June 29, 2017

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German Turks in Cologne stay cool about Turkish referendum

Cologne’s Keupstrasse, sometimes referred to as “Klein-Istanbul” (“Little Istanbul”), is known for its colorful appearance. Strings of decorative lights hang over the cobbled street, and bakery window displays are full of tottering towers of tempting flaky pastries and almond cookies. But on Sunday, the street appeared quiet and relaxed under an uneasy gray sky, with short bouts of rain interspersed with patches of sunlight.

The somewhat unpredictable weather seemed to reflect people’s moods towards the Turkish referendum that was drawing to an end, as voters in Turkey cast ballots to determine whether to enact President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proposed constitutional change to transform the political system from a parliamentary one to a presidential one.

Turkish voters in Germany also had their chance a week ago to cast their ballots. So Turks living in the western German city of Cologne may well stay up late to find out whether the “yes” or “no” vote prevails in a referendum that had strong support on both sides and resulted in a diplomatic spat between Berlin and Ankara.

Keupstrasse – a Turkish microcosm

Keupstrasse, in the Mülheim district on the eastern bank of the Rhine, is the heart of the Turkish community in Cologne, a city with some 56,600 people with Turkish roots, according to city statistics. The community’s roots go back to the initial migration that occurred post-WWII, as Turkish workers, alongside many southern Europeans, came over as “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers) to gain employment rebuilding Germany’s destroyed infrastructure and economy, as well as work in the industry-rich Ruhr area.

Ilhami came from Turkey to Germany more recently, 30 years ago to be precise, and is a long-term resident of Cologne. He had no qualms in sharing his opinion.

He voted “no” in the referendum, and he said he didn’t think anyone here was on edge today, given that voting in Germany had wrapped up a week ago on Sunday, April 9. But he also didn’t see the final outcome of the referendum as likely to provide closure.

‘No Turkish politics in Germany’

Will the referendum results bring things to an end? “I don’t think so,” he told DW. “I hope it’s a ‘no,'” he added. “If it’s a ‘yes,’ we’ll have a dark chapter.”

“It is black and white. Our future depends on it,” he added, while waiting to pick up his food from one of the street’s numerous Turkish restaurant, whose scents of baked bread and warm kebab floated out onto the sidewalk. He said he would soon be heading home to watch the results come in.

Another long-term Cologne resident, a 60-year-old shop owner in Keupstrasse who wished to remain anonymous, also had plans to follow the results online. Like Ilhami, he didn’t notice a particularly tense mood in Keupstrasse on Sunday, describing it as “very calm,” but he didn’t think there should be one, either.

“Politics in Turkey must not be brought to Germany,” he said. He didn’t vote, but he hopes for a “no” outcome to order to prevent a dictatorship, he said.

A deep divide?

The “yes” vote is expected to edge out the “no,” and throughout the referendum campaign, media headlines have highlighted divisions, both between Germany and Turkey as nations and between the opposing sides of the campaign.

But those who spoke to DW didn’t see those reports as accurately reflecting their experiences in Germany.

Two friends, one a Turk who voted “yes” and one a Kurd who voted “no,” declined to provide their names but posed for a photo and laughed when asked whether there was a rift between the two sides. The Turkish voter praised Erdogan for bringing modernity to Turkey, highlighting improved health care and saying that the new Turkey under the president was going to be modern, like Germany. The Kurdish voter, on the other hand, did not think one person should have so much power.

Despite a historically antagonistic relationship between Kurds and Erdogan, not all Kurds were against the proposed constitutional changes.

Murat Kaya, a Kurd, could not vote due to his German nationality, but he would have voted “yes,” he told DW. His friend Serhat Karadag, a Turk, cast his ballot for “yes,” though many of his acquaintances did not. Still, he said, he didn’t perceive any tensions between voters on each side. “It’s freedom of opinion,” he said, adding that at the end of the day, voters of both persuasion were in it together.

Unease below the surface?

But not everyone felt so at ease about giving their opinion. A woman smoking outside a restaurant said she had voted “no,” but was uneasy about expressing any further opinion in such a bastion of the German Turkish community. And a worker in a kebab shop who took a quick break to speak to DW said he didn’t want to share his opinion, not because of where he was but because he was planning to travel to Turkey soon and was unsure about what could happen.

As the results come in, some in Germany will cheer, some will

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