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The past and the present; my grandfather’s return migration (1909-1918) and the current GCRF research project Return, Reintegration and Political Restructuring

Necla Acik

Feature by Necla Acik

Understanding return migrants and their motivation for migration and the challenges they face upon return is the current focus the GCRF funded project Migration and Displacement Stream based at Middlesex University (part of the wider GCRF Gender Security and Justice research hub based at the LSE). Using a mixed methods approach “Project 3: Return and Reintegration and Political Restructuring” is carrying out a survey in Kurdistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan, followed by semi-structured interviews and virtual ethnography to map and get a deeper understanding of return migration in those countries. Whilst working on this project, I was drawn again to the story of my grandfather whom I knew had vaguely gone to the United States as a young man in 1909 and returned in 1918. If he was alive today or if this project was conducted 100 years ago, he would have been the subject of my current study.  I would have asked him questions about his journey and experiences abroad, but also about the impact of emigration on his life back home since his return.

Labour migration from today’s Turkey to West Germany (1961-1973) is well documented.   It’s often assumed that this was the first wave of mass emigration from Anatolia and that the peasant population of Kurdistan and Turkey only considered migrating to Western countries with the begin of the recruitment of Gastarbeiter to Germany. Yet, the Ottoman emigration to the United States in the 19th century and well into the first half of the 20th century can be considered as the first wave of labour migration experienced in the region, widely affecting the demographics of the Christian as well as the Muslim populations. There is very limited historical data and academic work on this time period and particularly on the illiterate population groups that emigrated a that time. Between 1860 and 1914 the number of migrants that left the Ottoman Empire to go to America, including Argentina and Brazil, is estimated at 1.2 Million.  Of these, approximately 600,000 were from Syria and Mount Lebanon and were Arabic speakers; about 150,000 were Muslims of all areas; the rest came from Albania, Macedonia, Thrace, and western Anatolia. Yet, unlike non-Muslim emigrants, the Ottoman Muslims were predominantly men, leaving behind their families, with the clear intention of returning. Overall, one-third of the Ottomans (roughly 400,000) who emigrated returned and a large proportion of these returnees were Muslim Ottomans.

Black and white photograph of Momin Rehberan, author's grandfather from early twentieth century

Momin Rehberan 1895(?)-1965

My grandfather was one of them. In November 1909, at the age 15 or younger, together with three other people from his village, he embarked on a trans-Atlantic vessel as a third-class passenger with no official documents, in the port city of Mersin (in today’s Turkey) to New York . As an immigrant he worked in the mining industry for 4 years and at the outbreak of WWI in 1914 he was taken as prisoner of war (POW) purely due to him being a subject of the Ottoman Empire and forced to work under captivity for 4 more years as a Lumberjack. Upon his release, homesick and disillusioned with the American dream, he returned back to  Kurdistan in 1919 to discover that he was the only survivor of his family. Apart from his two cousins, and a sister, which he found only by coincidence 10 years later, no one from his 35 head household had survived the violence and hardship bound up with the displacement following the Russian invasion and the 1915 Armenian massacres and deportations. He was told, that during the flight all his siblings, mother and grandmother had either died from exhaustion and famine or from the 1918 Spanish Flu.  My grandfather had left for the ‘New World’ to being able to save money to buy land and build a house for his family upon return. He was driven by the desire to escape the dependency of his family from the despotic local landlord (Ağa) and his abusive behaviour towards his mother and grandmother. He achieved his migration aim only partly. Although the money he saved enabled him to buy land and livestock and settle in a new village, the trauma of losing his entire family while in emigration, has, I believe, left a profound effect on the next two generations. When I pressured my cousins to explain why they have not migrated in pursuit of  more prosperous life for themselves and their children to the cities in West Turkey, like many other extended family members, or to Germany as Gastarbeiter, like my father, he replied ‘maybe we were a bit passive, but we just wanted to stay together’.

Mass immigration from 1880 to 1920 played a great role in the growth and transformation of the American workforce and by 1920 immigrants and their children comprised over half of manufacturing workers. Immigrants entering the ports were examined and registered. For many, this was their first official recordkeeping and for me a key document giving some insight into the circumstances of my grandfather’s emigration. The immigration entry clearance documents that we obtained from public online US archives (historical document from the Immigration Services at the then Department of Commerce and Labour) lists him as a ‘28’-year-old male, ‘Moslem’, single, labourer, not able to read or write, and in possession of 16 US Dollars. The colour of his eyes and hair are recorded as ‘dark’ and his skin complexion as ‘brown’. To help the immigration officer to classify the arrivals by their ethnicity or nationality, in the annex, the document also lists the most common categories of arrivals with the heading ‘list of races of people’. Under this list, there are separate categories for North Italians and South Italians, English, Scotch, Welsh, but only one category for ‘African (black)’ and one for ‘Turkish’. This ethno-centric categorisation and the lumping together a religiously and ethnically diverse African and Ottoman population, while at the same time differentiating between groups in Europe, demonstrates not only the history of race categorisation in the United State but also the commodification of African and ‘Turkish’ immigrants. Although emigrants from Turkey were not enslaved like forced African emigrants, they were taking as POWs while being labour immigrants, many of them who had very little or no encounter with the Ottoman Administration.

List or manifest of alien passengers for the United States Immigration Officer at port of arrival (18 November 1909)

List or manifest of alien passengers for the United States Immigration Officer at port of arrival (18 November 1909)

The immigration documents classify my grandfather as ‘Turk’ and ‘Moslem’ neither of which would have reflected my grandfather’s self-identity at that time. The document also reveals that my grandfather was travelling as a ‘steerage alien’ (i.e. 3rd class passenger) as opposed to being a ‘cabin’ or ‘saloon’ passenger.  As such, the passengers were already, upon arrival, classified into different classes and examined and assessed accordingly and either given permission to enter or refused entrance.  Out of the 30 passengers that appear on this record, three male passengers were denied entry due to ‘lack of physical accomplishment which affects ability to earn a living’ suggesting that particularly ‘steerage aliens’ were examined for their fitness for the American industrial workforce.  Political orientation and cultural compatibility with the American society was also noted by a tick box question on “Whether a Polygamist” and “Whether an Anarchist”.

In my extended family, the narrative of my of grandfather’s emigration is well known, but this knowledge is very basic. He is remembered as the one who ‘went to America’ and came back with a ‘pot of gold that he buried somewhere never to be found again’. As one elderly relative commented ‘he could have bought a whole neighbourhood in Istanbul but instead he settled down in this village’ leaving not many traces of his wealth to the subsequent generation who continued to suffer economic hardship. As I was putting together the pieces of his life as a return migrant, I got a much richer picture of him, one that shows elevated social status due to his migration, and economic prosperity lasting however only for two decades until he lost his livelihood stock in a landslide and a subsequent earthquake, as well as the early loss of his wife. This left him impoverished and alone to raise his children forcing him to marry off his three daughters (including my mother) at an early age. Although his sons never left the village, his stories inspired others to leave the village in the 1960s to go to Germany as labour migrants.

Today’s return migrants that our study looks at are much more diverse. It includes skilled and unskilled labour migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, domestic workers, students and those who emigrated on grounds of family reunifications. They include migrants going to the Gulf states on short-term work contracts, migrants crossing the border to neighbouring countries and returning after one or two decades and those going to Western countries and returning with dual nationality or the second and third generation of immigrants returning to the homes of their parents or grandparents.

As we were preparing the research instruments for the study and formulating the research questions for fieldwork on return migration, the pandemic broke out.  It was clear to us, that this will affect the data collection on migrants, yet we were convinced that this will be short-lived. As we reshaped our research questions to take Covid-19 into consideration, it stroke me that the 1918 pandemic played a decisive role in my grandfather’s return and his overall migration experience. Not only did it most likely accelerated his return decision, but rendered his initial return motivation -to provide a better life for his siblings and mother and grandmother - as unsatisfactory and perhaps pointless.

My involvement in the current GCRF project at the University of Middlesex on return migration has taken me to explore the history of my family’s migration story in more depth. It made me realise the complexity of return migration, from the psychological impact it has on those who migrate as well as those who stay behind, to the historical, socio-economic and political context that frames, promotes, restricts, criminalises migration and leave an impact on many generations to come.  It also shows, that despite migration growing as a field of research, there are still many untold stories and many more aspects of migration and return migration to explore on an academic level as well as on a personal level.

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