Migratory Birds 

In 2020, long after the death of my grandfather, Gani Bilir, I came across his pay slips in a box at the home of my grandmother, Vehbiye Bilir, in Mersin. They span the period from December 1976 to February 1983. In all the years from 1962 to 1988, Gani Bilir’s wages from the Triebwerkfabrik engine factory in Kiel remained the same, while those of his fellow workers who were non-migrant Germans increased. The more than one hundred pay slips are fragmented testimony to over twenty-five years as a migrant worker in Germany. Among these documents from my grandfather’s working life were two paintings of migratory birds, which he had made on transparent foils. He painted and drew a great deal, and taught me to paint a bird when I was a child.


In 1962, the year the Federal Republic of Germany and Turkey signed an Anwerbeabkommen [recruitment treaty] to regulate the subsequent westward flow of migrant labour, Gani Bilir began work at the Triebwerkfabrik Maschinenbau Kiel (MAK).[1]


As my mother, Zühal, recalls: 


We children and teenagers – I was nine years old when my father left – were considered strange people at the time, for our father had gone to a country everyone was afraid of. There was war in Germany, and it had been bombed to smithereens, or at least that’s the story I grew up with: a very distant land, somehow peculiar and with a dangerous past. We feared for my father because Germany was very far away from us, in cultural terms as well as geographically, so who on earth would travel to Germany, back then? Today, it’s no big deal: everyone in Turkey has relatives in Germany.[2] 


Around 1964, two years after Gani Bilir arrived in Germany, the Turkish press agency Haber Ajansi ran a feature about him and his time as a migrant worker. Of interest here is the article’s headline: “With the 30,000 Deutschmarks her husband earned in two years and sent home to her, she has built a house”.


At this, Zühal retorted: 


My father lived very thriftily and worked his fingers to the bone, even on weekends. He didn’t return to Turkey for seven years and he went through hell. His goal was to make money in the shortest possible time, to afford his children a good education and to come back very soon. To do so, he had to work extremely hard, never taking a holiday or the like. It was a very hard life, full of sacrifice. He must have led a very meagre existence. And we, for our part, had to do without our father, while my mother had to manage all by herself, with five children. (Interview Z. B-M)


The aforementioned Haber Ajansi article quotes my grandfather saying, “Please don’t be disappointed, if I come back without any gifts. Whenever I send home a Deutschmark that I have earned honestly and by dint of great effort, my eyes fill with tears of joy”. And it adds: “Gani Bilir worked an extra six-hour shift every day, to increase his income”.


Zühal continues: 


Turkey’s dual goal, in ‘selling’ migrant labour to Germany, was to reduce unemployment at home and to acquire foreign currency. That was the beginning of the end of our migration history drama. My father was just a pawn in the game, so to speak, both politically and economically. For a very long time, the migrants did not admit how very difficult it was for them in Germany, or that they were stuck in the dirtiest jobs, for the lowest wages. My father was the decoy. Germany was in desperate need of workers. (Interview Z. B-M)


The newspaper article goes on to say: 


The Bilir family in Mersin has already gained additional income of 30,000 Deutschmarks – that is the record sum sent home to date by our worker, Gani Bilir, since he first went to Germany two years ago. Gani Bilir, who works in the engine factory in Kiel, made his first bank transfer of 300 DM just twenty-five days after starting work there. So far, no other worker has sent such a large sum of money back to Turkey. Gani Bilir, who is forty-five years old and has five daughters, sent home goods only once: a refrigerator, on which he paid customs duty of 3000 Lira.


What a first glance at this newspaper article does not reveal is the brutal reality of the conditions in which the so-called guest workers lived and worked. Critical migration research has long since called into question the strategies pursued to exploit labour. By the capitalist market logic, people are rated in terms of their economic surplus value, the profit that can be squeezed out of them. They are not seen first and foremost as human beings. Max Frisch hit the nail on the head when he wrote that: “We summoned a labour force; we got people instead”.


It was 1961, the [Berlin] Wall had just been built, then in 1962 my father was among the first to arrive, and labour was urgently needed. The Germans didn’t want the dirty work. The Germans could get better jobs, and study. Structural racism still hounds us today and it’s just as bad now as it was then. This is the Germany I arrived in. (Interview Z. B-M)


Castro Varela has this to say about German society’s inhumane treatment of its “guest workers” and its failure to acknowledge them as equal citizens: “Neither German language courses nor decent housing were provided. Instead, a lot of energy was invested in keeping migrant workers away from the German majority, so as to prevent any solidarity building”. (Castro Varela 2015: 88)[3] My mother Zühal echoed his opinion: “In Kiel, ‘guest workers’ were kept far away from mainstream society and close to the factories, in special hostels solely for them, where men and women had to live apart”. (Interview Z. B-M)


The solidarity mentioned by Castro Varela was in short supply when my grandfather was still working at the factory and his German colleagues went on strike in response to a reduction in their hours. The latter’s line was: “The Turks must go”. So, this was no distant slogan for my grandfather, but a reality of daily life. He, who had worked for years on end for the same pay, in the same wage bracket, was not included in the strikers’ campaign. In their slogans and demands the strikers even lashed out at migrant workers, showing zero solidarity with their struggle for visibility in a society that saw them, if at all, as nothing but “guests”.[4] The heated racist mood of the time is evident from a headline of July 1973 in the news weekly Der Spiegel: “The Turks are Coming – Run for your Lives!” The article also spoke of an “invasion”, “burgeoning ghettos” and “criminality”.[5]


In 1973 Germany put a halt to recruitment. My grandfather and my grandmother, Vehbiye Bilir – who had followed her husband to Germany in 1972 and was meanwhile employed as a hospital cleaner – saw no other option but to bring over to Germany their six children, among them my mother, Zühal Bilir-Meier. For my family, and especially for the younger children, this meant being abruptly torn out of their familiar home environment and taken far away from their school, relatives and friends. My grandparents returned to Mersin in 1988.


Today, I feel that my artistic practice is closely interwoven with my personal experience and my activism. Acting in solidarity with others is an important step towards questioning my own privileges and sharing resources, for example by opening up space for other voices in exhibitions or projects, or by making financial resources available. My artistic projects and films focus on knowledge gained from migrant perspectives and work with the nonlinearity of memory and history and counter-narratives. So, this project, “Migratory Birds”, likewise deals with migration and labour struggles, with migrants’ struggle for recognition, with the parallels to be found in migrant viewpoints, and with the fight against multidimensional forms of discrimination, such as everyday racism and classism.


[1] Founded in 1948, the Maschinen- und Triebwerkfabrik MaK (Maschinenbau Kiel) manufactured diesel locomotives and diesel trams, among other things. In the 1990s, it was split up into several companies. For more details (in German), see:

[2] This and all further quotes followed by (Interview Z. B-M) are taken from the author’s interview with Zühal Bilir-Meier of 16 April 2021.

[3] Castro Varela, María do Mar (2015): “Willkommenskultur: Migration und Ökonomie” in: S. Taş & Z. Çetin, (eds.): Gespräche über Rassismus: Perspektiven & Widerstände, Verlag Yılmaz-Günay, 2015, pp. 87–97.

[4] The year 1973 also saw notorious industrial action at the Ford plant in Cologne-Niehl, which was sparked by the dismissal of three hundred Turkish migrant workers. Their German colleagues failed to take action in support of them. See (in German),

[5] DER SPIEGEL. (1973, July 29). »Die Türken kommen - rette sich, wer kann«. DER SPIEGEL, Hamburg. See (in German),