First Roma in the Turkish parliament: Education first!

//Özcan PurçuTurkey's first and Europe's third Roma member of parliament, Özcan Purçu, aims to focus on education of Roma children as a first step in resolving the problems of unemployment, accomodation and crime.

Coming from a Roma family living in harsh conditions, Purçu himself has struggled to get a proper education.

Born in the town of Söke, he lived in a tent with his mother who peddled clothes, his father who sold baskets, and two siblings. They had no toilet, running water or electricity. They used to live by a river which when flooded destroyed their tent and all their belongings.

It was one of these destructions that triggered his dream of becoming a public authority figure. The Purçu family asked for a district governor's help when their tent was ripped up, and little Özcan was so impressed by the governor that he held a high esteem for the post.

“This was the dream I carried in my mind, to study and become a district governor. The reason for this was that Roma citizens often turned to the district governor's office for assistance, when tents got ripped, when money ran out, when rivers overflowed and drenched all our belongings. It felt to us like the district governor was the greatest man in our city” he told in an interview to Turkish magazine Aksiyon [1].

He used to see the kids in school uniforms and envy them, he wanted to be like them. So he convinced his father to register him in a school. However there was a problem: He didn't have the identity card required to enroll in the education system. The principal of the school that they applied rebuked his father and he reacted by changing his mind about sending his son to the school. Özcan, however, wouldn't give up so easily. He told his father "Now that the principle knows about us they will come and get you if don't register me!" to frighten him. The bet paid. Next day his father registered him to get his identity card and enrolled him in the school.

However his problems were not diminished once he started the school. He faced daunting discrimination both by other students and the teachers.

"Nobody would sit beside me in elementary school. And the teacher made me sit in the very back seat of the classroom. I would sit there alone", he said in an interview with the Turkish daily Hurriyet.[2]

Although intimidating, the hardship and discrimination nourished his ambition. He achieved great success in the exams and contests:

"I was so good in classes that the teacher who made me sit at the back rewarded me with a fountain pen. I overcame discrimination by working harder."

His success as student didn't impress his father, though. His father wanted him to leave the school and start earning his bread money by making baskets like himself. When Özcan resisted his father and didn't quit the school he was faced with another battle. His parents decided to marry him off, so that he would have to leave the school and start working to make a living for his family. They arranged a marriage with a neighbour's daughter. Özcan Purçu then took control again and went to the girl's father and begged him not to allow his daughter to get married to him. The marriage was canceled, but Özcan Purçu's father was furious. He burnt Özcan's books and shoes so that he could not go to school anymore. This didn't stop the determined kid, he went to the school wearing his mother's slippers.

He went on to study Public Administration at Uludağ University in Bursa. But his childhood dream of becoming a district governor was blocked each time he took oral exams, a common problem faced by Romani people in Turkey: Once their Roma identity surfaces they are refused jobs.

"You can send a job application to a company, but instantly you lose because of your skin color. They immediately understand that you are a Roma child. You cite your address in your CV and it is recognizable" he says [3].

//Özcan Purçu (right), with the leader of Republican People's Party (CHP).

Özcan Purçu never yielded, he worked to create organizations to help Roma citizens. He founded the Aegean Roma Assistance Foundation and became the representative for Roma people in Turkey to the European Council. "Our first meeting was in Strasbourg. At the meeting, I heard all these other representatives speaking the Roma language, and I began to cry! I discovered that we were all speaking the same language, whether we had come from Turkey, France, Italy or someplace else” he says[4].

In the 2011 general elections he was one of the candidates of the Republican People's Party (CHP) but he couldn't get elected. But he went on to write history with the 7 June 2015 elections, becoming the first Roma member of the Turkish national parliament.

After his much celebrated election victory, he promised to work for the education of Roma children. In an interview to BBC Turkish Service he said: "Roma have interconnected problems, starting with education. Lack of education brings poverty, discrimination; it causes us to get involved in illegal stuff." [5]

Promising to be a voice, not only for Roma but for all the oppressed, he continued: "I am a representative of all the poor, all the oppressed. However, as the Roma have vital problems we may focus more on them, we may make positive discrimination."

Özcan Purçu's greatest goal is to set a new kind of role-model for Roma children. He wants to show them that they can dream and make that dream come true.

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Supported by :

 From the gypsies to the Roma, old and new mythologies | Elisabeth Clanet dit Lamanit, Martin Olivera, Olivier Gros, Jean Rossetto, Nicolas Sarkozy, Grenoble, Emmanuel Valls, R.O.M. Rights of Minorities







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