Stories of migration

The Migration Audio Archive - Stories For International Understanding

Cover of the book “In Deutschland angekommen”; © Bertelsmann Chronik VerlagFor over half a century now people have been coming to Germany from other countries either to stay for a while or to settle permanently. Yet although Germany will be dependent on its immigrants in the future, many Germans are still prejudiced in the way they approach them. A real contribution to international understanding however is now being made by a website on which immigrants talk about their personal histories.

When you open the first page of the Migration-Audio-Archive (MAA) website the first thing you hear is a muffled hubbub of voices. By clicking onto the Audioweb Online link a window is opened showing portraits of various people. If you click onto one of the portraits, the person comes to life and starts telling his or her own life story. What you get to hear really does pack quite an emotional punch. You would have to be heartless indeed not to be moved by Elida Caresta, the wife of a gastarbeiter from the Abruzzo mountains of Italy, as she reminisces about her first impressions of Germany, “My God, Duisburg was so grey, dark-grey, how could anybody live here for so long? My husband did not tell me how bad it was. Otherwise I would never have come.”

“Everything was so grey”

You would have to be an emotional cripple not to be moved by what happened to Noemi Raz from Tel Aviv who was well and truly abducted by her parents and taken to the “land of the murderers”. “It was such a shock. All the buildings were grey, although it was August or September – summer! Everything anthracite grey, dark-grey, you know the colour of most of the buildings in Germany. But it wasn’t just the buildings that were grey, the sky, too; the people were grey, everything was grey, grey, grey. I still see it like that even today.”

Immigrant criminality, honour killings, forced marriage, alienation, bogus asylum seekers, social welfare scroungers, benefit fraud, ghettos and parallel societies – these are the buzz words immigrants are unfortunately forced to deal with in Germany. The radio journalist, Sefa Inci Suvak, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, had one day suddenly had enough. “Always having to listen to the same arguments and always putting forward the same arguments really is very boring”, she said in a radio interview. In her search for new ways of eliminating prejudices and resentment she hit upon the simple, yet fascinating idea of giving the immigrants a face and a voice. What could be more exciting and moving than the stories that mould people’s lives?

In a different light

Mona Yahia, Copyright: maa
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Take Mona Yahia from Baghdad. The daughter of Jewish parents joined the ranks of those persecuted by the Baath regime after the Six Days War. At the age of 16 she managed to escape across the border into Iran where she was granted refuge by Shah Reza – a tyrant much despised in Germany. She went to Israel where she joined the army, before she finally made her way to Germany via Paris to study art. When she looks back - when for example she recalls the anti-Israeli hostilities that abounded on the left-wing scene after the student revolt of the late 1960s, or when she reflects on the difficulties she had with German opposition to the Iraq war, then Germany is shown in a completely different light.

Oral history is the order of the day – an academic approach based on interviews with people who lived through a particular period of history. This is why when you listen to people’s life stories on the audio archive site, they are not just tales about immigrants, but also contemporary history in the making. The main focus however is on one particular side effect – right from the start the initiators were mainly interested in the emotional impact of this pioneering project that was realised in collaboration with the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) radio station. In the meantime an accompanying book has been published called ”In Deutschland angekommen…” Einwanderer erzählen ihre Geschichte. 1955 bis heute (Well Received In Germany .... Immigrants tell their stories. From 1955 until the present day). The MAA’s aim is to establish connections between the first generation of immigrants, many of whom are in the process of dying out, and their children and grandchildren and, as well, to all those refugees and asylum-seekers who have to eke out a meagre existence between exceptional leave to remain and deportation.

Hospitality adieu

Konstantinos Alexandiridis, Copyright: maa
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Arifien Musnadi from Indonesia was one of the first immigrants to come to Germany. He came to Germany to study – something that was almost unheard of back in the 1950s. In his story there is absolutely no mention of any xenophobia. It was just after the Second World War, he was something exotic and people thought he was Japanese so he was welcomed everywhere with open arms. Costas Alexandridis tells a similar story – he came to Germany in 1961 to work on the assembly line at Opel in Rüsselsheim along with many other foreigners. For him the move to Germany was like coming “out of the dark and into the light”.

For Sabina Xhemajli, on the other hand, life was anything but easy. Vilified as a “gypsy”, this Muslim Roma from Kosovo came with the first generation of “undesirables” after the recruitment ban of 1973. Her father was probably one of the last immigrants to be received with a brass-band welcome on arrival. When the German economic miracle of the post-war years finally died a death with the advent of the oil crisis, it was suddenly “hospitality adieu” for foreign workers. Ten of the 14 million foreigners who had tried their luck in Germany up to that point had already returned to their home countries, where with the help of their well-earned hard currency – the deutschmark – they were able to make a good living.

Bad blood

Sabina Xhemalji, Copyright: maa
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For those who still had not made quite enough, like Sabina’s father, they brought their families over to Germany. Now that there were no more ties to the homeland like family or relatives, the need to return home was no longer so strong. Many of them decided to stay permanently, often settling in urban districts in which they were able to preserve their cultural identity. This caused a lot of bad blood among Germans, who saw this as a sign of them not wanting to integrate. As the economic situation deteriorated in Germany, people began to feel more and more insecure and the mood soon became quite xenophobic. All the more so as more and more refugees from the post-colonial trouble spots of the world sought refuge in Germany, lured by an asylum system that was unique in the world.

In the meantime almost of half of all teenagers in Germany come from an immigrant background. Even though the politicians have finally realised that, due to undesirable demographic developments, Germany can only stay fit for the future if it opens its doors to immigration, the average man on the street still refuses to believe this. Consequently there are still a lot of stories that have to be told.

Sefa Inci Suvak / Justus Herrmann (Hrsg.) “In Deutschland angekommen ...“ Einwanderer erzählen ihre Geschichte. 1955 bis heute. Gütersloh/München, 2008, Bertelsmann Chronik, wissenmedia Verlag GmbH. ISBN 978-3-577-14647-0 € 22,00
Roland Detsch
works as free-lance editor, journalist and author in Landshut and Munich.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
March 2009

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