Roar writer Derin Kocer on the co-founders of BioNTech and its Covid-19 vaccine – and what their story can tell us about anti-immigrant sentiment around the world.
A train, filled with hundreds of hopeful but restless faces waving at those that they will leave behind, departs from Istanbul. This is a historic scene every Turkish citizen sees at one point or another, either in school or on TV series they watch with their families. Hundreds of thousands of Turkish people left their hometowns in the 1960s to settle in Germany thanks to a treaty signed by both governments. They became Gastarbeiter, or guest-workers, in a country where they couldn’t speak the language and whose streets they had never walked.
However, for some, they weren’t welcomed at all. Although Germany needed a young workforce and the Turkish were coming to fulfil that duty, those newly settled immigrants were scapegoated, accused of damaging the harmony of the society, and denied any sense of belonging. They shouted “Türken raus!” (Leave, Turks!) in the faces of those who had only settling into their new lives. The darkest instincts of humanity we are once again seeing surface around the world were directed at them.
A Turkish family came to Germany with their 4-year-old son in those years. The father started working in the Ford factory in Cologne as his boy adjusted to the dramatic change. In the meantime, another family settled in the German town of Lastrup and had a baby while the dad, a Turkish surgeon, was working in a small Catholic hospital.
Those families’ paths never crossed until the children began studying at Saarland University. They met, fell in love, got married, founded a company – and now they may be the world’s best chance at ending this horrific historic chapter we are living through, one which already killed more than 1.3 million people. Those children of the Gastarbeiter, Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, are the co-founders of BioNTech, which has developed a Covid-19 vaccine that, according to their data, is 95% effective against the virus.
Their stories makes their success not only a blow to the pandemic, but also to the dark, anti-immigrant rhetoric re-emerging around the world. Just as they saw the “Turken raus!” slogan on the streets of their new country, millions of immigrant children are witnessing a similar rage today: The AfD, a right-wing populist party in Germany, is crafting policies with the intent of “stopping immigration”. Meanwhile, the US just survived a president who wanted to ban Muslims from entering the “nation of immigrants”. Boris Johnson’s points-based immigration policy probably won’t allow a Turkish factory worker into the UK either.
Although it may be easy to mobilise people with populist, anti-immigrant rhetoric, it lacks basic empathy and evidence. As Banerjee and Duflo clearly show in Good Economics for Hard Times, most of these workers don’t move on from where they found belonging just for the sake of its once they’ve finished the work they came for. Even economic hardships are, for the most part, not enough cause to make a decision as difficult as the choice those thousands of Turkish guest-workers made in the ’60s. It is almost always easier to stay than to leave.
It is also clear that many who think newcomers disrupt harmony in their society don’t even have an immigrant neighbour. It is not a coincidence that 9 out of 10 US states with the smallest immigrant population approved Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, while 8 out of 10 with the most immigrants opposed it.
Moreover, the economic argument against immigration is nearly impossible to back up: Those that come don’t steal anyone’s jobs. Rather, they consume, rent flats, go shopping, use public transport. They don’t only come to work, the come to live. Their demands create more demand, increasing supply in turn. On the contrary, the “skilled migrants” almost everyone wants in their country may “steal” upper-class jobs.
The fear of the immigrant does not come from personal experience; it is a myth. Denying belonging to those who made the difficult choice to be the natural outsiders cannot be justified by political opportunism.
To counter this myth, it is crucial to share stories like Sahin and Tureci’s to help us understand and approve of each other. Indeed, an immigrant factory worker’s son and a Turkish surgeon’s daughter can change the world. If those that yelled “get out!” were successful, and families like the Sahins and Turecis were never able to belong in their new homes, their children most probably wouldn’t be in the limelight today. They wouldn’t have had the chance to receive a world-class education. They wouldn’t have had access to the same resources. They have been able to think and speak freely.
They were some of the “lucky” ones. However, taking “luck” out of the equation should be a part of human progress in a world where, though our backgrounds may be different, our collective destiny is shared. Among many, Tureci and Sahin’s story is only one of many.