The ’80s, Germany
The old and modest furnishings had been taken for free from a generous German neighbor who had decided to buy new ones. With the charm of the early ’60s and the quality certification “Made in Germany,” the green armchairs and sofa were still solid and could also function as beds when extended.
There, Avdyl, Ahmet and Adem slept, often joined by a lot of guests who were always welcomed with open arms. Their place was also a home for my father in a hard time for him. In a foreign place without his family — the rest joined father after a year — the warmth he found at Avdyl, Ahmet and Adem’s place and their endless help cleared a way that was naturally unknown at the beginning.
At their two-room apartment, the kitchen’s equipment was second- or third-hand. All that mattered was that it worked, traditional Kosovar dishes could be prepared.
These three Albanian men came to West Germany from Kosovo at the end of the ’60s. They shared a “wohngemeinschaften-WG,” a form of collective housing, and had the status of “gastarbeiter,” guest workers.
This is how these people were called at that time, those who had left behind their large families, wives, children, neighborhoods, country lifes, fields, livestocks and even their own language, folkloric songs and games to help another wealthy country to rebuild and modernize.
They took upon themselves the hardest and most disgusting work — the work German workers never liked to do — without ever complaining.
They took upon themselves the hardest and most disgusting work — the work German workers never liked to do — without ever complaining. A lot of German men had been killed or went missing during the Second World War, leading to a labor shortage.
They spent their day at work. Those that worked in mines and heavy industrial factories were often assigned to night shifts. They cooked white beans themselves, cabbage with meat, braised potatoes and if one of them was more skillful, sometimes also byrek. They washed their clothes in a “waschsalon” (a public laundry for those without a washing machine at home).
Many of them did not even have showers, they bathed at work or at the city pool. They met their friends at each others’ homes because the cafes and bars were too expensive. The money they earned was saved and sent to their children in Kosovo to buy some land, tractors, livestock, to build houses and to finance the weddings of their brothers, relatives and later children.
With a poor mastery of German, just what they learned at work, and with little contact with the locals, they managed to face the hard life in a foreign country.
At that time, there were no language or integration courses.
Employers did not give a damn about them. They did not care at all if their workers properly learned German and how they felt being in a new place. At that time, there were no language or integration courses. They had to do their jobs, knowing that their status meant that eventually they would need to go back to their country. The employers might have respected them as workers and colleagues, but never let them into their social and family circles. Some despised them and treated them badly.
At that time guest workers had a life parallel to that of the majority of society, always longing and hoping that one day they would return to their homeland and have a better and happier life there with their families.
I never heard of them creating friendships with local Germans, that very rarely happened. Did they ever at least taste some traditional German foods besides baked potatoes and chicken at fast food restaurants? “Königsberger Klopse,” meatballs cooked in a white sauce, or “Rheinischer Sauerbraten,” roasted beef with a vinegar sauce, for example?
Did they ever celebrate Christmas or Easter with their German colleagues? Or birthdays, carnivals and other German holidays?
Did Avdyl, Ahmet and Adem know who Marlene Dietrich and Hildegard Knef were?
Graciously, Vjollca told me she did not know if she would have enough time to meet me, since she was busy with work and her political activities. Now 33 years old, she was just a child when she came to Germany as a refugee, fleeing from extreme poverty and Milošević’s regime, like many in the ’90s in Kosovo.
Eventually we met. She only remembered her first years of life in Kosovo vaguely, as a dream. She remembered how happy she was when her father bought her gum or, rarely, a tiny chocolate in their village’s small shop. After the Albanian workers were fired in Kosovo, he did not have a regular job. To survive, he tried to find a job in construction abroad.
Vjollca is today an economist who graduated in Germany and specializes in marketing and business in the US. She speaks Albanian fluently with a few traces of the dialect of her parents’ area of origin, although sometimes misses a few words.
She told her story in Albanian. Today, she is a manager in a well-known German company and oversees over 1,500 employees. Besides her work and responsibilities, Vjollca has volunteered for years for a German political party and the Council for the Integration of Foreigners.
Her main goal is to make her success something normal, that immigrants be treated as everyone else in Germany.
She did not want to be represented as someone special. Her main goal is to make her success something normal, that immigrants be treated as everyone else in Germany. Migrants are still seen as exotic. Many wonder how she managed to build a career in her profession. Success for her did not come easily. To achieve it, she faced a lot of obstacles, something that her local peers did not have.
At some point, some teacher advised Vjollca’s parents that she should not continue to high school but go to a professional school instead, since she was a foreigner and the academic level would be too high for her. Her parents could not help her with the homework, since they did not know German. But, despite the hard life and the worry for those they left behind, especially after the war, they did everything for her. Fortunately, another teacher insisted and convinced everyone that she would make it to high school, and so it was. Many foreign children in Germany have similar experiences as Vjollca.
Her political engagement shows how Vjollca considers herself a German citizen, with all the rights and responsibilities. The involvement of people with migrant backgrounds in German politics is rare, as the old networks of party members and activists make access for others, especially people like Vjollca, difficult. She does not want to play the role of a “token” — party members of foreign origin that allow the party to sell its own diversity.
Still, a lot of work needs to be done before German parties can be called inclusive. There are 20 million German citizens with foreign origins who to this day do not hold decision making positions. Even today, some see them as something less than citizens, as “guest workers.” There are also right-wing political circles that do not tolerate and do not accept people with migrant backgrounds like Vjollca among them.
There are positive developments and this gives hope to Vjollca. Despite disregard and exclusion, she managed to succeed.
Participation in social, cultural and political life
Did this idea even exist back then? In our three men’s lives, no. But there was humane treatment in their lives, an unconditional solidarity with each other and those who would come after them, a willingness to show selflessness for their family to have a better life. Marked by an unconditional patriotism, they were grateful to the German state that had offered them employment opportunities. Yet, they took with them and preserved the many goods of Albanian culture, trying to help their country with everything they had.
In the ’80s, most foreigners in Germany were guest workers, which makes the story of Avdyl, Ahmet and Adem typical for that period. It would be later, in the mid ’90s, when they started bringing their families to Germany.
Vjollca could have easily been the niece of one of the three men, even though her story is very different from theirs. More than 50 years have passed since the first Albanians migrated from Kosovo to Germany, many things have changed.
We cannot speak of a homogenous group when talking about Albanians in Germany.
We are talking about four generations of Albanians in Germany, who have as many similarities among them as they have differences. We cannot speak of a homogeneous group when talking about them. The reasons for migrating, origins, education levels, expectations and vital goals are different not only between generations, but from one individual to another.
The first generation of our three men had other concerns at that time, their central priority was working to sustain the family back in Kosovo. They did not feel any need to integrate and participate in their new society, nor did the locals give them any opportunity or motive to do so.
Later, many of the refugees of the ’90s went through some difficult challenges. Without having secured a residence permit, living in collective residences in hard conditions, with the pressure of helping relatives still in Kosovo, they did not have the opportunity and support to integrate and relate to the new country. A considerable number returned voluntarily or were deported by German authorities after the war ended. Those who remained started working and focused on their life here, although continued helping their parents and relatives. Some of them managed to learn proper German and get trained in different professions, some even managed to finish their studies.
Their children and grandchildren, born and raised in Germany, have developed a higher attachment, beginning to identify with Germany from kindergarten or first grade, feeling like fully fledged citizens. They have the linguistic competence and a more stable societal position than the previous two generations, resulting in a civic courage to raise their voice against injustices and racial discrimination in German society. This generation will not be forever grateful for the reception and help received from the German state as their parents and grandparents were. And this is because they feel like they are in their own place and their success came as a result of their commitment.
Perhaps Albanian expatriates have historically been more emotionally connected to their country of origin. There is nothing bad about that, but the ideal would be some kind of balanced identification between the two countries. And that already seems to be happening.
Feature Image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.