Turkish Vendor in Austria Stands to Lose Kebab Stand Over Lack of German

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Vendor Alihan Turgut is being moved from his stall after being penalized for not speaking enough German, March 23, 2017.
Vendor Alihan Turgut is being moved from his stall after being penalized for not speaking enough German, March 23, 2017.Credit: AP/ Ronald Zack

Alihan Turgut has dished out falafel for more than a decade to the townsfolk of Wiener Neustadt, and many call him one of their own. But "Kebab Ali" now stands to lose his stand at the main marketplace — and with it his livelihood.

Turgut is paying the price for something that he says has not previously been a problem: his German remains rough at best, more than 25 years after he came to Austria from Turkey. Mayor Klaus Schneeberger says that makes him someone "we don't need" in what will soon be the refurbished market area.

Local politicians have seized on Turgut's lack of German in denying him a stand and banning him from setting up anywhere else in the downtown district of their city south of Vienna.

Turgut belongs to an earlier wave of "guest workers" and subsequent generations who arrived well before the unprecedented migrant waves that Europe now is wrestling with. They initially were expected to return home after doing the menial work that the citizens of economically growing Western Europe considered below them.

After arriving in Austria, Germany, or elsewhere, many "guest workers" decided to stay. But they, and those who trickled in over subsequent decades, were mostly on their own as far as integration is concerned, without the language lessons, courses on socially acceptable behavior and job training that EU nations are offering their new arrivals nowadays.

At a time of EU-Turkish tensions, the town's leaders are depicting Turgut as a poster boy of a "parallel society," loyal to Ankara, that sometimes resorts to violence on Europe's streets in support of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his drive for greater powers.

In part as a reaction, the government is tightening rules on demonstrations, while Austrian news and public affairs programs reflect growing concerns about where loyalties lie. A much-watched TV talk show last week was titled "Austro-Turks for Erdogan: Does the new homeland not count for anything?"

But Turgut appears more a political football than part of a fifth column. A white apron spanned over his expansive belly, he trades quips in mangled but understandable German with customers lined up for a schnitzelburger or a kebab.

He acknowledges that he remains a Turkish citizen but says it's only because his German isn't good enough to pass strict Austrian citizenship tests. He describes his priorities on arrival as bringing his family to Austria and establishing a livelihood, not learning German.

In any case, he says, the focus on language is a "political game," adding in fractured German: "My customers want me to stay downtown."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has acknowledged that people like Turgut and others before him didn't have the integration opportunities of today's migrants. She says officials back then "pushed a book in their hands titled 'German for Foreigners' and said: 'OK, that should work.'"

In terms of adapting," they were simply thrown in cold water," she said two years ago, in comments marking the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the first "guest workers."

Along with Turks, workers from Yugoslavia made up the bulk of the earlier migrant arrivals that lasted into the 1980s. But while both groups had to struggle to escape the traps of poor education, menial jobs and lack of German, the Turks faced additional hurdles.

Migration and assimilation researcher Kenan Guengoer says that most "brought with them a special feeling of being foreign" in a Christian Europe because of their Muslim roots.

"Even today, the children and grandchildren of that generation don't have the feeling that they have arrived," said Guengoer, adding that — for many — this explains their affinity to Turkey, even if born in Austria.

An Austrian government study from last year says 51.8 percent of first- and second- generation Turks feel at home more in Turkey than in Austria. Erdogan, Guengoer said, "gives them the feeling of being someone, of being able to look up to a charismatic leader, of being part of a country they can call their own."

Schneeberger, the mayor, acknowledges past mistakes and points to present integration efforts as proof that Austria has learned from them. He praises Syrians as "progressive, ready to adapt," and says the problem is "not the Turks, it's some of the Turks."

He invokes examples of Wiener Neustadt school classes where the majority of children speak Turkish with each other, adding: "If this is the case with children, what will our society look like tomorrow?"

"I am ready to praise those who integrate," he says. "Others who don't must be sent home."

He describes as "grotesque" the views of those who refuse to send their children to schools with a high percentage of migrants while saying "Herr Ali has to stay."

But Turgut's clients remain loyal.

Frederike Steiner calls him "a traditional part of Wiener Neustadt." Ella Raunig says he is "part of the city."

And Gabriella Jacob, who runs the vegetable stand next to Turgut, describes him as "part of us."

"We will all miss him."

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