Sunday, September 4, 2011


Those who stayed at Sulukule and those who left share regrets



Nearly all Roma whose homes were destroyed during the course of an urban transformation project have now returned to Sulukule, a neighborhood in İstanbul's Fatih district that had existed as a Roma settlement for centuries.
Neither those who stayed in Sulukule nor those who left due to the urban development project are pleased with the outcome. Those who stayed complain they felt that their history was fading away with the departure of their neighbors. Those who left, on the other hand, struggle with a number of problems, including financial difficulties and social alienation.

Sulukule was once a famous neighborhood. It was the first place to come to the minds of the Roma.

Some famous singers such as Kibariye grew up there. It has now been five years since the demolition of slum houses in the area; new and modern housing has been erected in their place. The project attracted a great deal of attention, drawing strong reactions and criticism. The Sulukule neighborhood, representative of a 600-year-old culture, was demolished as part of a comprehensive urban transformation project, forcing residents to move to Taşoluk, 45 kilometers away.

Academics, artists, activists and ordinary citizens objected to the project. The papers as well as news channels extensively discussed the matter. UNESCO authorities paid a visit to Sulukule and made statements defending the integrity of the existing historical and cultural fabric. However, despite objections and criticism, hundreds of houses were demolished and replaced with modern buildings.
Excuses abounded. Maybe the residents' bias in the beginning would dissipate; maybe they would get used to their new homes over time; maybe they would have better things in their new homes in Taşoluk. But these things never happened. Everybody, including those who stayed and those who left, feel they were victimized by the development project. In fact, they were not opposed to the idea of urban transformation, but they wanted it to be completed without them having to leave their homes.

The Roma are ambivalent in their feelings; those who stayed do not want to talk about it but the few of them who are willing do not know what to say. The owners of houses that were not included in the project fear that theirs will be the next to be demolished.

Sevinç is one of the oldest residents of Sulukule. She thought Sunday's Zaman was with the local municipality when we arrived to interview residents. Her trembling voice proved her unease and discomfort. After we asked a few questions, she started begging: “O my dear! I have the deed for my house. I pay my taxes regularly. For God's sake, do not touch us; do not make me leave my neighborhood.”

They are tired of having to answer the same questions over and over again. One of them said: “Hundreds of people came to talk to us. Nobody has done anything. We have lost our homes, our neighborhood and our neighbors. We do not want any more trouble. You cannot possibly give back what we have lost.” Nurettin, who runs a coffee house in Sulukule, noted: “They forcibly drove everybody out. They intimidated people. I do not think they will leave this place alone. They will demolish what is left within a few years. We have a six-century history here; our grandfathers were born here. Most of those who lived here were relatives. They set all these people apart. They cannot see each other anymore.”

Reality of Taşoluk: 334 out of the 337 families returned

The Roma people who resettled in Taşoluk are still struggling with enormous problems. Almost all of the families who had initially moved out returned to their former neighborhood. The few remaining families now have to deal with increasing problems that include financial difficulties, rent expenses, cultural clashes and exclusion. Contrary to what was promised, only three houses in Sulukule have been restored and renovated; hundreds of others were demolished. The residents had to sell their houses and move to Taşoluk.

Head of the Sulukule Roma Cultural Association Şükrü Pündük said that 334 out of 337 families who had moved returned to Sulukule from Taşoluk. But what reasons did they have for returning from their new neighborhood of Taşoluk, considering that living conditions were better in Taşoluk? Their houses were nicer. The main reason, according to their accounts, is that they never felt quite at home.

The biggest problem they faced in Taşoluk was financial. Most of the families that moved to Taşoluk were formerly homeowners, but rent was still only around TL 200 for those who rented. Bedriye, a former Sulukule resident now living in Taşoluk, said their rent had gone up to TL 400 in Taşoluk from the TL 200 they paid in Sulukule. She feels they are treated as "if we were thieves," are excluded by the other residents of Taşoluk. She said: “The monthly allowance from the municipality is not enough. We have been unable to pay the rent for three consecutive months. The bank is allowed to seize the house when we do not make the payments.”

Most who relocated had to quit their jobs because Taşoluk is 45 kilometers away from Sulukule.

Nurhan is one of those who lost their jobs. She was a cashier before moving; her husband is now the sole provider for the family. Nurhan says money is not their only issue, noting that they have been harassed by their neighbors and that their children have been subjected to violent treatment: “My husband's earnings are insufficient. We are having difficulty covering the education expenses of our kids. I have nothing to say about the comfort of the houses, but without peace, that does not matter at all.”

Culture conflict and biases are the other problems faced in Taşoluk. Noting that they have been alienated and estranged since the day they moved in, Bedriye says: “Our neighbors did not talk to us for months. They thought we were thieves or prostitutes. We had to deal with prejudices and also adapt ourselves to the new environment. We had to drop our habits and customs. In our former neighborhood, we used to stay outside for hours, chatting. Now we cannot do this. The neighbors complain about it. For this reason, most of us have left this place.”

We did not know what urban transformation meant

(Şükrü Pündük, Sulukule Roma Culture and Solidarity Association)

We became familiar with the bill on urban transformation from the press. Back then, urban transformation was fairly strange to us. We had no idea as to whether it was good or bad for us. We were told that our houses would be renewed and restored and we would have better opportunities. We favored the restoration and renovation of the houses without damaging the historical and cultural fabric of Sulukule. For this reason, we offered an alternative project. However, the municipality demolished the houses and instead erected buildings not compatible with our culture. The saddest part is that Roma people will not be able to live in these new houses.”

Social transformation before urban transformation

Hacer Foggo, activist

The only thing not considered in any urban transformation project for the poor, whether or not they are Roma people, is the status of the families living in that region. The conditions of the people are not taken into account. They do not pay attention to what is in their houses. The only thing they focus on is their land. However, once you set foot in their houses, you may see sick, poor or handicapped people. Before the bulldozers, social workers should have entered those houses. Social transformation should come before urban transformation. The residents in Sulukule were left out of this project. The same is happening now in Ayvansaray and Küçükbakkalköy.

TOKİ should have been ‘Romanized'

Abdullah Cıstır, chair of the İzmir Roma Association
We face a mindset of ignoring the Roma reality. A Roma opening [an initiative by the government to develop more “inclusionary” policies toward the Roma] was launched, but has not been substantiated. Neither the political administration nor opposition parties made mention of our problems in their election campaigns. They do not know us. The Roma who moved to Taşoluk encountered problems of adaptation. The TOKİ [Housing Development Administration of Turkey] should have been Romanized.”

1 comment:

Michelle said...

Strange and sad... my grandmother's family fled Istanbul around 300 years ago (went to Spain) Then they returned... and fled again in the late 1800s early 1900s.

Grandmother's family weren't aren't Roma - Irish-English-Greek-Persian. (scary combination!) I've been doing research into the Greek-Persian this week, to set a few old ghosts free. A lot of sadness on that side of the family that it was time to let go of.

Now if only we could make sure that every child in the future didn't have to go through those kind of experiences. We can hope - and we can work towards it, one step at a time. One voice at a time.