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Turkey's youth seek fresh start in Germany

Sinem Özdemir | Daniel Derya Bellut
March 13, 2021

As the Turkish government cracks down on dissent, more and more young graduates and students are seeking new lives abroad. Germany is their No.1 destination.

Police facing protesters
Recent student protests at Bogazici University were met with heavy police presenceImage: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Turkey is once again experiencing a brain drain, as more and more young graduates and other highly qualified workers are leaving the country to start a new life abroad.

Critics blame President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government for failing to offer qualified Turks enough prospects and even stigmatizing them. The criticism has intensified since protests broke out at Istanbul's renowned Bogazici University in January after Erdogan appointed an unpopular rector loyal to his ruling AKP party. The police cracked down heavily on the demonstrations, and politicians have described the student protesters as "terrorists" or even "perverts." 

'We just want respect'

According to a recent survey by the Turkish research institute Metropoll, 47% of Turks would like to study or work abroad. More and more qualified Turks are leaving the country "to start over again."

Zeki Öztürk, who studied philosophy at the prestigious Middle East Technical University (ODTU) in Ankara, also spent some time at Berlin's Humboldt University before deciding to return to Turkey. However, like many of his peers he was unhappy. Faced with the drastic changes in his country, he decided to leave Turkey again and has lived in Germany since 2017.

Zeki Öztürk
Öztürk returned to Turkey, but, faced with drastic changes there, came back to GermanyImage: Privat

"We just want respect," he told DW. "People with a good education used to command more respect. Now you can be as well-qualified as you like, you don't get any respect." 

"Turkey does not only have one profile nor only one religion," he explained. "The country really is a mosaic. But differing opinions are becoming less acceptable. Soon even the presence of other people will no longer be acceptable."

'I could not offer him a childhood like mine' in Turkey

Ezgi Ünsal, who studied food engineering at ODTU and works for a global food chain, decided to leave when she became a mother. She and her husband have been living with their 5-year-old son in Düsseldorf since last year. "It was clear that I could not offer him a childhood like mine," she told DW.

Ezgi Ünsal and her son
Ezgi Ünsal wanted to make sure her son grows up in a country where he can speak his mindImage: Privat

Though it used to be common for students to march in the streets in Turkey, she said now she would try to prevent her child from taking part in protests. She said she and her husband thought it was very important that their child grow up in an environment where he could express himself freely.

Selim Özgen studied at Bogazici University before doing a PhD at ODTU. He has lived in Germany since 2017, and said it was very difficult to leave Turkey and his loved ones but he felt he had no other choice.

Selim Özgen
The 2013 Gezi protests prompted Selim Özgen to emigrateImage: Utku Civelek

"It was during the Gezi protests of 2013 that I had to acknowledge disappointedly that those who criticized things were subjected to pressure," he told DW.

The suppression of the student protests this year have made it even clearer to Özgen that the government will stop at nothing when it feels challenged. He is worried about the loss of academic freedom in Turkey. "When it disappears, it can't just come back so easily. This will have devastating consequences," he warned.

'Starting from scratch'

Oya Aytürk, who is also a graduate of Bogazici University, decided to "start again from scratch" in Germany after obtaining a master's degree. She accepted a job in Frankfurt and built a new life for herself.

"I always thought I would just work a couple of years and come back but it's been 10 years now. I never found the motivation to go back," she told DW.

Oya Ayturk - Bogazici Universität Alumni
Oya Aytürk thought she would return to Turkey eventually, but has so far not found a good reason to leaveImage: Privat


She said there was not enough to keep young graduates in Turkey where they did not feel they could fulfill their potential. "Why else would we opt for this difficult path? We arrive here and build a new life from scratch. It's not that enjoyable to live in a country where you don't speak the language," she said.

According to the Metropoll survey, 22% of those who want to study abroad would like to go to Germany. Ayhan Kaya, a professor of politics and migration studies at Istanbul's Bilgi University, attributes this to the fact that there has been a considerable Turkish community in Germany since the 1960s; in fact, it's home to the world's largest Turkish diaspora.

Kaya said that emigrants, whether or not they are qualified, tend to seek out the already-existing networks of a diaspora. 

He said Berlin was particularly attractive. "The considerable educational opportunities, the multicultural and cosmopolitan atmosphere, as well as rich cultural life are the most important reasons," he said.

The German capital is followed by the western cities of Düsseldorf and Cologne, as well as the central city of Frankfurt.