Sulukule: Story of a 1000 year-old Roma settlement
Övgü Pınar - 16/06/2015
Sulukule, one of the oldest Roma settlements in the world, has become a symbol of oppression and exclusion Roma face in Turkey.
Believed to be a 1000 year-old Roma settlement, Sulukule was built right next to the city walls of Istanbul during the Byzantium Empire. As with almost all Roma of the world, the Roma of this land was also pushed to this area by the city walls, at the margins of the city.
The neighborhood, however, thrived and became central as Istanbul grew into a huge city. This contextual change turned out to be a misfortune for Sulukule and its inhabitants, though.
Sulukule has gone through a dramatic physical and social change under the government's renewal project. The Sulukule Renewal Project foresaw destruction of Roma houses, along with the culture the neighborhood was home to for ages. Instead of the one or two-storey houses are built luxury apartments and villas.
Sulukule was declared a "renewal zone" in 2006 and the bulldozers started destruction before the numerous lawsuits were finalized. Today, the neighborhood has nothing to do with its former self, turned into just another new, soulless, luxury quarter. The inhabitants of Sulukule hoped to return to the neighborhood once the construction work was finished, however they found sky-high prices asked for the houses built on their former land.
"Exiled" to suburban neighborhoods like Taşoluk, 40 km from the city center, they had difficulty in reaching the central parts of the city where they held daily jobs, or where their children used to go to school. Hoping to find better living conditions in their new dwellings, they were disappointed to see that the neighborhood athmosphere they were accostomed to didn't exist in the suburban quarters they were sent. And the rents turned out to unaffordable for most. So they started moving back to the areas close to Sulukule, like Karagümrük and Balat. However, what was gone was gone. Sulukule and the life of its former residents was not the same anymore.
After nine years, the Council of State approved the cancelation of the Sulukule Renewal Project, as it didn't provide any public benefits. The Sulukule Platform, created against the renewal project, say that what needs to be done after the Council of State's decision is the destruction of the new buildings. However the case is more complicated as most of the new appartments and villas are finished and sold or rent already. And some are inhabited by Syrian refugees.
Babelmed talked to Derya Nuket Özer, one of the founders of the Sulukule Platform and instructor at Yeditepe University in Istanbul about Sulukule, its history and future:
Can you tell us about the history of Sulukule and the Roma people's association with this neigborhood?
Researchers like Adrian Marsh state that Sulukule has a 1000 year history. And the Roma of Sulukule say that they have lived there for 1000 years. And it makes sense, as they are a community usually sent to the peripheries of the cities. Sulukule is a quarter by the city walls.
And there are many references to the Roma of Sulukule throughout the Ottoman period. The Roma of Sulukule along with the Roma of Lonca (anohter quarter in Istanbul) ar known for their abilities in music and dance, their culture. Some are said to have managed to become musicians or dancers of the Ottoman court. And since they were settled in the same area for a long time they could transmit their culture to new generations.
And in recent history, what were the main characteristics of the neighborhood?
In recent history there was an institution that held the Roma of Sulukule together as a powerful community: They used to run "entertainment houses". These were little houses that were turned into tavernas where they also hosted guests, clients. These clients often came with their families, their children. They were served food, there were the musicians playing, dancers dancing. These entertainment houses were also visited by the figures of "high culture" and families. They were important on an economical level, too as these houses provided work for 3500-4000 people.
However in 1990, these houses were closed as the conservative rulers claimed that they hosted immoral acts, like prostitution, while in fact they were basically tavernas. This was a very important breaking point. The entertainment houses, apart from providing work, helped the transmission of the culture. Their destruction caused a great economical loss for Sulukule.
The Sulukule Renewal Project brought another breaking point, another destruction.
What were the outcomes of the Sulukule Renewal Project?
The project involved 5000 people, of which 3500 were Roma, most being tenants. Most were sent to Taşoluk, 40 km from the city center. And in those days there was no means of public transportation from and to Taşoluk. These people work on daily jobs, in the center, but they could not arrive there. In the end most have left Taşoluk, currently just 1 or 2 families live there. They moved to quarters near Sulukule like Karagümrük, Balat, Gaziosmanpaşa. But the only place where they can be regarded as a group is Karagümrük.
The Council of State ruled against the Sulukule Renewal Project, but the destruction and construction work is already finished and there are new people living there now. What can be done to implement the court's decision?
The legal decision states that there was no public benefit from the Sulukule Renewal Project. The physical aspect needs to be changed and turned back to its former self. And this, naturally, means the destruction of the new buildings. At the moment we are waiting for a last stage in the legal proceedings. The people who were affected by this project have a right to a compensation now. And we have already filed a case at the European Court of Human Rights.
The destruction of the new buildings, however, puts the state in an awkward position, as the new owners of the new building now have a right too.
As for the political situation regarding Roma in Turkey, do you think there is a change in their perception by the general public? Özcan Purçu, a Roma representative is elected at the general elections of 7 June, do you think his being elected could help break down the walls?
Absolutely. Infact the perception change in the Turkish people started with Sulukule. And the fact that Özcan Purçu was chosen as a major candidate in the general elections was not a tricky move to show off, it was a real step. This step has created an immense joy for the Roma. They were used to being stalled off all the time, but this time it's for real.
And what Özcan has been saying all along, "Roma kids should also feel free to dream", is really important because what hinders the Roma most is the sensation that "they can not achieve anything".
If the rate of education is low within the Roma, it is mostly because they think "I can not achieve anything even if I study".
Özcan, however, showed them that they can even go on to become a member of the parliament if they study. I find this tremendously important for the kids and the young.
And what are the main obstacles they face when they try to study?
The main problems are these: Usually the parents are illiterate; the housing conditions are unfit for studying, they don't have private room to study for example; they can not attend preschool education; and most teachers lack the essential pedagogic training reagrding the disadvantaged children. Teachers should be aware of the living conditions of these kids and treat them accordingly.
NGOs are doing a great job about this. In Sulukule, for example, 2 associations started working with the kids in 2010. One of them is Sulukule Volunteers' Association which is basically a studies center, and the other Sulukule Kids Arts Atelier. The volunteers even teach the kids how to read and write, do what the teachers should be doing.
Are the Roma families willing to send their children to these associations?
Yes, they are.
So is it not true that the Roma don't want their children to get education? Do they want their kids to study when they have the means to do so?
And how about the high rate of disoccupation among the Roma? Is it because they don't want to work, that they lack proper education or could we say that even when they study hard they are refused jobs just because they are Roma?
There are two main issues here: First, there's no vocational training. And the second, the role models are very important. The social prejudice affects them a lot. The society applauds a Roma musician in an orchestra, but people usually are not eager to trust a Roma doctor.
And in general what would you say about the current situation of the Roma in Turkey?
It is true that Roma face prejudice and discrimination in Turkey, but they are not rejected in a racist way as in Europe. In Turkey they don't live in camps surrounded by walls. Neither the state policy nor the public has this racist attitude against them. It has never come to the point of saying "let's destroy them".
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