By Bethany Dawson
2020 has been nothing short of horrific. The biggest signifier of a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel is the vaccine. If we heard the exclaims of “I can’t wait to get this jab” in 2019, we’d be concerned. Now, it’s simply overjoying.
The people who created this vaccine should be hailed as modern-day superheroes, the people who may go on to stop 2021 from having a mounting death rate, a number of heartbreaking zoom funerals, and allowing us to bring in hugs once again.
These heroes aren’t making our main screens as headline rocking superstars, as is often the way with virologists. Maybe it’s for that reason – or maybe it’s something to do with who gets the golden star of approval from the media – that we don’t know the people who have made the Pfizer vaccine are a husband and wife pair of Muslim migrants. They form part of the Turkish diaspora: the largest immigrant group in Germany.
Mr Sahin and Dr Tureci now sit, not only as people who will let you give your friends a smooch at the end of 2021, but as two of the wealthiest people in Germany, the country they now call home.
Dr Ugur Shain, the CEO of BioNTech, was born in Iskenderun, a city on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. He lived there with his mother until he moved to live with his father, a migrant factory worker, in West Germany at just four years old. Like many four-year-olds, he loved football and chunky science books; books that may have acted as the foundation for life-saving science.
Dr Özlem Türeci was born in Saxony, Germany, and describes herself as a “Prussian-Turk”. Like Mr Shain’s family, her parents migrated from Turkey to Germany in search of economic opportunity and a better way of life.
The pair met and married in Germany, with their wedding day featuring a sprint back to the lab after their nuptials were complete.
The pair have consistently said that they identify as scientists first and foremost, with their national and migrant identities coming afterwards. And this is how they have become known, as scientists, rather than migrants.
This can wholly be argued to be a good thing, for a person should not be initially judged by where they come from or how they identify. However, there is an element to the exclusion of the couple’s heritage which strikes as a cover-up for what migrants can – and do – do.
While the majority of the four million people within the Turkish diaspora in Germany are greatly considered part of German society, success stories like those of Dr. Sahin and Dr. Türeci are still being treated as exceptional or impossible fairytales, especially when the success spans multiple facets, such as economic, personal, and the point of potentially saving the world from a global pandemic.
The lack of celebration of migrants, and people of colour, and their achievements is not something new, it’s not something shocking, and yet, it should be. When it is not mentioned who created a life saving, and life-changing, vaccine, you have to question why. When you learn that it was two Muslim migrants, you can see that actually, the reason behind their lack of prevalence is likely to be entrenched in xenophobia and Islamophobia.
It goes against the traditional British notion that Brits are the strong, world-leading, folk. It disrupts the narrative that “migrants are stealing our jobs”, because frankly, could the people saying that whip up the vaccine for covid? Probably not.
The idea the Muslim migrants are saving the world goes against every nationalist and patriotic lesson we’ve been taught in our lives, with these notions resting within colonial and imperialistic teachings that Britain – the Great United Kingdom – is the one who will always take the poor countries by the shoulders and lift them to higher heights.
The coverage of these things is truly important. I recognise that this line of thought is lighting the match of the “anti-woke” brigade, who will probably accuse me of shoving identity politics down your throats. To them, I say firstly, that doesn’t sound very covid safe. And secondly, the representation of migrants as they truly are, as members of society who do every single job in the world, who have husbands, wives, families, weddings; and even sometimes save the world, is not only true, but it is important. It is important to show the migrant children that they are able to do whatever they want, and to let people working in a field that is not spoken in their mother-tongue that they will not fall behind. It will also, chip by chip, begin to knock away at the xenophobic notions that divide society by creed and nationality.
Muslim migrants, as you read this, are saving the world, and to recognise that is to give credence to the realities of the joys of a multicultural, multinational world, where borders can – and should -remain open to everyone.
Bethany Dawson is a final year Politics and Sociology student at the University of Surrey.