Dutch woman Maaike Dekkers (32) is married to Veli, a Turkish man. They have two sons, Semih (3) and Kaya (2). Until recently they lived together in Turkey, but last June Maaike returned to the Netherlands. With her children, but without her husband.
Photography: Ernie Enkelaar
‘Veli knew what I gave up in the Netherlands, and why I had such a difficult time in Turkey. ‘Then why don’t you go back to the Netherlands?’, he once said. ‘But I don’t want to go without you!,’ I replied. He meant that I could go to Holland for a week or so, just to gain some strength and energy, but to me it slowly became clear that that would not be enough. One week in the Netherlands would just not be enough to get our life back on track again.
It started eight years ago. I was 24, and on holiday in Turkey with my mother. In Side, a tourist town on the south coast, I met Veli. We were instantly attracted to each other. He was a waiter in a hotel, and I found him different than all the other guys working in tourism. He was not macho, but shy, and he didn’t flirt with all the women like the other men.
He very soon declared his love for me. I was careful though: in such a touristy town women come and go the whole long summer, as I was aware of course. But I did really like him, and during the holiday I just enjoyed his attention.
After coming back to the Netherlands I couldn’t get him out of my mind. We stayed in touch, and I noticed I felt more for him than just some summer butterflies. He was kind-hearted and I’m attracted to that, and he turned out to be very curious. He has no education at all because there was no money for that in his family, but he’s very intelligent. He taught himself German and English, he was interested in many things, open to everything.
I decided to go back to see if there could be more between us. I hesitated at the last moment: I had fallen while horse-riding, my arm was broken and I was not sure how he would react to that. But he showed his most caring side. Did everything for me. Then it became clear to me: he is serious in his feelings for me. That’s why I could let go of my scepticism about holiday love, and give room to my butterflies for him. I kept going back, about six times in two years. Things were good between us, uncomplicated.
I was looking forward to building a life together
But the better we were together, the more difficult I found this long distance relationship. I wanted to be with him. Also, I really liked life in Turkey: less rushed and planned, and on the south coast the weather is always sunny.
When I visited Veli, I did see that life was different in summer than in winter. From May till October he worked hard, always as a waiter in the same hotel, while in the winter he only had irregular temporary jobs, for example in construction. But I thought we could manage with that. And anyway, if I moved to Turkey, I would of course work as well. In the Netherlands I worked in a children’s day-care centre and I had an extra job in a bar to finance my trips and phone calls to Turkey, and I was confident this experience would lead to a job easily. Also because I know my languages: English, German, Dutch and some French.
After almost two years of traveling, six years ago I quit my jobs and left the Netherlands. I had so much faith in Veli and me, and I was so much looking forward to building a life together. Still, I was of course aware that I had no idea what it would be like to not be just visiting Turkey, but to actually live there.
I had everything my heart desired
The first summer was hard. When I arrived, there were no more jobs available ; all summer job vacancies were filled. Veli worked long hours, I knew nobody and my Turkish was very bad. We lived in a village, and as soon as Veli left for work, neighbourhood women came to our house. They rang the bell, I opened the door and the next moment they would be straight into the living room, opening cupboards and drawers. One woman sometimes left her children with me when she had to go to work. I had no idea how to handle the situation, I felt so lost.
But after some time, the tide turned. I got to know some English people who owned a horse riding school. I could work there, even though I didn’t have a work permit. A dream job: I love children and horses. On their land there was a small house where Veli and I could live very cheaply. A paradise: it was far outside the village, we had a lot of space around us, we could grow our own vegetables, the natural surroundings were beautiful and I was outside most of the day.
Veli’s situation also seemed to improve, because the hotel planned to stay open during the winter, so he would have work and health insurance the whole year round. That’s when we got married. When friends asked when I would come back to the Netherlands, I said: ‘I don’t think I’ll come back.’ I had everything my heart desired.
From one day to the other, we couldn’t make ends meet anymore
The situation seemed stable enough to seriously consider having a family. We didn’t have much money, but that didn’t need to prevent our children having a good childhood, did it? There were many poor families, but they had a good life anyway, it seemed to me. In retrospect that was far too romantic a notion. Before you actually have children, you don’t know what it feels like to be a mother and what kind of things you will find important.
When I got pregnant, I immediately noticed I missed my family more than ever. My family-inlaw was hardly there for me. Turkish families are close, it’s said, but Veli’s family only showed up when it suited them, not when I needed them. My parents were not there when Semih was born because he was born a few weeks prematurely. When Kaya was born, only my mother could come, because my father was sick and not allowed to fly. Friends in Holland sent me presents, like baby clothes and Dutch sweets, but none of them arrived.
As if that wasn’t enough, our financial situation changed drastically. My job at the riding school ended suddenly: the owners hadn’t arranged things properly and were thrown out of the country. The hotel where Veli worked decided not to open during winter after all. From one day to the other, we didn’t even have enough money to pay our daily expenses. We couldn’t make ends meet without financial support from my family. For me, it was hard to find work: jobs are never part-time here but always six or seven long days a week, and getting a work permit is very difficult.
Do I want them to have a future like their father’s?
Children are not unhappy when there is not much money. I still believe that, but since I’ve been a mother, I have let go a bit of that Turkish mentality. The mentality of ‘tomorrow is a new day’. That attitude suits me, but not when it concerns my children. No health insurance for six months a year, that’s not okay, is it? Veli would say: ‘Come on, don’t be so negative, nothing bad will happen’. But I found that irresponsible and just wanted to have things arranged properly. The Dutch way, so to speak.
I also thought of the future of Semih and Kaya. In Turkey, if you don’t have money, you can’t send your kids to a good school. Do I want them to have a future like their father’s, without education, with only insecure jobs in tourism with no prospect of a better life? No, I want them to have more opportunities.
I felt increasingly lonely. I couldn’t go anywhere, because I had no transport and the village was too far away to walk. The children, colleagues and horses of the riding school were gone, and I was home alone the whole day with two little children. Veli was home in the mornings and returned from work only late at night. I was always eating alone with the kids, I always put them to bed alone, and when Semih and Kaya were asleep, I would sit alone on the couch. In winter it was the same, because in Turkey men and family come first. I always felt I came second, while I had given up everything I had in Holland, and had to manage as a young mother without my family.
I wanted to fight – one more time
That’s the situation we were in when Veli said: ‘‘Then why don’t you go to the Netherlands?” That was about a year ago now. But how could I go back? Going with the whole family was no option, because for that you need a minimum income and of course I didn’t have that. And without Veli? Maybe there was no other way, but I couldn’t make the decision yet. We loved each other, we had a family and I wanted to fight for that. One more time.
I stayed, but a few things needed to change. I wanted two mornings of child care for Semih so I would have a bit more time for myself. Veli would have to contribute more to bringing up the kids and he would have to seriously search for a more stable winter job.
For some time he seemed to make an effort, but soon our life returned to the same pattern. The importance of a stable life, a stable income, taking care of the family together, he just didn’t see it. In Turkey you are not automatically brought up with that, largely because financial security is just out of reach for many people. Veli himself grew up in a poor family, so for him that’s much more normal than for me as a Dutch woman.
Besides, it didn’t get through to him that I was reaching my limit. That I would really go away if my demands were not met. At least, I think it didn’t get through to him. I’m not sure what was going on in his mind. That bothered me as well: he’s not very talkative. And I only really noticed that when times got rough.
He didn’t try to change my mind
When I told him I had reached my limit and that I would go to the Netherlands with the children, said he understood me. That he was sad he could no longer make me happy. No, he didn’t try to change my mind. Like I said: he didn’t realize what was happening. He put his head in the sand, also in the weeks before my departure. But this is vague for me too, because our talks about this remained superficial.
I have not regretted my decision after I made up my mind. I was all done in. I had been fighting for our relationship and our family for years, I couldn’t do it anymore. I’m a mother, I want stability for the children, and I made this decision for them. That only works if I’m one hundred percent behind it and totally devote myself to a new start in the Netherlands.
And I really didn’t hesitate. I still loved Veli, but my feelings had also cooled down because I got so little back from him. I noticed it at the airport too, when we said goodbye. That was dramatic, of course there were tears, but I wasn’t so much sad for myself as for Semih. Kaya didn’t know what was happening, he was too small, but when we passed through customs, Semih understood his father wasn’t joining us and he couldn’t stop crying.
To be honest: I’m blossoming
Veli misses us terribly; in the beginning he came home from work crying every night. All of a sudden his house was empty, and reality hit him hard. Of course, I’m also sad, but for me it’s different. It took me months to make this decision. I’m trying to get my life back on track. I have a small contract at a children’s day-care centre and work an average of three days a week. The boys and I live in the attic of my parents’ house, where we have two big rooms. I’m trying to find a house, and I want a more stable job so that I don’t need welfare anymore. There have been problems with my citizenship. In short, I’ve immediately landed right in the middle of organized, bureaucratic Dutch life. And I have the boys, for them of course it’s a big change too.
To be honest, I’m blossoming. I ride horses again, I sometimes go biking with the boys into the polder, I see friends, I work. People tell me I’m radiant again. At the same time, I miss part of myself. I still love Veli, I still love Turkey. Nobody in my family, none of my friends knows what life in Turkey is really like, what it was like for me and why I also miss the atmosphere, the sun, the Turkish lifestyle. Only Veli knows that part of me. And he is not here.
Was it a good decision to take the children away from their father?
Veli wants to come over, but I’m not pushing that. It’s not possible yet, because I still don’t make enough money to get a residence permit for him. We want to try to get him to Holland for three months before the tourism season starts again in Turkey, to see how he likes it here. He’s been here before, he found it ‘nice’, but I’m sure he can’t adapt here. In Turkey he has energy and is an active man, in the Netherlands he loses all his energy and becomes not my husband, but my third child. He can’t deal with change so well. He doesn’t fit in here, he fits in in Turkish life.
I feel that I am drifting away from him. I love him, but it also hurts me that he made so little effort for us. Of course I sometimes ponder in my bed, when I have time to reflect on this period in my life: was it a good decision to take the children away from their father? Will the boys ever hold this against me? How often are they going to see their dad? I don’t know, I can’t look into the future. But I take into account that we won’t make it as a couple, and that in the future we will both just be the parents of our children.’