Come spring, the boat people of Berlin are the city's answer to the American groundhog or the Japanese cherry blossom. But it's different for this Turkish immigrant.

The warm weather encourages many to spend the next few months on their houseboats in Berlin's Spree River. It's a tidy mix of well-heeled retirees, spendthrift rich kids, and floaters like Cahit Aslan who has nowhere to live, no health insurance or bank account. 

Cahit brings a sort of eccentricity to this corner of privileged Berlin. While most around him have homes and live the floating lifestyle only in warmer months, Cahit's is a more permanent existence, come rain, shine or snow. Lingering on the peripheries of society, he is truly disadvantaged.

Cahit spends much of his day at the bucht with his friends.
Cahit spends much of his day at the bucht with his friends. (TRTWorld)

Born in a small Anatolian village of Kangal in Turkey, the 60-year-old lives on a boat he has named after his Turkish grandmother 'Oma', the German word for grandmother.

Cahit's rusty dream boat is almost permanently moored off a small patch of grass in Berlin's leafy suburb of Rummelsburg, but his roots are strongly entrenched in his ancestry. 

“You know when a boy reaches the age of five in my village, he is given a dog, a gun and a horse, I had all three,” Cahit told TRT World. 

“My dad was the first generation of 'Gastarbeiter', we moved to Germany when I was nine, nearly 50 years ago, the welcome we got then was very warm, because we were here to build the country, there was only a small opposition at that time over  guest workers coming from Turkey to Germany.” 

'Gastarbeiter' or guest workers from Turkey came to Germany after the Second World War to help rebuild the country's devastated infrastructure and provide essential manpower for its industry. 

Cahit's siblings and parents painted a typical picture of an immigrant 'Gasarbeiter' family. 

“My dad was illiterate. I taught him how to read and write, and then he became a bus driver. Life wasn't bad, but before my dad died, he told me, `Cahit, go home, this will never be your home, these will never be your people,'” he said.

'Oma' is often seen anchored off the bucht.
'Oma' is often seen anchored off the bucht. (TRTWorld)

Postwar immigration 

Most Turkish Germans would find it difficult to disagree with Cahit’s father as the warm welcome for many ran cold several decades ago. The two communities are often seen living in clear self-determined segregation.

Overall rejection from the wider community over several decades led to many in the Turkish diaspora to live close together. The concept of Turkish neighbourhoods across most German cities is still very much alive.

The words of his dying dad rang true throughout Cahit's school, personal and professional life. 

“The school kids didn't even accept me in Wuppertal (a mixed neighbourhood). I was the only dark-skinned child in school, and faced detention even when it wasn't my fault,” recalls Cahit.

He dropped out of school and became a musician, “I also started smuggling paints and books and musical instruments from West Germany into East Germany, it got me a lot of money then”. 

Years later his girlfriend would convince him to do a vocational training course in architecture, which led him to his 25-year-long career in sustainable architecture.

“I used building techniques from my village, used organic materials for the first time here in Germany,” he says.

“I did well at work”, he said, adding that he could not get rid of the constant racism he faced in everyday life. 

It was a brutal racist attack that could have pushed  Cahit to leave everything behind and look for acceptance elsewhere.

“I was attacked by around 8 to 10 racist guys, they wanted to kill me, but I defended myself and was badly injured. I lost sight in my left eye for a year.” 

But it wasn't just that one attack, but a lifetime of being rejected and ostracised that pushed him into a cold corner. “It's the way they look at you, you can see the hate in their eyes,” Cahit said.

A new chapter in life 

During his last job as an architect,  his client didn't have enough money to pay him so he offered a boat., Cahit accepted and thus started a new chapter in his life.

“I never looked back at my previous life and thought oh I miss it so much. I am now surrounded by people who respect me. I have over 15 years of boat life experience, built myself a community, I lived in Barcelona where the people were much nicer, I have friends there, I have friends here in Berlin,” he says.

Acceptance came hard for Cahit. He is sustained by the investments his father made in the Istanbul property market. Cahit’s sister manages the investments and gives him his share which is nearly 1500 Euros every month.

Much of that goes on the four different heart medications Cahit takes every day, the rest is spent on food and drinks. 

“It's too much for me, I don't need so much money, but my sister worries for me so she sends it to me every month, maybe if she sent me less money I would party less,” says Cahit.

Source: TRT World