Dutch Turks moving ‘back home’: No Turk among Turks

Young Dutch men and women with Turkish roots who try their luck in Turkey. Away from the political climate in the Netherlands, on the way to the country of their parents and grandparents, where the economy is flourishing and where they are fully at home. The reality is sometimes quite different.

Pictures by Ahmet Polat. Picture of Cengiz Caglar soon to come!

Metin (25) (his real name was used in the magazine but he didn’t want it to be used on internet as well, and he also requested to publish it here without the picture) shows the advertising agency where he works. Top location in the heart of Istanbul, broad staircases with red tapestries, high ceilings, light spaces. He points to where his desk is: there, in the hall by the stairs, against the wall. It seems a bad place, but for Metin it is just right: ‘I don’t want to sit among my Turkish colleagues’, he explains. ‘I close myself off from the working environment as much as possible. The hierarchy, the fear of the boss, the gossip, I don’t like it.’
Metin, born in Istanbul but relocated to the Dutch town of Masssluis when he was three months old, doesn’t feel at home in Turkey and he knows that will never change. He says: ‘I don’t feel I’m a Turk.’ And later even: ‘I’m not a Turk’.

Metin is a Turk of course, because he was born with two Turkish parents. But ever since he decided to move to Istanbul four years ago, he knows that’s all it is: he has Turkish parents. His father died shortly after he was born, his mother raised him without Turkish nationalism. In the Netherlands he mainly had Dutch and Surinam friends, not Turks. Even when he was a boy: ‘They didn’t like me because I didn’t want to play soccer in their Turkish neighbourhood team.’
Still, in the Netherlands he felt himself to be a Turk. That is how he was seen by others, and through his mother and her Turkish friends he got acquainted with Turkish culture. Or so he thought – until he returned to the city where he was born. ‘I thought I would fit in without any trouble’, he remembers the first period in Istanbul, ‘but that was totally not the case. My Turkish turned out to be bad, I was seen as a Dutch man and that’s how I felt. I only stayed because I found the job that I wanted.’

In 2007, the year Metin left Maassluis and flew to Istanbul, according to Dutch statistics bureau CBS 91,287 people migrated in the same direction. It was the last year that the migration from the Netherlands to Turkey increased: from almost 60,000 in 1999 to more than 91,000 in 2007, then decreasing to just over 85,000 in 2009, the last year for which statistics are available. How many of those people have Turkish blood running in their veins, like Metin, is unclear, but a fair share of them are young, often highly educated Dutch men and women with Turkish roots.

‘Holland is my first own country’

The ‘political climate’ is in general seen as an important factor in the decision to leave the Netherlands, but when you talk to young Dutch-Turkish people who took the step, it often turns out that it plays only a small role. Metin for example, came for work. ‘In the Netherlands I was not admitted to the creative education I wanted’, he says. ‘I didn’t feel like enrolling at another school, and I thought that with some guts I would easily find a job, with my Dutch background.’

That’s exactly how things went – with not ‘some’ guts, but a lot: as a 21 year old and practically without any preparation, Metin boarded a plane, went directly from the Istanbul airport to the most important advertising agency in Turkey, asked to see the boss and talked himself into a job. ‘I had a small portfolio with my own work, but he was mostly charmed by my Dutch bluntness. Somebody who was not afraid of the boss, that seemed to him like an asset to his company.’

For 29 year old Nurten Durmus too, politics played no role in her decision to move to Turkey. ‘I never felt discriminated against in Holland’, she says. ‘I was just curious what it would be like in my own country.’ She hesitates saying those words, ‘my own country’, and then says: ‘Turkey, I mean. Turkey is my own country. But still, Holland is my first own country.’

The Turkish population is quickly becoming better educated

Nurten was, like many in her age group, drawn to Istanbul by the flourishing economy. It is growing at 5 to 8 % a year, the population is young, Istanbul is bubbling with life. The point is: highly educated European Turks tend to think that the Turkish labour market is yearning for them, but that is less and less the case. The Turkish population itself is quickly becoming better educated. An increasing number have even studied in Europe, since Turkish universities joined the international exchange program Erasmus. And they have what a Turk from the Netherlands usually lacks and what is still essential in finding a good job in Turkey: a wide network. Besides that, although the economy may be growing, a spectacular decrease in unemployment hasn’t started yet.

Nurten too saw the Turkish labour market through rose-tinted glasses. ‘I knew that Istanbul is a very big city, where there are many companies which do business with the Netherlands. I have a good administrative education and a nice CV, so I thought I would find a job very easily.’
That her first job was not at her level but at a call centre didn’t really discourage her: she would find something better soon. And she did, but then the conflict started between her Amsterdam inclination and the Turkish work floor culture: ‘I am really not going to tell the boss every day that she looks beautiful and that she has such a marvellous bag. But, well, others do, because …. sucking up to the boss is obligatory in Turkey. So the bosses here never like me.’

Nurten Durmus with a friend at the coast on the Anatolian side of Istanbul. Click to enlarge.

She is moving. Two men from a furniture shop walk through her house on the Anatolian side of the city, Nurten tells them where exactly cupboard, bed and couch have to be placed. It’s November, but the window is open and there is lovely sunshine coming in. She serves tea, with a typical Dutch treat that a friend from Holland brought when she visited her. She is searching for words that properly describe how she feels, but that’s not easy. One thing is clear though, four years after leaving the Netherlands: ‘I don’t feel at home in Turkey.’

She remembers an incident from when she had just arrived in Istanbul and had some official paper work to be arranged. She had to be at some office at 2pm. She appeared on time, but was asked to return the next day. The next day she was sent away again, well, to cut a long story short: her Amsterdam nature caused her to explode. ‘I really didn’t understand what was happening’, she says with a heavy Amsterdam accent. ‘What did they want from me really? I got angry, the security had to come to calm things down, I started crying, my God what a scene.’

She has just quit her fourth job, again because she wears her heart on her sleeve and still has trouble working for a Turkish company. ‘No, I’m not going to adjust myself. I am happy that I have the Dutch culture in me. I consider it important to talk about things. But I never expected it to be like this. When I made plans to move to Istanbul, four years ago, I was looking forward to being a Turk among Turks. But it turns out I’m an Amsterdam woman, and I will always be.’

‘My parents didn’t want me to go to Istanbul on my own’

She shares the rent of her new apartment with a friend, so financially she can make do without a new job for some weeks, but not too long. While talking she evaluates her reasons for staying in Istanbul: ‘I need something here that holds me back from returning to the Netherlands. When at some point I have a good job that gives me strength, then I think I will feel at home. I don’t have that yet. But I’m not going back to Holland. Life is exciting here, I like that. In the Netherlands you go from home to work and then back home, here there is less routine, you can do anything at any moment of the day. Istanbul is always alive.’
Then she says: ‘You know, my parents didn’t want me to go to Istanbul on my own. Especially my dad was against it, he doesn’t like it that I make my own choices as a woman. I have this uncle, he laughed about my decision to leave. ‘She’ll be back before you know it’, he said. Every time I consider returning to the Netherlands, I hear this uncle laugh in my mind, and I stay where I am.’

‘In the Netherlands I was considered a Muslim, a Turk’

Nurten is hanging on. But there are also migrants who soon change their minds and return to Holland almost instantly. Cengiz Caglar, born in the north-eastern Turkish city of Erzincan 27 years ago and taken by his parents to the Frisian village of Buitenpost when he was ten years old, survived in Turkey for exactly three months in the west coastal city of Izmir. He did leave the Netherlands because of the political climate – at least, that’s what he thought when he left in 2008.

The murder of Theo van Gogh in 2004 turned Cengiz’ life upside down. He was twenty years old, was studying International Business and Languages and also Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam, and he didn’t bother too much about religion. Because of that murder by an Islamic extremist, he was forced to speak out about his religion. ‘My parents are Alevi, a liberal path in Islam. When I was asked about my religion in connection to the murder of Van Gogh, I always started to explain I was raised in an Alevi family. But then it looked as if I thought that Sunni or Shiite Muslims would approve of the murder of Van Gogh, so then I felt the need to explain that I didn’t mean to say that. I was dragged into a polarisation I didn’t want to have anything to do with.’

For his studies he had to go abroad for some time. He left for Scotland, then to Mexico, then to Vancouver. Back in the Netherlands for the final year of his studies, he couldn’t take it anymore. ‘We had a discussion in class about freedom of expression. I was shocked by how strongly people were speaking out against Islam and against Muslims. That even at that level people could think like that! In the other countries where I had been, I was considered a Dutch man, but in the Netherlands I was considered a Muslim, a Turk. I also found it pretty weird to notice that I apparently did care after all about how people looked at me.’

‘I wandered through the city and felt so lonely’

Longing for peace in his mind he decided to go back to his country of origin. There he would come home to a warm bath, there he would be among his own people. But he soon found himself in a huge identity crisis. ‘There I was, two diplomas in my pocket, without goal, with a total emptiness inside me. I was going to make a film and do research for it in Izmir, but now I know I was mainly trying to find myself. I wandered through the city and felt so lonely. I was with family, but I didn’t really feel connected to them. After all these years in the Netherlands, I was no longer one of them.’

The most confronting question came from his grandmother. ‘She said: “My boy, what are you doing here exactly?”I couldn’t explain it to her. I felt I had to leave Turkey, that I didn’t fit in anymore after all these years in Holland. But then where was I to go? Where would I be home then?’
By coincidence he had to go back to the Netherlands. During his studies he also worked with film, and his short film, ‘Uittocht’ (Exodus) was going to be screened at the Netherlands Film Festival. He was on the couch in his brother Deniz’ house, pondering whether to go to Australia or South-America, when Deniz said: ‘Cengiz, you know what, let’s send your CV to this traineeship committee of the Amsterdam municipality. I think that would really suit you. Come on.’

‘I have learned identity is not a fixed thing’

And that’s how he ended up as a happy man in Heemskerk, not too far from Amsterdam. The Amsterdam municipality invited him for an interview, and ‘of course I couldn’t say that I had an identity crisis and was considering going to Australia or Mexico’. He showed himself at his very best, and to his own surprise after a long procedure he was selected, together with 23 others, out of 1100 applicants.
The traineeship period of two years just ended and has been replaced by a contract for one year. He is looking for a word that can describe how he feels. ‘Yes, I know it, I’m blooming’. Then: ‘The political climate in the Netherlands is still the same, but I have developed myself over the last two years. I don’t let it bother me anymore, I have accepted that I am not seen as a Dutch man. And I have learned that your identity is not a fixed thing, at least, mine isn’t. Who you are is always developing. Now I found a balance. I don’t run away from myself anymore, like when I left for Turkey.’

Does he consider himself a Dutch man now? ‘No, I don’t think so. That is difficult if others see you as a foreigner. But it’s okay. I found a job in which I can develop myself, in Amsterdam, a city that I love. This year I got married, we are saving money to be able to one day buy a house in Amsterdam. I do hope our children will be accepted as being Dutch.’ And Turkey? Nice for holidays, and that’s it.

‘I have a whole group of Dutch friends here’

The chance of you running into Metin the advertising guy in the Netherlands is pretty strong. He may live in Istanbul, but he can’t live without Holland. How often does he go back? ‘For private reasons’, he says, ‘I go about ten times a year. Three, four days. Meet the down-to-earth Dutch family and friends, get a chance to think clearly and quietly, which is not possible for me in the chaos of Istanbul. I eat Dutch fries and a good croquette, and I fly back to Istanbul again. Apart from that, I go to Holland seven or eight times a year on business. I have my own projects that I work on at the advertising agency, and it’s up to me to decide who I work with. So I work with Dutch people, like with the famous Dutch artist Johan Kramer. Dutch people come in time you know, and they pay in time.’

When he is in Istanbul, he is surrounded by other Dutch men and women living there. Metin: ‘Living and working like a Turk seems like a horror to me. Work till eleven at night, then watch soccer or go to the tea house. Turks don’t have hobbies, but I do: I play squash, I film. And I don’t only want to socialize with men, but also with women. So I have a whole group of Dutch friends here, both men and women.’
He laughs at the suggestion that he lives in Istanbul but has created his own Holland around himself. ‘Yes, I guess that’s true. And I have to. Istanbul is such chaos, without some Dutch orderliness it’s impossible to live here.’

3 replies
  1. Candide
    Candide says:

    “His father died shortly after he was born, his mother raised him without Turkish nationalism.”
    So by default people in Turkey (or Turkish people) is raised by Turkish nationalism 🙂

    ‘I never felt discriminated against in Holland’, she says.
    Hard to debate since it is a personal thing but I can say it is funny 🙂

    “Turkish work floor culture: ‘I am really not going to tell the boss every day that she looks beautiful and that she has such a marvellous bag. But, well, others do, because …. sucking up to the boss is obligatory in Turkey. So the bosses here never like me.’”

    There are bad things in Turkish work culture. I would say there is a hierarchy but this comment here is a bit stupid. Just a personal view though. Quite the contrary of the reality I guess. In private sector especially if you suck up the boss then there is a certain description for you “yalaka (in Turkish)”. These guys can succeed like everywhere else in the world but they are not liked.

    You depict some stories and Cengiz’s story starts interesting then ends as a cover up of political situation in Netherlands. Gives the impression : people got worried and left but in the end they come back and become happy.
    Funny 🙂

    ” Ali: ‘Living and working like a Turk seems like a horror to me. Work till eleven at night, then watch soccer or go to the tea house. Turks don’t have hobbies, but I do: I play squash, I film. And I don’t only want to socialize with men, but also with women.”
    If somebody is working until eleven at night (many people do) no need to make a comment about hobbies
    but for the rest who has relatively normal life and income, I believe this is a funny comment again.

    When reading your articles I don’t hear anything positive about Turkey (except a few hyped things like interesting life and flourishing economy – so nothing interesting) 🙂 Still there must be some good things right ?

    So basically being objective my gut feelings are telling me that you generally depict a horror Turkey but interestingly in this story also you are covering up the Netherlands. That’s why I said funny all the time and I am smiling at the moment 🙂

  2. Ashley Saydam
    Ashley Saydam says:

    As a child of immigrants, I?m screwed by the community I?m associated with (Muslims). And I?m screwed by the community I live in (the UK).


    Please read this blog entry. This is how I felt exactly while I was living in Amsterdam. I aggree with the above comment, you are putting all Turkish in one box, though I can also feel that you are trying hard to avoid that.

    There were many Turkish living in Amsterdam feeling exactly how I felt, but they are somehow invisible to Dutch politicians.


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