Insider and outsider
An individual is multidimensional, Yilmaz-Bayraktar says. “There are the dimensions of legal status, economic realm, class, social life and so on.”
Yilmaz-Bayraktar is sitting on a table in a university classroom of Osnabrück, dressed casually in a white shirt, jeans and walking boots. She is speaking on migration, one of her areas of research expertise. It is the final class of the year. And her final class at this university.
“One can be legal in some aspects, but illegal in others,” Yilmaz-Bayraktar says. “You can be an insider and an outsider at the same time.” She is talking about the sociological theory of migration. But she could be talking about her own story.
Yilmaz-Bayraktar didn't become a complete insider in her time at Osnabrück. The reasons are external as well as internal. And whether you feel welcome, even as an exiled academic, is sometimes written in the details.
Yilmaz-Bayraktar in front of the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies. (Credit: Stella Schwendner)
Food in the cafeteria of Osnabrück University. (Credit: Stella Schwendner)
Yilmaz-Bayraktar came to Osnabrück in April 2017. She occupied a small office in the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at the university. In her free time she took German classes. She tried to make her life in Germany work.
"My colleagues were very friendly and made an effort to integrate me," she says. But she was lonely. And although Osnabrück has a Turkish community, Yilmaz-Bayraktar faced a problem that many exiled Turkish dissidents face: Turkish communities are often pro-Erdogan. "I would not feel safe approaching them," she says.
For one year, her younger son came to live with her and went to school in Germany. But that turned out to be more difficult than expected. He was having difficulties at school, because he was an outsider as well. "I spent a lot of time arguing with the teachers; that took a lot of energy," Yilmaz-Bayraktar says.
That wasted time was missed when she tried to progress with her research. She had a hard time focusing and finding her motivation anyway.
“With my mind, I was always in Turkey,” she says. She spoke daily with her family back home in Mersin, following every development.
Yilmaz-Bayraktar had come to Osnabrück to provide an option for her family, in case things got worse in Turkey. “I was the Plan B.” Then, possibly, her family could come and join her. But things turned out differently. While things weren't going great in Germany, the situation in Turkey developed better than expected.
Yilmaz-Bayraktar followed from afar how life in Mersin actually began to go well for her husband Ulaş. He had been dismissed from university as well, but he started a cultural café that was becoming increasingly popular as a center of alternative academic life in Mersin. Yilmaz-Bayraktar was feeling left out.
Her real friendships and relationships were increasingly happening in a virtual space. In addition to the daily skype-calls to her family at home, Yilmaz-Bayraktar was involved in the Academics for Peace movement. The group stayed in touch via e-mail, its members helping each other with financial and judicial questions.
Colleagues of Yilmaz-Bayraktar at the University of Osnabrück demonstrating in solidarity ahead of her trial. (Credit: IMIS, University Osnabrück)
The biggest threat to them remained the impending court trials. The members were charged with terrorist propaganda. Apart from that, their experience was very heterogeneous, Yilmaz-Bayraktar says. Some lived in Turkey, some abroad, some were dismissed, some still have university positions. Under these circumstances, it is difficult sometimes to have a common view on many issues, to take unified actions.
One such issue is boycotting universities in Turkey that dismissed signees of the petition. Yilmaz-Bayraktar cannot understand why Western institutions continue with research collaborations and academic exchange with repressive Turkish universities. "It gives me the feeling that my protest and my suffering is in vain."
All this has led to a disillusionment with academia. "I feel there are more important things right now," Yilmaz-Bayraktar says. And it’s led to disillusionment with Germany. It is very hard to break into the German system as a foreign scientist, she says. And the recent populist outbursts, the violent demonstrations in the city of Chemnitz, triggered worries that Germany, like her home, Turkey, is on a dark path. "But I want to be part of the struggle in my home," she says.
On a warm October morning we are sitting in a cafe in the university city of Münster, looking along an alley of autumn trees. Yilmaz-Bayraktar is preparing to fly back to her hometown of Mersin. Yes, she is afraid of a possible prison sentence, she says. Most of her colleagues who had had their court dates already are being sentenced to more than a year in prison. But it's better to go to prison for a limited time and be over with it, she says. Her life in Osnabrück, on the other hand, feels like indefinite prison.
More than being arrested at the border, more than facing a trial with a potential prison sentence, Yilmaz-Bayraktar is worried about her collection of seeds. She has collected these tomato, pea and other vegetable seeds, from all over Europe. For her, they are her future livelihood. She is afraid that Turkish customs might want to take her away from her.
Yilmaz-Bayraktar on a goat farm. (Credit: Hristio Boytchev)
Yilmaz-Bayraktar has decided to leave academia, leave Germany, and pursue a future in sustainable agriculture in Turkey. She wants to start small, on land belonging to a friend, and slowly grow. During the summer, she has spent weeks learning how to make goat cheese.
On the afternoon, we visit a goat farm in Münster. Yilmaz-Bayraktar shows the barn, where the goats are milked, the fridge, where the cheese is kept. She plays with one of the goats and smiles.
Three days later, she flies back to Turkey.
She has made it back home safely, she writes. And so have her seeds that she has collected from all over Europe.
"We enjoy the sea with my family."
The politics can wait. But not indefinitely.
Hristio Boytchev is a investigative health and science journalist in Berlin, Germany. He writes for The Economist, The Washington Post, Nature, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit and Die Welt. He was a reporter for the investigative newsroom Correctiv, where he did an undercover report about alternative therapies for cancer patients. After studying biology at Dresden University of Technology he did postgraduate studies of journalism at Complutense University of Madrid.
Bediz Yılmaz-Bayraktar graduated from the Department of Political and Administrative Sciences, Marmara University, and received her PhD degree from the French Institute of Urban Studies (University of Paris VIII) with a dissertation on the social exclusion of internally displaced Kurdish people in a slum neighbourhood of Istanbul. After working as Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Administration at Mersin University for more than 10 years, she has been dismissed for having signed the Petition of Academics for Peace (January 2016). Since February 2017 she has been a Philipp Schwartz Fellow at the Institute of Migration Research and Intercultural Studies, University of Osnabrück.