“Why can German cars, intelligence software, and pharma roam in Turkey more freely than they ever could in their own country, yet I can’t have one room in Kreuzberg to watch soaps and contemplate writing in without having to choose between my conscience and asylum, my ideals and academia, my family in Turkey and freedom here?”
The Applicant (2023), Nazlı Koca
Last Friday, while buried under piles of paperwork required to make my upcoming EU trip a reality, a dear friend from across the Atlantic reached out to me, inquiring about my day.
How’s your Friday going? Do you have time for a video chat?
I was also in the midst of my second work meeting of the day, attempting to remain attentive to the discussion unfolding on my laptop. But the tabs open on my desktop were distracting–beckoning me to start grading student papers awaiting my evaluation.
A bit busy at work, but things are going well. Making travel plans. How are you? I texted my friend back. I then turned to my iPad which sat open at my desk and continued to scour the internet for samples that would show me how to write a petition to an EU consulate as part of my visa application. My friend, who was now excited for me, sent me one text after another detailing all the wonderful sights that I had to see when I was visiting the city.
I had received an EU grant for a teaching project in a European city, and earlier that day I went on the embassy’s website and printed out a list of the required documents for my visa application. There were around thirty documents I had to collect and/or prepare, one of which was a petition to the embassy explaining my motivation to visit.
I wasn’t going to tell my friend that I was busy wading through a sea of paperwork on a Friday afternoon and that the prospect of this trip was stressing me out.
I wasn’t going to tell my friend because–
I now know not to bring up the arduous visa application process with my American and European friends–a process that I, as a Turkish citizen with a passport that denies me the privileges granted to western citizens, am required to undertake each time I travel to a western country. The sheer exhaustion of explaining the endless paperwork, bank statements, and personal documentation required to prove that I’m worthy of visiting their countries feels like a burden in and of itself.
I have tried explaining the double standard before; you have to, if you want to make travel plans with your friends from America and Europe.
Yes, you can absolutely breeze into Europe or America with minimal scrutiny and no questions asked, but I must prove that I’m not a threat to national security, that I am financially sound and solvent, and that I have no intention of overstaying my welcome. And yes, exactly; my level of education or financial standing doesn’t even matter. I have to constantly prove my worth and that I am indeed human—
a burden shared by so many others born in non-western countries.
As I sifted through visa application petitions on Google, I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of unease. The great lengths to which the applicants went in order to convince a stranger of their humanity and eligibility left me disturbed. Here they were, striving to persuade a complete stranger whom they would never meet that they have a compelling reason to return home. Promises of spouses, kids, businesses, and schools waiting for them when they return–like any of these truly matter if one’s survival is at stake, I thought.
It wasn’t only a sense of unease that settled in my stomach; I also felt a twinge of resentment at the rhetoric these applicants had to master, simply to validate their existence. It was a language I, too, had been compelled to learn, to justify my own worthiness and secure my place in a western country. Of course, I always knew that my struggles paled in comparison to those forced to flee for their lives. I knew too well I was fortunate that I never had to flee persecution or a civil war (yet) and that it was a privilege to choose to leave. And yet, over the years, I couldn’t help but question the level of volition in such a difficult decision. Sure, I had the privilege of choosing to leave my homeland, but how much of that choice was really mine to begin with? How much agency do we truly have living in a so-called developing or underdeveloped country with limited opportunities, social oppression, or political instability? Do we, international students and economic/intellectual migrants, really choose to leave, or is the decision to migrate, in many ways, a consequence of a system that is deeply unequal?
As I sat at my desk in my office that Friday afternoon, grappling with these questions that had now taken on a newfound sense of urgency, I was reminded of Turkish writer Nazlı Koca’s fascinating debut The Applicant (2023) which came out last month, in February 2023. The novel opens with a compelling petition:
To whom It May Concern,
I obey, I work, I appreciate, I scrub, I vacuum, I mop. I want you so bad I’ll do whatever you ask.
I can kill, I can steal, I can take the blame for anything you need. I can dance, I can sing, I can be your exotic queen. I can carry, I can build, I can drive you from building to building. I can be the star of your football team. I can fight all your wars for a tiny shiny coin. Two coins and I will proudly work in your rotten hospitals, universities, and tech companies. I can live in your apartments and take care of your babies. For free. It would be an honor to live under the same roof as you, your creepy husband, and your newborn baby. I can be your cheap prostitute, right here, right now, I can take it all in. If the earth collapses in on you one day, take this oath, I will be your human shield. Will you let me stay, let me stay, let me stay.
This “plea” to the west (or to any host country) anticipates the thought-provoking themes that permeate the entire narrative, highlighting the intricacies of migration as a non-linear process marked by hardship, relief, anxiety, and yearning–all at once. From the onset, the novel promises to underline the systemic barriers and the power dynamics involved in the mobility of people across borders, and it certainly delivers. This is a work of fiction that interrogates the (very much real) inadequacies of the labels and terminologies –“refugee,” “migrant,” high-skilled,” and “low-skilled,” etc.– that have come to define the discourse on migration in the 21st century. By shining a light on the multiple layers of social and political structures that shape migration experiences, The Applicant (2023) represents a bold, brutally honest intervention in the ongoing conversation about displacement through its protagonist, Leyla’s experiences and reflections. This is a timely novel that sheds light on the difficult choices faced by those who are forced to leave behind everything they know and love to seek opportunities elsewhere.
Leyla is a young Turkish writer in her twenties who is stuck in bureaucratic limbo waiting for an extension on her student visa in Berlin. Through its intimate epistolary format, the novel allows readers to access Leyla’s raw and unfiltered thoughts as she grapples with the existential questions that confront her in her current predicament. Should she remain in Berlin, the city she has come to love? Or should she return to Turkey to pursue her writing career there in a politically unstable context? Should she sacrifice her values and marry her Swedish boyfriend to secure her place in Europe? These are just a few of the difficult choices that Leyla must face, each of which presents its own set of trials and tribulations. Regardless of the path she chooses, she realizes, there is no easy way out.
As she tells us right away, she is expelled from her master’s program for writing a thesis her advisor deems “not academic enough.” Losing her student status in Germany, she faces limited options: return to Turkey, despite the harsh restrictions on freedom of expression and political instability that originally drove her to leave, attempt to secure a full-time job in Germany, an impossible task in itself, or contest her advisor’s decision. When she begs her advisor to give her another chance, explaining what is at stake, he retorts, “this is not my problem. If you’re not happy with my decision, sue me.” And so she does–despite the odds stacked against her.
At another meeting later, the department head asks Leyla why she didn’t “apply to become a refugee.” “What he meant was,” Leyla recalls this moment in time, “I either had to be the perfect student or a poor refugee to have a seat in the auditoriums of his country’s conscientious institutions.” She continues:
The middle seats were all reserved for people who looked like him. I had to try hard not to cry. He gave me a German ‘sorry’ and repeated how they all agreed that they would not change their decision to fail me unless the court orders them to.
Here, the novel raises a crucial sociopolitical question that cuts to the heart of the complexities of migration and displacement: what happens when individuals like Leyla do not fit into the prescribed categories that dominate the discourse, as well as immigration regulations? For Leyla, who is neither a refugee/an asylum seeker nor a migrant, the struggle to find a sense of belonging and stability in a foreign country is fraught with unique challenges and obstacles.
Leyla is a protagonist I have been seeking in Anglophone migration novels for a long time: a character on the move that disrupts the neatly-packaged categories of “refugee” and “migrant.” (The first one I found was Elif Shafak’s Ömer Sipahioğlu in The Saint of Incipient Insanities (2004) ). Leyla cannot be categorized as a refugee according to international refugee law; she is not escaping persecution or an active war as defined by the 1951 Convention drafted by the UN. Nor is she an economic migrant, “a person who leaves their country of origin purely for economic reasons that are not in any way related to the refugee definition, in order to seek material improvements in their livelihood,” according to the European Commission. Instead, as an international student on a study visa with a complicated visa status, she is given a Fiktionbescheinigung (fictional certificate), a “fictional visa” that doesn’t afford her many rights. We see here an important critique of the political and social structures that underpin the migration experience, encouraging readers to engage in a deeper reflection on the ways in which these structures can impact the lives of individuals like Leyla who do not fit into established categories.
She recalls a conversation with a Turkish man who received asylum in the 80s and now lived in Denmark, after building a fake case about people wanting to kill him back in Turkey. Reflecting on how the political and legal frameworks governing displacement have become more and more restrictive, she writes:
Today, the only asylum seekers I know are my Syrian party friends who I’ve met at Sisyphos. They might be partying and dealing drugs now, but they all crossed borders and seas, escaping mortar shells and Kalashnikov gunfire from their own government and people. The only Turkish asylum seekers I’ve heard of are writers, artists, and academics who would’ve been arrested if they hadn’t run away. I’ve been hearing a lot of stories about Afghan refugees too. They’re being sent back after years of living in Berlin because supposedly the war in their country is over. Many of them get killed as soon as they get off the plane.
I know I could lie and make a case for myself to stay here as a refugee, but I wouldn’t be able to live here in peace knowing I took the place of a journalist or a trans person whose life is in real danger in their own countries.
Let’s say I didn’t care. When you are an asylum seeker or a refugee in Germany, you aren’t allowed to visit your home country. You lose your refugee status here if you do. And since my family can’t afford to come here, I would be giving up on seeing them for years. So maybe this is the real reason why I won’t apply for asylum. Maybe I don’t really care about others.
Leyla’s meditation on who qualifies as a refugee and the ways in which labels have real-life consequences are difficult to read; we all have heard of these experiences. We all have read about them. And some of us have lived through them. While she does the right thing by not applying for asylum, why, the novel asks, does one have to choose between their “conscience and asylum, [their] ideals and academia, [their] family in Turkey and freedom here?”
Leyla wants the reader to know that it was not easy even to apply for a Fiktionbescheinigung. Her application was almost rejected as she couldn’t offer adequate proof of “where my previous income came from and went to.” As the immigration officer reminds her, she is legally not allowed to do any freelance work, can only work for German companies for 120 days a year, and the only other income she can receive is through family; even then she is asked to provide an official copy of her bank statements. Leyla thus struggles financially and is compelled to work as a cleaner in an Alice in Wonderland-themed hostel called The Looking Glass. The symbolism here is evident, yet one that is excitingly apt. Indeed, the looking glass through which she is traveling in Germany as a migrant in purgatory deconstructs the romanticized view of Europe.
Leyla’s experiences in Berlin highlight the painful realities of being a migrant, as Berlin, “the city of freedom,” becomes a place where she constantly battles bureaucratic obstacles, barely able to make a living. Moreover, her reflections on the agonizing news from around the world call attention to the rising trends of neo-nationalist, racist, and misogynistic ideologies across the globe. The violence against women in Turkey and neo-Nazi attacks on minorities in Germany, Trump’s travel ban all amplify Leyla’s fatigue and disillusionment with the state of the world. And so, she takes refuge in the act of writing.
Writing allows Leyla to turn inwards, reflect, and ask difficult questions not only about the troubling state of the world but also about her personal struggles growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father. She is among many Turkish writers, academics, and journalists who see no future for themselves in their country due to the increasing curbs on freedom of expression. “Life was so expensive and politics so erratic in Turkey that all of my attempts at literary writing were shut down for one reason or another,” she explains, “each time leaving me with less courage to say what was on my mind.” Berlin’s vibrant artistic and literary community and its welcoming, rebellious spirit were reasons compelling enough for her to travel through the arduous “looking glass”:
I was turning into Joyce’s Bloom, walking the streets of Istanbul like a ghost, unable to reconcile how far my reality was from the dreams I once had. There was more hope for Stephen Dedalus in Dublin than for me in Istanbul. But Berlin was going to be different.
Berlin was different for Leyla–
until it no longer was.
What was so romantic anyway about homelessness, losing your residency, scrubbing bathroom floors in a hostel, numbing anxieties, traumas, and insecurities through partying, sex, and drugs? What was so dreamy about “the anxiety that is attached to my passport”? She writes:
If I had a little more time on my visa to stay here or at least outside of Turkey, this could have been the start of my big break. It’s always how it goes for young writers in movies and novels. But my life is not an American movie or a European novel. It’s not up to the Turkish cleaner on a visa to overcome all obstacles between herself and what she desires. It’s up to Ausländerbehörde officers, court clerks, and university professors to let her stay so she can do it. And they won’t, because they’re the cleaners of their own stories, and clearly they’re better heroines than I am. How seamlessly they shake off the unruly student from their perfect institutions, rinse the country off the defeated, send the unworthy down the sink. They’re naturals at this.
As Leyla’s story unfolds, her journey serves as a poignant commentary on the challenges many young migrants encounter as they struggle to carve out a space in a new country.
Towards the end of her narrative, Leyla realizes, as my therapist once pointed out to me–
that we may move across the Atlantic and cross borders to escape the clutches of oppression, violence, and restrictions that stifled us. We soon realize, however, that we often remain tethered to the very forces that prevented us from growing up as our authentic selves, in a way, shackled by chains that stretch across the ocean. We may continue to romanticize the allure of cities like Berlin, New York, and London and the freedom they seemingly offer, but we soon realize that we cannot sweep our traumas and anxieties under the rug and start anew. It is only when we muster the courage to face the music and turn inward that we may find true liberation and the clarity to forge a new path forward. Leyla reflects:
I’ve got words, but they don’t have freedom. Who has freedom anyway, let alone their words? Not even Germans. I’ve got no home, I’ve got no perfume, I’ve got no faith. I’ve got no friends, I mean, I do, but most of the time it feels like I don’t. So why am I alive anyway? To write? Write what? The kind of book that gets one’s family’s home raided by the police? A soap to put women to sleep? To clean? To grow old in Turkey, minding my own business, marketing American beauty products to the five people who can afford to buy them? To disappear in a bottle in Berlin?
Will I ever feel free? I’m always afraid of something. My past, my future, my government, losing my mother, losing my sister, having to move in with my mother and sister, my own body, the dark, the bank, the clock, people, bees. I fear words. I’m afraid of what the world could do to me for putting one word next to the other. I’m afraid of what those words will do to me if I don’t. I’m afraid of my genes: alcoholism from my father, depression from my mother, paranoia from one uncle, dementia from another. But I’m more afraid of being normal.
Her sincere, romantic connection with a conservative Swede brings up yet another fear: is it truly an exercise of free will to form a partnership with someone whose political values do not align with hers simply because she soon may be out of options? Her boyfriend with whom she is truly ( and unexpectedly) in love tells her:
‘Don’t worry about the visa too much. Even if you have to go back to Turkey, you can apply for a Swedish visa to come live with me in Gothenburg as my partner. We don’t need to be married to get you a visa in Sweden. All we have to do is declare we’re in a relationship and want to live together.’
‘You have to wait for that visa in your home country for two years, whether you’re married or partners, and some people still don’t get it,’ I said. “I would lose my mind in Turkey if I had to stay there for two years.’
He didn’t believe me. ‘I’m a Swedish citizen,’ he said. ‘It can’t be that difficult to bring my girlfriend to my own country.’
Experiencing a profound sense of fatigue that prompted my reflection here on RUOT, Leyla elucidates:
Westerners never understand how immigration works for people who are from unwanted countries. Turkish citizens need to apply and pay for visas just to set foot in the airport of a European country as a tourist. Even then, we can be sent back, if the officer has a hunch that we’re a threat. To get that visa one must show a fortune in a bank account or a stable and sufficient source of income, a luxury only a handful of us have.
What was so utopic about constantly being seen as a threat? Or a prize to be won?
All these questions the narrative encourages us to ask carry significance not only for Leyla but for many of us who desire (or like me, did in the past) to leave our homelands, who may think “I’d rather be a barista or a cleaner in Europe than stay.” But what is it that we are really escaping? Leyla writes as follows :
I thought another country would be far enough. If I didn’t speak in Turkish, my grief would eventually stop talking to me. If I didn’t write in Turkish, I could create a different life for myself. If I didn’t think in Turkish, my past couldn’t dictate my future. I never learned German, so Berlin couldn’t read my thoughts. I kept all my friends at a safe distance and pushed them away when I revealed too much. I only attached myself to people who were en route to the exit from the beginning. I fell in love with the Swede, a man so foreign to me he felt like a figment of my imagination. As if by putting layer upon layer between myself and others I could avoid the pain of their inevitable loss.
As Leyla concludes her narrative, it remains uncertain whether she will receive an extension on her visa or be forced to return to Turkey. While I hope there will be a sequel, the question doesn’t seem to matter as much. Leyla’s focus has shifted from the external forces that have governed her existence towards the internal ones that have kept her in purgatory. Having written her narrative at the end, she has begun to peel away those layers she put between herself and others, herself and her country.
She once writes about her disillusionment with the notion that she “can’t bring herself to write a book that would expose the world for what it is.” But Leyla’s unwavering commitment to truth shines through, and ultimately she achieves precisely that, realizing that internal liberation isn’t about national or temporal boundaries. Leyla, as she realizes, is indeed “nationless, ageless, and boundless,” a realization that is reflected in the powerful and evocative nature of her writing.
No wonder I thought of Leyla as I read through petition after petition last Friday. The endless explanations of wire transfers and mortgage details and proof of our ties to our home countries felt dehumanizing, and the anxiety it provoked, truly overwhelming.
Having gone through similar ordeals countless times before–for the purpose of studying, visiting friends, or exploring the world’s cities — the whole experience was more degrading than ever before. My sense of frustration and disillusionment was palpable, reminding me that despite our best efforts, the system often fails to see us as anything beyond mere numbers and paperwork.
Was my current frustration a consequence of my constant struggle to prove my worthiness to the west in my twenties – to obtain visas and permission to visit or live in their states -? Shouldn’t any young adult, regardless of their background, have the freedom to explore the world and themselves without having to prove their worth?
I can’t help but recall the time in college when my visa application to study in Czechia through the fully-funded Erasmus program took months to be approved, and I was left waiting for months without any communication from the consulate, even as the semester started at my college in Istanbul and the university I was supposed to attend in Czechia. Or maybe it’s the guilt I felt every time I waited in line to renew my visa at the U.S. consulate in Turkey, unsure of what I was even guilty of. The sight of the security guards, the long lines, and the military personnel carrying AKs made me want to apologize for causing them to feel threatened. And then there was that time when an American friend of mine and I planned to backpack around Europe, and all she needed was her passport and a ticket, while I had to go through the tedious process of applying for a visa at the French embassy in Chicago, providing a folder filled with documents, and seeking permission, despite already having an American visa. The constant need to prove my legitimacy and worth has left me feeling exhausted, frustrated, and disillusioned with a system that often fails to recognize the inherent value of every human being. And I’m only one among millions for whom this arduous process is part of traveling and seeing the world, for whom jumping through endless hoops just to explore the world is the norm.
Here I was again, working ceaselessly to provide an EU consulate a thorough record of my life, even though I was applying for a visa as part of a teaching project fully funded by Europe itself.
A knock on my office door interrupted my thoughts. It was a colleague returning a book she had borrowed a few days ago. We chatted a bit, and as she left, I glanced around my small but cozy office, decorated with my favorite Edward Hodden painting and with handwritten notes from my students, my family, and postcards from friends. I felt a sense of comfort in this space, surrounded by reminders of the people who mattered to me.
I realized that all I wanted at the moment was to go home to my cats and curl up with a good book, and perhaps video chat with my friend.
Staring at the cursor that blinked on the blank page, I took a deep breath and began to type:
I promise I’m not staying.
Don’t panic, I don’t even want to.
14 thoughts on “Dear Europe: I Promise I’m Not Staying”
Reblogged this on Shereen Malherbe and commented:
An essential read…
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for sharing it, Shereen. Also, it’s lovely to see you here – I thought I lost touch with you when I couldn’t see your page on Instagram
Yes me too! Glad I found you. I came off social media…also partly to do with a BBC documentary I contributed to that just aired re my Palestinian heritage dating back to 1948. I am writing about it too and just didn’t fancy doing it via the social media glare 😅
LikeLiked by 1 person
Ah, I see. That makes perfect sense 🙂 Which documentary is it? I’d love to see it if possible!
Yes sure. It’s UK broadcast only but you can see if you can access it (& read the surrounding media articles) if you search for The Holy Land and Us: our untold stories. I’m on episode 1. I will send a post out on my blog too as that’s where I’m mostly keeping up with my readers.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I will certainly check it out, Shereen! And yes, following your blog and your projects 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
A very moving thoughtprovoking piece
LikeLiked by 1 person
Well written. It’s unfortunate that some violent extremists make it so hard for the rest of us.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Absolutely– it is quite disheartening.
This is such an eye-opening and thought-provoking post! You’ve definitely made me feel even more thankful for how easily my own passport allows me to travel. Fingers crossed that these sorts of privileges will eventually be accessible to all of us!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I hope so too! Thanks for the note 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks, great piece and book recommendations. I’m Polish and my parents migrated to Germany in 1989. They made it through the hoops but I got traumatised in the process and myself emotionally can’t live in Germany (so I chose serial migration as an adult). I don’t face the bureaucratic barriers you do because my parents solved them, and also Poland is in the EU now — different story than 1989. But looking back, I keep trying to understand why it seems unlivable and the mentality you describe is why it is. It’s hard to I “unsee” once you have seen this (and esp. felt this vibe).
I was also always aware it’s worse for non-Europeans than for Eastern Europeans, that didn’t make me feel better about it tho, to the contrary (more showed me the full disgusting depths of the problem).
Unfortunately Poland is equally xenophobic — and more open about it (& you said Czechia was the same shit for you, sorry to hear), politically screwed up, hates queers like me, etc. I still moved back there periodically though just to feel like I don’t have to suck up to anyone to feel like I’ve got the right to walk the earth without proving and apologizing and feeling diffusely guilty and afraid of sth. etc.
Thank you for your note and sharing your own experiences. Like many, I put myself through what can be called as “self-exile,” and what I experienced is probably a fraction of what I would have if I had grown up in the west as an immigrant (or with immigrant parents). Granted, growing up in the country of my birth, I never felt like I belonged either. So, there’s that. What you said at the end made me emotional- it’s a poignant reminder that it is not easy to feel at home anywhere as long as the nationalistic, anti-feminist and anti-queer ideologies dominate.
LikeLiked by 1 person