Turkish diaspora: How to turn a brain drain into brain gain

Turkish diaspora: How to turn a brain drain into brain gain

When you log onto Linkedln and enter the key words “Turkish” and a European city, you might come across hundreds of Turks working in international companies of different sizes.

Thanks to their many languages and work in areas especially pertaining to science, technology and innovation, it would not be unusual for them to come across some Europeans thinking of complimenting them by saying “You are not like a Turk,” or “You don’t seem to be Turkish.”

That’s because the perception of a Turk is frozen in the image of the first generation of Turkish migrants who started to go to Europe in the 1960s as a cheap work force. No doubt, the first generations of migrants have had serious difficulties adapting.

The new generation of Turkish immigrants in Europe, however, have no problem adapting to living and working in a foreign environment; they do not experience major difficulties in their social or professional lives just because they come from Turkey. But many complain of this outdated image. They are treated as “exceptions.”

Gözde Kara, a 32-year-old who works at Daimler in Stuttgart, is part of this new generation. A graduate of aerospace engineering, Gözde went to Germany in 2014 thanks to the incentives of the German government to attract foreign engineers to fill the gap in order to maintain its advantage in science and technology.

Kara reached out to the highly educated Turkish group in 2016 and, after a survey among 250 of them, she found that while few were willing to go back to Turkey, the majority wanted to somehow share their skills and experience with Turkey.

That’s when she and a friend founded the highly skilled Turkish migrants group within the Union of Turkish Engineers and Architects in Germany. The aim is not just to create a platform of network and solidarity but also set up bridges between Germany and Turkey and create channels of cooperation that could be a win-win for both countries.

Kara was talking at a panel last weekend organized by graduates of the Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ). As the physical annual gathering of graduates set for June 27 was canceled due to the pandemic, graduate associations organized an online event in which more than 91 speakers spoke at panels followed by 900 graduates living in 132 cities in 29 countries.

At the same time as three separate virtual panels were taking place simultaneously, 2.433 million students in Turkey were physically sitting the university entrance exam.

The problems in Turkey’s education system have led many to go study abroad. And more than that, there has also been a tremendous rise in the number of people seeking to work over the past decade. While this speaks volumes about the current state of affairs in Turkey, this brain drain – something which Turkish decision-makers should not be proud of – is not necessarily a catastrophic phenomenon if we can turn it into an opportunity.

The term brain drain is hurting the new generation of migrants, as it has a condescending connotation, according to Gözde Kara. They are looked upon as those who left their loved ones behind to leave forever. “We should not be treated as subjects of a brain drain, but rather subjects of a brain gain,” she said.

Speaking at the same panel, Turkey’s ambassador to Dhaka, Mustafa Osman Turan, as well as Turkey’s consul general in Boston, Ceylan Özen Erişen, underlined the importance of the Turkish diaspora’s strong presence in science and technology as an “accelerator” to change negative perceptions about Turkey. They also talked about the need to keep the “talent pipeline as a two-way street.”

When I interviewed Metin Sitti, one of the directors of the Stutgart-based Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, in 2018 after he won an award in Turkey, he told me the aim should not necessarily be the reversal of the brain drain but to establish channels of cooperation between Turkey and the Turkish diaspora. Today, he is leading a team of more than 50 scientists who are designing the future, 18 of whom are Turkish. Had he come back to Turkey, it could have proven more difficult for Turkish scientists to make their way to Max Planck.

One final note: It was very significant that the graduates’ virtual gathering was made possible by Deal Room, a Finnish-based platform for online events that was designed by Turkish ODTÜ graduates living in that country.

Ranked fourth in the list of hottest Finnish startups last May, Deal Room allowed participants in the virtual meeting to follow three separate virtual panels at the same time, surfing from one to the other easily and then holding one-on-one breakout meetings with those they wanted to get in touch with. And they did so without any concerns for privacy violations.