PHOTO from Radikal
Last Thursday once again brought Istanbul's sizeable Roma community to the forefront as the Sulukule Roma Association and the Fatih Municipality cooperated in organization of festivities for International Roma Day. Though I was unable to attend, I do want to take the opportunity to reflect a bit on the government's recent Roma initiative, announced three weeks ago in a dramatically staged public gathering in Sulukule. Hurriyet Daily News columnist Joost Lagendijk reflected on the boisterous public assembly in his column a coupe weeks ago:
It was indeed the most enthusiastic of all the initiatives made by this government so far. The efforts to solve the Kurdish and Alevi problems were serious stuff, including small-scale meetings with intellectuals and representatives of both communities to discuss the problems of the past and the solutions for the future. Not the Roma Opening.Yet, as Lagendijk explains, the recently released Roma opening does not take place without the weight of regrettable past actions.
More than 10,000 people welcomed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as if he was the real Gypsy King. Music was played, there was singing and dancing and there were tears, because this was the first time a Turkish prime minister had come out to meet them. It is this sort of setting that brings out the best in the man who grew up in the streets of Kasımpaşa. He knows how to walk and to talk in meetings like this.
Remember the picture on the front page of daily Radikal, where Erdoğan looks eye to eye with Roma singer Kibariye, shirt open, mouth half open, stopping just short of openly flirting with the blond beauty. So far, so good. It was important for the Roma that the leader of the biggest party openly recognized their problems and promised to do something about it. Well done, prime minister!
Still, while seeing those pictures, two thoughts kept popping up in my mind. First, I hope Erdoğan knew what he was doing by raising the expectations so high. The Roma loved it, as did the Kurds and the Alevis when they first heard about the government’s plans. The problems started when, after many months of talking and promising, the government was not willing or able to deliver in the end. We all know the Kurdish and Alevi initiatives are stuck, at least for the moment. Hopes were high in the first, optimistic phase of the openings, but many are afraid that nothing substantial will come out of them. I really hope the Roma will not be the third group of Turkish citizens to expect so much and get so little.Professor Jenny White had similar thoughts. Writing in her blog, Kamil Pasha: "I couldn’t help but wonder what the Roma from Sulukule or Selendi were thinking. The Selendi Roma, who had recently been violently driven from their homes, held up banners at the event saying their children wouldn’t forget." (For news coverage of the event in English, see this article from the Hurriyet Daily News and this article from Today's Zaman. See also Yigal Schleifer's reflections at Istanbul Calling, with links to his past reportage on Turkey's Roma minority, including an excellent slideshow.)
Second, I could not help thinking about Sulukule, the neighborhood in Istanbul’s Fatih municipality that was inhabited by Roma for centuries. In the last couple of years, this quarter has been destroyed in order to build new houses for new occupants. Thousands of Roma have been forced to move out; their houses broken down, their social life brutally interrupted.
In return, they have been offered alternative housing far away from Sulukule, in apartments that cost more than 300 Turkish Liras per month, not the 100 liras that was offered by the prime minister. The Sulukule Platform, made up of afflicted locals along with concerned architects and academics, has come up with several alternative plans to replace the dilapidated dwellings with proper, modern houses. These should be affordable for the original inhabitants, keep the social fabric intact and take into account the archaeological riches in that part of the old city. Any plan must also allow the creation of jobs and the improvement of educational opportunities because new houses alone will not solve the Roma’s problems. The local authorities sat down with the platform people and looked into their plans but decided to stick with their own ideas. The national Housing Development Administration, or TOKİ, seemed willing to consider alternatives, but later backed off, blaming the Fatih municipality.
My advice to the prime minister is this: Prove the skeptics wrong and show that your nice words over the weekend mean something in the real lives of Roma under threat. It is not too late to change plans in Sulukule. Hundreds of Roma families are still willing to come back and share their neighborhood with newcomers. TOKİ is part of your ministry; the Fatih mayor is a Justice and Development Party, or AKP, man. Force them to sit together with the Sulukule Platform and seriously reflect on their alternatives.
A study conducted by Bilgi University cited in the European Union's 2006 Progress Report estimated there to be approximately 2 million Roma living throughout Turkey (not just Istanbul and Eastern Thrace). However, as many Roma lack idenitity cards, their real number might be much higher. I have, unfortunately, too often neglected to write about the Roma minority in this blog. One of the minority groups that my current research concerns, I look forward to meeting members from this community and representatives of non-governmental organizations working on Roma issues as I embark on my research in coming months.