down – “it turned out we didn’t really suit each other and we separated as friends” – the love for Istanbul grew. “Istanbul is not a city, but a world. It’s so inspiring here, life always goes on here, this atmosphere doesn’t exist in the Netherlands. There is no safety net here, but nor is there a system that can keep you captive. I work as a teacher, a great job. And I am thinking about taking up singing again, an old love of mine that faded a bit. Istanbul has so much to offer, I think I can manage to squeeze myself in as a singer. I left Holland three years ago rather unprepared, but it was exactly the step I needed to get my life in the right direction again.”
Culture of rules
Turkey as a country to find freedom, Holland as a country to get stuck: for many Dutch people it’s not the most obvious thought. Nevertheless, many repatriated Turkish women experience Turkish city life as much more free than life in Holland. Because of the Dutch culture of set rules and laws, but also because of the (according to them) rather suffocating atmosphere in the Turkish community in Dutch provincial towns. Everybody knows everybody, families usually originate from villages in central Anatolia and cling to old habits and traditions. And even though the Dutch government takes good care of its citizens in a social way, even more so compared to Turkey, women like Arzu and Gülşen find their real freedom in Turkey. Not in mummy and daddy’s village, but in the big city. Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir: modern cities where they can get absorbed in the the masses and nobody is keeping an eye on them. Gülşen: “My generation grew up between two cultures. My Dutch side had to break away from the suffocating Turkish ways, but I’m not totally Dutch and the culture of rules of the Netherlands suffocated me at least as much.”
Necla Özkan (39) married a Turk from Turkey in 1992. After their marriage he came to Holland. He had a university degree in technical engineering, so had high hopes he could find a good job and make a career, but it turned out to be difficult. The diploma was not recognized in Holland, and learning Dutch was hard, especially to become fluent.
“He didn’t feel at home in Holland and wanted to return to Turkey”, says Necla, “but I didn’t. Why would I give up my nice secure existence in Holland and change it for an uncertain future in Turkey?” But after years of discussions ending in fights with her husband, she thought: now I have to choose. “I didn’t want to give up our marriage,” she says. “So we decided. In half a year’s time we arranged everything, from a house and work to a school for the children.”
In these six months she started to get used to the idea of moving to Turkey and very slowly her hesitations faded and excitement took over. “And we really didn’t know what to expect. Also my husband didn’t know, he had been in Holland for fourteen years.” The toughest thing now is work. Both Necla and her husband work hard, very hard. Necla works as assistant to a CEO at Fortis Bank, her husband works six days a week as the right-hand man of the owner of a transportation company. Five days a week Necla leaves the house at 7.10 in the morning, only to arrive home in the evening at 6.30. Her husband comes home two hours later, and he also works every Saturday. “That’s very common here. I didn’t know that at first. So I would be waiting with dinner at six o’clock, wondering why he was late.”
First and foremost Turks
Sometimes she misses Rotterdam. “I needed to bike only for ten minutes to be in the city forest. I liked going there to get some peace of mind now and then. In Istanbul everything takes so much more time.” But by now she also sees the advantages of the relocation of the family. In particular the feeling of not being judged on their identity gives them a sense of being at home. “My husband never really felt at home in Holland, and I too felt that more strongly after we had children. They were as Dutch as can be, but still in the eyes of many Dutch people they were first and foremost Turks.” Also, like Arzu, she had less and less interaction with the Turkish community, being a modern woman with a good office job at the Rotterdam Harbour. “Here in Turkey, we are just part of the city and the people, without questions.”
After her departure from Holland, she didn’t return there for one and a half years. Only when she set foot again on Dutch soil did she realize how much she had settled in Istanbul. “It was so quiet in Holland, so boring!” That comforted her: she has a hard time sometimes with the hard work and the roller coaster that her life is now, but her feeling of boredom in Holland reassured her that she took the right step. Necla: “I sometimes complained to my husband that I found life here difficult, but he would say: ‘don’t worry, everything will be okay’. I too think that way now.”
Step by step
Gulseren never really decided to move to Turkey. It just happened, step by step. It started with a three months’ stay, after which she planned to pick up her job in Holland again. That’s three years ago now. Gulseren Aytekin (30) grew up in the provincial town of Oss. There were no indications that she would ever leave Holland. She had a job at a firm that traded in tyres, and it was her job to maintain the contacts with business partners in Turkey. She travelled to Turkey regularly as a business woman, and that was it. Until on one of these trips, she met a business partner she, so to speak, connected with very well. “We fell in love and got engaged. But then, at that time it was not clear that we would live in Turkey. Everything was open.”
So big was the coincidence, that just at the time she got engaged her boss thought it would be a good idea to open an office in Istanbul to be in closer contact with customers. “And he asked me to give it a try for three months, to see if we would get more trade with Turkey.” Gulseren decided to go. “I knew Turkey mostly from family holidays when I was a child, and even though I liked those holidays, I also saw village life, in which girls didn’t get much freedom and where social control was strong. Istanbul seemed to be different. Modern, bursting with life, anonymous.” Business- wise it turned out very well too: her boss again and again decided to extend the Istanbul experiment, and eventually decided to have a permanent office in the city, and Gulseren could hire an assistant. Step by step, for her and her new husband the dream of an Istanbul life turned into a fact. Now they have a son, six months old Mehmet.
Gulseren: “Of course I miss Holland. The orderliness mostly. And my family. What I miss less is the atmosphere in the Turkish community in Holland. Village life in Turkey always seemed so small and limited to me, but in the end it’s not that different from the Turkish community in Oss. Everybody knows each other. Here in Istanbul, I don’t even know my neighbours. That’s an exaggeration too, of course, but in the end life is more free here.” She has got used to living in Istanbul now, and she doesn’t give it much thought anymore. At least, not constantly. Gulseren: “Some time ago, I drove home from my work in the crazy traffic here, and at once it hit me: wow, how fantastic this is, I actually live here!”