Educational Strategies of Turkish Migrants from Germany: The Quest for Cultural Capital in Turkey

“I enjoyed living and working in Germany, but we returned for our children, because we thought it would be better for them to go to high school in Turkey where they could learn about their culture,” Yeşim, a mother of two, explained[1]. During the course of 25 months of fieldwork in Turkey, many return migrants from Germany to Turkey stressed to me that their children's education was a primary reason for their return. When parents like Yeşim discuss their preference that their children be educated in Turkey, they claim that a Turkish education makes it easier to teach children manners and to ensure their religious upbringing. Their decisions are based to a large extent on generalizations (not necessarily accurate) about Turkish and German cultures—for example, they claim that Turkish children are more “disciplined,” while German children are “too free” and more likely to experiment with drugs.

In contrast to studies examining adult migrant transnationalism or studies looking at how adults foster their children's transnationalism, analyzing return migration as an educational strategy shows that migrants may also opt to limit children's experiences in the host country in favor of ensuring that they gain cultural capital through education in their parents' home country. Existing research indicates that return migrant parents seek to use their children's success in Turkish schools to justify their having migrated to Germany, to attain middle class status and to combat negative stereotypes of returnees' “backwardness” (Wolbert 1991). Adding to these analyses, I argue that by enrolling their children in Turkish schools, parents aim to foster their children's attainment of cultural capital—the knowledge, training, skills and attitudes that allow individuals to gain entry to a higher status in society (Bourdieu 1986). Schools “play a preponderant role in projecting the discourses that define both the limits and the necessary qualities of political participation and social belonging” (Levinson 2005, p. 334).

Yet, while migrant parents emphasize that they returned to Turkey for their children's well being, many of their children describe difficulties in Turkish schools. For example, Banu, who returned to Turkey in the late 1980s at age 16, related,

Returning was very, very difficult ( schwer). I had psychosomatic symptoms from returning to Turkey—a strong stomachache. I felt completely suppressed. Even though the language of my school was German, there were so many big changes. The Turkish mentality felt foreign ( fremde)—the emphasis on collectivity, traditions. It seemed like a second culture, not my main culture. (Interview 2009)

Returnee children discuss how schooling in Turkey involved learning new norms and understandings of discipline. Further, children relate that they were adversely affected by certain negative ideas about German-Turks, such as stereotypes about migrants' lack of discipline, which led some of their teachers and classmates to manifest overly critical (and sometimes biased) evaluations of their actions. Returnee children reported difficulties as they learned to integrate experiences in Germany with the attitudes and actions necessary for success in Turkish schools.

This article examines how parents and children view Turkish schooling: for both, schooling in Turkey is a means of teaching and learning new relationships of belonging. In the next section, I offer a context for exploring return migrants' thoughts regarding education by discussing the key characteristics of GermanTurkish return migration. Then, I outline my research methods and place this research into conversation with literature on education, migration and transnationalism. Next, the article explores parents' narratives about their reasons for return and their children's narratives about their experiences in Turkish schools. Enriching our understanding of return migrants' transnationalism, this research shows that return migration can be a strategy through which parents aim to readjust the balance of their children's exposure to parents' host and home countries. Parents aim to ensure that their children gain status in their home country with this strategy. The article shows that children struggle in home-country schools as they gradually learn to form relationships with their classmates and teachers. The conclusion reviews the findings of this research and indicates that, despite initial difficulties in Turkish schools, most returnee children do successfully integrate their experiences in the two countries and achieve professional success.

  • [1] To protect the privacy of research participants, names and non-essential identifying personal details have been changed
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