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The SETimes Podcast – May 10th, 2012
Photo: Most of the Roma community in Turkey is marginalised from the mainstream society. [Ali Mezarcioglu]
The Roma community in Turkey is beset with widespread unemployment, illiteracy, housing problems and poverty that account for their general marginalisation in the Turkish society.
A dramatic improvement was achieved for them two years ago when the ruling AK Party initiated a dialogue between government officials and Roma representatives. The talks involved a significant number of Roma throughout Turkey, with officials listening to their problems and proposing solutions on how to effectively to integrate them into society.
Though the Roma community have become more accepted, gained more visibility and received improved socio-economic opportunities since then, more work remains to be done.
Topping the list of concerns are the low level of schooling and the resulting illiteracy in the community. It is estimated that only 30% of Roma in Turkey are literate.
Sabahattin Agacbuken, a Roma resident in Istanbul's Dolapdere district and the founding member of Istanbul Roma Federation, spoke with SETimes about the main reasons behind the alarming illiteracy numbers.
"Our kids cannot attend schools, because the Roma in Istanbul are working daily to make ends meet. They earn a bit of money and give a big part of it for rent. So they cannot afford to send children to schools under such circumstances. I wonder why our governors have not yet tried to find a solution for this sore problem."
Vural Azuyar, a shoe-shiner of Kurdish-origin whose wife is Roma, agreed.
"We should not underestimate that these children have been raised in families in which no one also went to school. Their families did not try to establish contacts outside their communities, not caring about learning writing and reading, but lived in their own communities. So, their children see no problem in giving up education. Their families don't expect them to learn reading and writing, but earn money as soon as possible."
Azuyar adds that the Roma children do not even try learning a craft or such skills that would keep them from getting involved in smuggling and other illegal money-making ways.
The Turkish Ministry of Labour and Social Security initiated programmes to employ thousands of Roma in the labour market.
Another setback among the Roma in Turkey comes from limitations of current NGOs to claim Roma rights -- in education, employment, social programme participation. Lack of unity among the Roma themselves is another reason a failure to achieve certain goals in improving the daily lives of the Roma community. Currently, 130 associations and 11 federations throughout the country are working on Roma social integration and cultural preservation.
"If they succeeded in speaking with one voice and if they intended to become much more effective in making us more visible in the eyes of the authorities, we would be in a much better position now to resolve our basic problems," Azuyar pointed out.
Stereotypes, prejudices and negative images associated with the Roma are another challenge that the community faces, which come from a deeply-rooted discrimination in the Turkish society.
Elmas Arus, a film director and chairwoman of the Zero Discrimination Association, said that the social climate in Turkey is affecting the education of Roma students.
"When we see the low schooling rate among the Roma, we see there is not one reason, but many. Widespread unemployment is a contributing factor to that illiteracy, along with the bullying from schoolmates, and even professors in the primary schools."
Agacbuken said it is important that personal contacts between the members of Turkish parliament and the Roma community are established.
"Any deputy is welcomed to come and see the daily lives of Roma people here. They should visit their homes, their habits. It is not the same with speaking in front of TV screens. They should come and look into the cause of the problems."