I barely make it inside the Barcelona metro before the doors close. Soon after I find a seat, I notice a dark-skinned man with a pink shirt sitting right beside me, fully concentrated on reading football news in Turkish from his smartphone.
Instead of shying away, I touch his arm and say “Merhaba,” saluting him in his native language. Fortunately, he –whose name I later found out was Ahmet- doesn’t get frustrated by my lack of willingness to respect his privacy. Instead, he asks how I am doing with a big smile on his face. Turns out, Ahmet works at a Turkish Kebab restaurant in the city. He chopped his finger while preparing döner that day. That’s why he was going back home a little earlier than usual.
“How did you end up in Barcelona? Are you happy with your life here?” I ask. Really, how does the city of Barcelona, or other major Spanish cities, treat their immigrant workers in the food industry?
Hearing his answer hurts me: “My family disowned me, almost. When I was 15, my father showed up one day and told me that I was going to move out. Apparently, his cousin (first he was in France but then he moved to Spain) needed someone to work at his Kebab restaurant. My father said ‘Start preparing, immediately.’”
Ahmet was excited at first. After all, he was going to live close by the Sagrada Familia and enjoy meeting the beautiful women in Europe. Plus, who the heck was he to say no to his father! There wasn’t even such a possibility. According to Ahmet, no 15-year-old kid is capable of making up his own mind. He would go if he were told to go. He would stay if he was allowed to stay.
Ahmet continues… “At first, living in Barcelona was very difficult. Living abroad is not as easy as it seems. Still, I wasn’t going back to Turkey, no way! I had a lot of pride. I wouldn’t let anyone say ‘Oh, he couldn’t manage to live abroad. He is not a man.’”
So he stayed. Ahmet has lived in Barcelona for 10 years now, and he has never gone back to Turkey. He chose the city of Gaudi over his native Adana. But it doesn’t mean that he fully adapted to his new environment. For example, his Spanish-Catalan mix is good enough for his survival but by no means is he linguistically competent. He has a few Turkish friends (with Kurdish origins) with whom he lives. Still, Ahmet doesn’t feel that they are close enough to love them like he does his family members. He remains a foreigner. The more he stays, the more he feels alienated.
Ahmet adds that I shouldn’t think that he doesn’t know a lot of people here in Barcelona. “For instance, there is a bar where our people go, drink tea and play backgammon. There is also a halal butcher. Rest assured that we have our own social scene.”
Ahmet doesn’t come up with excuses for his flaws. He says, “In fact, when I first moved to Barcelona, I could have registered to a language course to better learn Spanish. But I just didn’t. And now that I can live comfortably in Barcelona with my mediocre Spanish, I feel too lazy to try.” Moreover, Ahmet developed a healthy relationship with his parents. He loves them, of course. Yet when it is necessary, he knows how to warn his parents when they are ready to commit to another family tragedy (i.e. not letting his sister to go to college even after she passed the national test or forcing his younger brother to quit school and work at a Kebab restaurant.) In the end, thanks to Ahmet, his sister will have a degree and his brother will earn time to make his own choices.
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