From Paterson With Love

Before arriving in Paterson, NJ four years ago, Yılmaz, a 30–year–old undocumented immigrant, led a migratory existence in Turkey, a lifestyle familiar to young people from his native Alaca, a small, impoverished town in the north.

For years, Yılmaz traveled around Turkey, working as a steel worker near his hometown, as well as in Istanbul and Ankara. In 2001, a cousin who works as a truck driver in New Jersey lent him enough money to come to the United States.


Today, Yılmaz (he did not want his last name used) is one of five cousins in Paterson, all of whom are undocumented. They are part of a growing community from Alaca who have moved to Paterson over the past 10 years. About 8,000 Turks have settled in Paterson, part of an emigration wave that has brought an estimated 180,000 Turks to New York and New Jersey, over half the number of Turkish immigrants to the United States during the past decade.

Paterson isn’t Istanbul, but it has become a hub of the Turkish émigré community. Signs in Arabic and Turkish grace most storefronts, and Turkish flags decorate the town's barbershops, restaurants and cafes. Turkish is one of the languages most often heard on Main Street. And, perhaps most importantly, Paterson has become a source of economic assistance to the townspeople back home.

Among the storefronts on Main Street, some of the briskest business is done at Alp Financial Services, a three–year–old company that transfers remittances from local immigrants back to Turkey. In the tri–state area alone, Turkish immigrants are expected to send $40 million in remittances back home this year, according to Adnan Karabulut, general manager of Alp Financial Services. Close to a quarter of that amount will come from Paterson.

The growth of remittances from towns like Paterson, and Turkish emigration to the United States, have been fueled by the recent economic crises in Turkey. Political instability, including the high costs of fighting the Kurdish insurgency in the southeast, and three military coups between 1960 and the 1980s have resulted in decades of economic uncertainty and the emigration of four million Turks, mostly to Europe.

Since the late 1980s, efforts to join the European Union have led to more trade between Turkey and Europe. But the most recent political crisis in 2001, sparked by a public fight between the president and the prime minister, caused foreign investors to pull $8 billion out of Turkish banks.

This sparked a banking crisis during which 21 banks closed, and a correspondently sharp increase in unemployment, to 10.3 percent from 6.6 percent.

In 2003, direct foreign investment plunged to $500 million, down from $1 billion in 2002, as foreign investors declined to put money into Turkey, and switched instead to countries such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Poland.

The slump in direct foreign investment has highlighted the importance of remittances to the Turkish economy. Worldwide remittances, which totaled $2.8 billion in 2001, the most recent year for which figures are available, are almost triple the average annual rate of direct foreign investment.

Alaca is typical of depressed rural communities in Turkey that rely on remittances. First settled in 7000 B.C., Alaca is known as the oldest settlement in Turkey. A town of 25,000, it is an agricultural community with no industry.

Some 2,000 people have emigrated from Alaca to the United States since the early 1990s, many of them settling in Paterson. These emigrants followed a much earlier migration from the nearby town of Yaglidere, population 18,000, which has an émigré community of 10,000 in Paterson, as well as in towns in Pennsylvania and New York. Ertan fled Alaca at the height of the most recent economic crisis.

Like many of the newcomers from Alaca, Ertan left his family — a wife and young daughter — at home. He now works at a gas station and sends $1,500, the bulk of his monthly paycheck, back home. That is more than three times as much as he made in a good month working in Turkey.

Even the former mayor of Alaca, Ugur Okur, has moved to Paterson. Okur has lived in Paterson for 10 years, ever since losing his bid for reelection in 1994. He, like Ertan, also works at a gas station, together with one of his former officers in the municipal government of Alaca.

In recent years, remittances have begun to have an impact on Alaca. After working five to 10 years in the United States, some of the earliest émigrés have gone back home and opened small businesses. One of Erkan’s cousins, for example, left Paterson after eight years and opened a photo studio in Alaca. Other émigrés have purchased real estate and built homes.

Even the cars on the street are American, says Erkan. “Some immigrants bring their cars from New York,” he notes. Erkan hopes to move back two years from now, once he has raised enough money to buy 300 sheep for a sheep farm. He wants to start a sheep breeding operation.

(August 2005, 18th Issue)

Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07