Two Bulgarians — a former cow trader and a mini-bus driver — are moving their village piece by piece to Hamburg. It is good business for them, but their customers don’t always get what they bargained for.
Erhan Kurt is driving along an empty country road on a cool Sunday evening. It’s foggy and visibility is poor, but he is determined to reach the village that was once his home. He wants to drink — whiskey, two bottles and perhaps even three — and he wants to smoke and talk, just as he does every evening during his visits to Bulgaria, the poorest country in the European Union. His country.
Kurt drives past an abandoned train station and run-down stockyards. The house where he was born, 32 years ago, stands right at the beginning of the village of Slivo Pole. It’s abandoned now, and the bar next door, which he used to frequent, has gone out of business. He passes the grocery store where villagers buy their food on credit. The only reason the barbershop is still in business is that there is a Western Union counter in the storage room. “Hardly anything would work here anymore without the money from Wilhelmsburg,” Kurt says as he drives past the buildings in his blue BMW. They would all starve to death.”
He is referring to the few residents who have remained behind. The parents of those who left, those sons and daughters who now live in German cities like Berlin, Erfurt and Hamburg. Kurt is one of the ones who left Slivo Pole.
And yet he keeps coming back. He has become a mover of sorts, but instead of furniture he moves people — people who have nothing left but the hope of starting a new life in a German city. If they are lucky, they travel with Kurt to Wilhelmsburg, a blue-collar neighborhood in Hamburg’s port district. Wilhelmsburg is Kurt’s territory, where he runs a logistics company that supplies German companies with day laborers.
Meco Gül, a friend of Kurt’s who still spends most of his time in Bulgaria, is sitting in the passenger seat. Kurt needs Gül for his operation, because Gül owns a minibus with which he drives the 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) from Bulgaria to Germany and back once a week. Gül brings Kurt new workers.
The two men have known each other since childhood. They were born into communism, grew up on the same street, and became impoverished when Bulgaria transformed into a democracy. They were both cattle traders in Bulgaria and later picked strawberries in Greece together, where they shared a plastic tarp at night. “We were poor day laborers,” says Kurt. But that was then. Today the two men are known in Slivo Pole as “the cleanup guys.” Their role today is to empty out villages.
‘Slaves of Globalization’
Kurt gets out of his BMW and walks through the narrow, empty streets of Slivo Pole. He doesn’t usually like to walk, but he wants to show off his achievements. He points to a house on the left and says: “They’re in Wilhelmsburg.” He points to a house on the right: “Wilhelmsburg.” Across the street: “Wilhelmsburg.” A few villagers still sort grapes in Spain, pick strawberries in Greece or roll pizza dough in Denmark. Kurt calls them “slaves of globalization.” They were once his neighbors, but today they are his merchandise.
Kurt knows that his people are unwanted in Germany. They are poorly educated, rather than being doctors and engineers, they don’t speak German or English, they are not members of any elite and they are not even skilled workers. But none of this has deterred them from coming to Germany.
There are many villages like Slivo Pole in the EU’s new Eastern European member states. For their residents, the EU’s poorest citizens, the freedom to travel has become the freedom to escape. After spending decades living on the outskirts of Bucharest, Sofia or Russe, they are now leaving, hoping to cash in on the promise of prosperity that went hand-in-hand with EU accession. Since then, entire villages have moved to German cities, villages like Romania’s Fântânele. Virtually its entire population now lives in Berlin’s Neukölln neighborhood. Or Barbulesti, which has been relocated to the western city of Duisburg. And Slivo Pole, whose former residents now call Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg home.
Kurt has come to Bulgaria during the vacation period, when his workers return to Slivo Pole from Germany. They are now standing outside the village car repair shop, drinking instant coffee from plastic cups and arguing with Kurt and his driver Meco Gül over whether gasoline is cheaper in Romania or Hungary.
Gül was the subject of a story published in SPIEGEL three years ago, which described what was then his somewhat improvised business of transporting temporary workers. Those humble beginnings have become a professionally managed business today. “We haven’t struck it rich,” says Kurt, “but we have created a system in which we no longer go hungry.”
When he talks about the past, he most often refers to the years before 2007, when Bulgaria joined the EU. They were all still living in Slivo Pole then — when the milk from Kurt’s cows suddenly became worthless.
Today there are expensive German cars with German license plates parked in front of the village repair shop. They include a black BMW X5 and Audi station wagon. The BMW has 700,000 kilometers on its odometer, but that isn’t a relevant benchmark here in Slivo Pole. A BMW, no matter how old, is synonymous with upward mobility. Kurt’s work begins when the cars from Germany pull up outside the repair shop. “It’s the best time to recruit fresh meat,” Kurt told us as we were driving into the village.
In Slivo Pole, good fortune is expressed in visual terms. Those who drive German cars or have painted their houses pink or green are fortunate. Someone who hosts a three-day wedding party and can then afford to pay the singer €5,000 ($6,920) is fortunate. To be fortunate in Slivo Pole, money is a necessity. And to get money, you have to leave.
Kurt and Gül talk to the men about Germany. They tell them that Döner kebabs taste better in Wilhelmsburg, that you can fill two large bags with groceries at Aldi for €50, and that a package of sliced cheese costs €0.55, not €2.50. Kurt approaches drunkards by the side of the road and says: “You have to get out of here. You won’t make it with six kids.”
Kurt is constantly shaking hands. A gold watch is visible under his leather jacket, and he smells of Paco Rabanne “1 Million” cologne, which he bought at Kaufland, a German hypermarket chain.
Kurt campaigns on behalf of Germany like someone promoting free credit cards. Unemployed villagers ask him about work, and then they ask Gül if he has space for them on his bus. Kurt’s cellphone rings periodically. Logistics companies from Wilhelmsburg are calling to order packers.
Like any village losing its residents to the West, Slivo Pole has its pioneers who went first, returned and infected their village with stories about German doctors who treat you in return for a plastic card — no cash required. They talked about the buses that run on time, and they brought along medications and the first Christmas tree anyone in Slivo Pole, a Muslim village, had ever seen.
Kurt was one of those pioneers who, together with his brothers and cousins, took a chance and went to Germany, long before Bulgaria joined the EU. They were initially illegal, then they applied for asylum, and now they are EU citizens.
Kurt points to a cousin’s house and says: “That was a shack. Just look at it.” Today it’s a freshly painted three-story house with a balcony off of every room. There is a leopard-print carpet in the foyer, German bath salts in the bathroom cabinet and wireless Internet that even works in the basement. There are German laminate floors, and even the kitchen cabinets are from Germany. The daughter is studying finance, and the son grows mint and has applied for subsidies from an EU fund to grow American worms. Their father, Kurt’s cousin, works in a warehouse in Wilhelmsburg while his wife cleans the houses of wealthy Germans on Hamburg’s Alster Lake. “Anyone can do it,” says Kurt.
He laughs loudly, raising his hand and throwing his head back, his mouth wide open — revealing that half of his teeth are missing. When Kurt speaks, everyone else is silent. And he likes to talk — to tell his own story. It’s all part of his campaign to promote a new family model, one in which the parents leave their children at home, make lots of money and eventually return home, rich and happy.
“It’s an illusion,” says his partner Gül. He knows of no one who has returned from the West. He has continued walking and is now standing at the village’s wishing tree. He pulls a thread from his scarf and ties it to a branch, making a wish.
The tree has been there for as long as the village has existed, since the early 1900s. It is protected by a wall and a green metal gate; yellow and red threads are tied to its branches. Scarves, bras and underwear blow in the wind. Sometimes the people in Gül’s bus want to make one last trip to the tree to make a wish before being taken to their new lives. Gül waits in his van. He is a patient man with a quiet voice and coarse hands — hands that are often used to repair car heating systems and replace batteries.
The people from Slivo Pole aren’t traveling into the unknown; they know what awaits them in Germany, unlike many others from impoverished southeastern European countries. Those who leave Slivo Pole usually have a brother, a sister or a cousin already living in Wilhelmsburg. They have neighbors whose wives have become prostitutes, siblings who live in basements in Wilhelmsburg, paying €250 a month to sleep on a mattress or acquaintances who sleep under bridges. They are familiar with the stories of bosses who pay €3 an hour and beat their workers when pallets aren’t being packed quickly enough, or of construction foremen who suddenly leave without paying their workers.
And still they board Gül’s bus.
The Business of Emptying Out Villages
Gül was 22 when he decided he had enough of picking strawberries in Greece. His father had paid for his driver’s license with a cow so that Gül could take field workers from his village to northern Greece, where almost all of them worked on the same strawberry farm. Gül would drive through the fields, take the farmers’ requests before returning to his village to pick up more willing laborers. He quickly learned how to organize, and he bought them plastic tarps, gas stoves and tents. Because Bulgaria wasn’t yet a member of the EU, Gül had to drive across the border illegally. He learned how to bribe officials and soon became one of the most popular drivers. “Meco doesn’t shout. He doesn’t hit on your wife. Meco has the best music.” Such are the accolades he still gets from his passengers today.
When the financial crisis struck in Greece, forcing the Bulgarians to return to Slivo Pole, Gül had to rethink his business model. But with Bulgaria now an EU member and his friend Erhan in Wilhelmsburg, it didn’t take long for him to figure out what he would do next.
Slivo Pole is known in the region for its drivers. Gül and the other young men from his street divided up the villages along the Bulgarian border, worked out routes together and began referring passengers to one another. For the desperate and those determined to seek their luck elsewhere, men like Gül are travel agents, brokers and job placement centers rolled into one. Gül is 36 and looks tired when he talks about his daily routine.
Moving to Wilhelmsburg was exhausting, says Gül, but he is quick to point out that he isn’t complaining. Today he owns a racehorse named Britannica, which is housed in a stall. He has purchased three houses, all in Slivo Pole and he also now owns a second bus, driven by a driver he was able to hire. His wife left him and his two sons live with his parents in a 200-square meter (2,150-square-foot) house, where Gül also has a room. It is painted pink, with embroidered blankets and pink glitter everywhere. Meco Gül likes pink.
His buys his sons the latest Adidas shoes, and he buys his mother china from Turkish export shops in Wilhelmsburg. The boys have smartphones and post photos of their father’s Audi on their Facebook pages; the family watches satellite TV on flat-screens in the house. Gül brings the outside world to Slivo Pole, but he doesn’t want his sons to leave. The world out there, says Gül, is a bad place. “I won’t let my boys be exploited.” No one gets rich there, he adds, referring to Wilhelmsburg.
Expansion to Denmark
Still, his eldest son Ali, 16, wants to go to Wilhelmsburg — all his friends are already there.
Gül eventually wants to open a shop for his sons, or send them to university. He is determined to keep them in Bulgaria, and he is saving his money so that he’ll be able to afford it. Meanwhile, his fortune is growing. Emptying out villages is good business.
In addition to working with Kurt in Hamburg, Gül has expanded and now also supplies laborers to car repair shops in Erfurt and pizzerias in Denmark. “We’ve filled up Wilhelmsburg,” he says. He likes Denmark, with its flat landscape and good highways and it is a place where there is plenty of room left for Bulgarians, he says. And Danish clients pay well, €200 in cash per worker, and sometimes as much as €350. The Bulgarians work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and are paid €700 a month. They are given a place to sleep in the kitchen.
It’s Tuesday morning in Slivo Pole and Gül is ready to leave. Kurt is going with him, but before they leave, he convinces his neighbor to climb in at the last minute. Perhaps Kurt can use him in the warehouse, and besides, he wants to save on gas money.
A seat to Germany costs €120 while the return trip goes for €80. Prices have dropped, but Gül knows that he has to accept this as one of the risks of working in a free market. He offsets his losses by carrying loads of walnuts to Frankfurt, Döner kebab spices to Düsseldorf and auto parts to Munich.
He starts the engine. A woman who is leaving her children behind is sitting in the back seat. Next to her is a 17-year-old without a driver’s license who will later spend three months sleeping with an older male car dealer in Erfurt in return for a used car. When the passengers in the back seat are asked where they want to go, they reply: “No address. Meco knows.” For the next 32 hours, with Bulgarian pop music blasting from the speakers, the young men sit in the back seat, drinking vodka from plastic cups behind the tinted windows and smoking marijuana from bags they’ve brought along. It’s a tiny microcosm of a village that has given up on itself, in return for an experiment called prosperity.
After they’ve arrived in Wilhelmsburg, Kurt goes to the “Kleine Pause,” a Turkish snack bar on the market square that has become a rendezvous for Bulgarians seeking work. Kurt sits across from his neighbor from Slivo Pole, drinking tea and talking about his early days in Germany, when he worked on construction sites, cleaned kebab shops and emptied out entire apartments for €10. He slept in the back seat of a car, with his toothbrush in the trunk, drinking water from plastic bottles and spitting out the rinse water on the cobblestone streets.
The Rise of the Lion
Kurt’s life began to improve when he moved to the dilapidated basement of a Kurdish landlord. There were eight small rooms in the basement of the red brick building, with four people sharing a room and paying €150 each for a mattress. They ate canned tuna fish, dodged cockroaches and kept their food supplies in shopping bags from discount stores. His next step up the ladder was the apartment of a recipient of a welfare recipient. The man had moved to his mother’s house but continued to receive rent subsidies for his apartment, which he rented to Kurt for €600 a month. “I was taken for a fool everywhere,” he says, “like all Bulgarians.” But he didn’t give up. “I’m a lion.”
Kurt rolls up the sleeve of his polo shirt to show off the tattoo of a lion on his right upper arm, with the word “Nike” beneath it. Nike is his favorite brand. “Even my naked skin is worth something, you understand?” he says. He had the tattoo made 10 years ago, at a time when he couldn’t afford to buy Nike shirts.
When Kurt arrived in Germany at 24, he was a slender man, weighing 60 kilograms (132 lbs.). He had left his sons in the village, with his wife, who earned €150 a month sorting socks. Kurt says that the lion was still in a deep sleep at the time.
He worked for 10 hours a day, packing cereal boxes onto pallets or sorting bottles in crates. He says that he was the fastest worker and that he was eventually promoted to oversee the Bulgarians in the warehouse. Whenever the bosses had problems with the men, Kurt helped resolve the situation. He was a good leader, sometimes threatening to beat them, and they respected him.
The bosses quickly recognized his potential, says Kurt, and told him that it was time for him to stop packing boxes and become his own employer. They helped him secure the necessary permits and Kurt founded his own company soon thereafter called Erhan Logistics. He became a subcontractor and the bosses could now delegate some of the responsibility to Kurt. Seeing to it that they were properly registered and insured was now Kurt’s problem. That was when his life became more stressful, he says, but he also likes being in charge.
Those who want to work for him, those who secure a seat on Gül’s bus, must be strong and willing. Gül also takes along people who have no money at all. When they arrive in Germany, they work for Kurt, who deducts the costs of the trip from their wages. When Kurt has no work for the men, he sends them to work for others in the neighborhood and collects their passports, which he only gives back in return for money.
As the only man who can provide Bulgarian workers on short notice, Kurt has established a good reputation in Wilhelmsburg. On one occasion, he is standing in a snack bar at 8:30 in the evening when his cell phone rings. It’s someone with a new order: “Three men, cocoa, eight hours tonight.” Kurt dials a number in his phone’s memory, and 15 minutes later he picks up three men with his minibus and takes them to the harbor. He turns up the music along the way to avoid talking to them. They annoy him, he says, because he has to handle everything for them.
“They are too stupid. They can’t even find their way to the job site on their own.”
The men emerge from his minibus to pack cocoa onto pallets, and Kurt drives back to the snack bar. He will return to the harbor later to pick them up. He collects €10 an hour from the customer and pays his men $6. When asked if these are fair prices, he says: “We get these people out of their filth, we give them bread and let them stand on their own two feet.”
Although Kurt doesn’t pay much, he does pay on time. He can be reached 24 hours a day. And he doesn’t need an office, he says — that would be too German for him, too orderly. Life in the ground-floor apartment on the market square is good enough for him. He lives there with his wife and their two sons, 12 and 8 years old. He brought them to Germany in 2011, and now they go to school, speak German and play soccer.
There are envelopes on a table in the living room on which Kurt has printed his workers’ names and noted their hours. The workers are required to sign a receipt for their pay. Their papers identify them as “independent contractors.” But they have no bank accounts in Germany, don’t know how to fill out time sheets and have to wait for Kurt to type their hours into his old Nokia cell phone and tell them how much they’ll be paid.
‘They Don’t Know Europe’
It’s a spring morning and Kurt’s doorbell is ringing incessantly. It’s payday, and everyone has questions. Kurt explains to a Bulgarian woman that she needs insurance. “I’ll take you to the health insurance agency, where they’ll give you a card with a picture, ok? We have a foothold in Germany, but it can’t go on like this,” he says. “It’s time you finally figured out the German system, or else you’ll get no assistance from the government.”
As he relaxes on his sofa, Kurt says that the Bulgarians he deals with will never make it. “They don’t know Europe.” There are days like this when it all gets to be too much for him. And then there are the letters from the German tax authorities. They want money, too much of it, for his liking. Kurt says he has just hired a Turkish tax accountant.
That fact isn’t coincidental, either. Kurt is part of Bulgaria’s Turkish-speaking minority, and Slivo Pole is also referred to as “Turks’ Village” in the region. The move to Wilhelmsburg is simplified because the local Turkish immigrants provide the Bulgarians with work and places to live, and also benefit from being able to use them as laborers. There has been a new hierarchy since the Bulgarians arrived, with the Turks at the top and the Bulgarians at the bottom. The same pattern has emerged across Germany.
When Kurt is asked whether he might want to learn German, he says that he already speaks the language, and he rattles off a few phrases: “Thank you. You’re welcome. Warehouse. Yes. No. Sleep. Eat. Shift.” Later on, he says that he has no time to learn German and, besides, his children speak the language.
In fact, Kurt doesn’t even need to speak German in Wilhelmsburg. His doctor is Turkish, and so are his bosses. The grocer, the cigarette seller and the man at the Western Union counter are all Turks. “What do I need to learn German for?” he asks. “To talk to the bums?”
Kurt says he sometimes plays a little game with the Germans. He throws an empty plastic bottle out of the window, and one of the bums immediately picks it up. He doesn’t understand why the German government gives money to people who do nothing in return. But he doesn’t lose any sleep over it, either. Kurt hasn’t really sorted out his relationship with Germany yet.
A Bulgarian Family Get-Together
According to the golden Koran clock hanging on a purple wall, it’s noon. As Kurt continues to add up his workers’ hours, his wife irons and the boys sit in front of their PlayStation, kidnapping police cars and shooting their way out of a tight spot.
Kurt pours the whiskey. He drinks when he thinks about the taxes he’s going to have to pay, and he drinks when he thinks about the next shift. He has his brother’s wedding video on his smartphone, which he plans to use to motivate his workers. The people in Slivo Pole like to post their wedding videos online. His brother’s is on YouTube, posted in 29 parts.
His iPad rings. He answers and a female voice on Skype asks: “Did you send the money?” “Yes,” he replies, “€150, through Western Union, as always.” Kurt chews his fingernails, turns the iPad toward the room, his wife and children wave to the aunt, and then they return to what they were doing before: ironing and playing with their PlayStation. A Bulgarian family get-together.
Kurt says that one day, when he has a lot of money, he wants to move back home and start a farm, a real one this time. And when he has it, he says he wants to just sit there, drink coffee and whiskey, barbeque, smoke a hookah and go rabbit hunting again. He likes it when other people work for him. He looks forward to the day when he can raise and fight pit bulls again, when the villagers will bet on his dogs, just as they used to. “But we’ll stay here for now,” he says, “while the business is going.”
He gets into his minibus, smokes and listens to Bulgarian pop music. He turns onto a street, stops at a corner and holds an envelope out the window. A woman in jogging pants comes up to the car and takes the envelope. It’s the last wage payment of the day.
A Village Festival in Hamburg
A few hours later, Kurt is sitting at a round table, drinking. His friend Mucettin, who arrived the day before, is sitting next to him. Mucettin, a well-known singer in Bulgaria, is giving his first concert in Wilhelmsburg today.
They have rented a Turkish banquet hall that holds 1,000 people. There are white tablecloths and white chairs, and the stage is lit with purple and green lights. Four Chechen security guards are posted at the door. Mucettin says that he sorely misses his village, his friends and his neighbors. “I no longer give concerts in Bulgaria,” he says. “They’re all here now.”
He takes the microphone and greets his village community. They clap and whistle, and Kurt throws money at his friend. Kurt dances, along with his wife, his brother, his neighbor and his cousins, as they join hands in a circle. Kurt is pleased. The guests have paid €15 apiece to experience a small slice of home. It’s a successful village festival — in Hamburg’s Wilhelmsburg neighborhood.