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There is a need for an integrated approach for living together Interview with Ceren Suntekin

Could you tell us a little about the work you do in the field? 

I have been working in the field of human rights, and especially children’s rights, for 20 years. During this time, I prepared a thesis about Roma children. I worked with children in Armenian schools on children’s rights; an especially an important experience for me was working with young people from various parts of Africa without a common language, in Germany. However, I will always have a special place in my heart for the Tarlabaşı Community Centre. At Tarlabaşı Community Centre, we worked to consolidate, disseminate and apply the culture of living together in a multicultural, peaceful way, together. Although Tarlabaşı covers a certain group known as “Tarlabaşı locals”, it is a multicultural place where people together as Roma, Kurd, refugee, African and non-Muslim. My Tarlabaşı experience lasted 13 years; I still provide volunteer counselling there. I wrote my thesis on Roma children; during the Ottoman period, Roma were directed to Tarlabaşı and they settled there. In fact, that such a poor group can live together in a crime-related region and also be located in the city centre is like a model. As the locals of Tarlabaşı say: “We have all sorts here!”. Since 2011,  Tarlabaşı is also home to Abdal and Dom groups, which were excluded by Syrians. While continuing to work here, we also prepared a programme with the Municipality of Sarıyer, which strengthened the municipality in terms of children’s rights policies. While my training and counselling work was continuing with the Municipality of Sarıyer, I started working professionally with the Municipality of Şişli Equality Department. The Municipality of Şişli Equality Department is a unit that adopts similar principles. The department exists to plan human rights strategies and policies. The department focuses on the human rights of refugees, minorities, the elderly, youth, children, women, persons with disabled and LGBTI+. The main responsibility of the department is to develop policies for these groups, to prepare the strategic plan and plan activities of the municipality and keeping the subject on the agenda of decision makers. In Şişli, there is a district like Kuştepe; we work with Roma groups. This is a place with Armenian, Greek and Jewish populations; it is also a district where refugees have settled in recent years and the LGBTI+ society preferred to live there too. We are trying to construct life together.

What does the concept of “multiculturalism” mean to you? 

Two years ago, I participated in a program of IFA, supported by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on migration and multiculturalism and we discussed these concepts. We used the concepts of “living together and multiculturalism”, rather than the word ‘participation’. We can also talk about the concept of “trans culture”: a brand new x emerging from a combination of a multitude of cultures. This sounds so much better to me. Yes, now there is a world where there are no borders, there is digitalisation, migration occurs and there are groups that do not like each other; it’s a reality – not something we can say “I agree” or “I don’t agree”. Individuals want to be able to express themselves within their own identity as a most fundamental right. Finding a means of living together is important in this respect. As a concept, “living together” and “multiculturalism” seem appropriate. I find concepts such as rehabilitation and integration quite hierarchical and excluding. It’s human beings we are talking about; integrating people into an existing structure is often dangerous, since it risks sanctifying the construct or its creators. Different groups, different people and different features, bring with it different needs. What currently exists should be restructured and evolved into a new order, where everyone lives in equality and develops a sense of ownership. This is only possible by living together in peace.

What does the expression “living together” mean for you?

We all forget the impact of the climate on this concept; both the people working in this field and the people on the streets are not aware of it. Living together in urban areas is different from living together in a rural setting. There are a lot of factors such as floods, earthquakes, etc. – we cannot rebel, we cannot reject it and develop a new way to live. Geography, climate and nature are decisive when it comes to living together. For example, let’s say the neighbourhood is on a slope; it will have an impact on lives of persons with disabilities, the park will be constructed accordingly, etc. Cities have a minimum and everyone has to stay within that minimum. But that doesn’t mean those who can’t adapt with the city should be excluded. The life skills of those should be supported in the city, and it should not be seen from a hierarchical place. The life skills of a person born and raised in the forest are different from that of a person born and raised by the sea; but one is not superior over the other. But when they are subject to a common effect, they can act according to what is familiar to them and can only when they strengthen each other. Human rights and human dignity should be fundamental with the determining factors of geography, climate and nature.

 

What are the barriers preventing different identities living together? What are the main problems? Is it possible to categorise these barriers? (politically based, expression based, etc.)

To begin with: ignorance, inaccessibility to correct knowledge and individuals and groups not knowing about each other. We fear what we do not know. Fear makes us more withdrawn. We feel threatened. If security (and I mean security for all), is not protected by laws, the rule of law, central and local government, law enforcement or decision-makers, if people have a distrust towards the state, if human rights are violated, if the needs of existing groups of people are not taken into account, people feel anxiety instead of curiosity towards those they do now know. This culminates in people distancing themselves from others, to withdraw and categorisation them to protect themselves. Because the human brain works by categorising. This is most common when and where justice is not completely served. Prejudices and stereotypes are strengthened. These judgments and generalisations are becoming widespread through mainstream and social media, with every policy and statement we adopt without questioning. And people prefer to believe them without doing any research, or maybe they find it easier to behave like this. 

What are some of the cultures and identity groups in the field/city in which you are active? 

Armenians, Romas, Kurds, Syrians, refugees, Iraqis, Afghans, LGBTIQ+, those who have migrated from the rural to the urban. Also, although it is not considered as an identity, I can say that children, youth, women, the elderly and the disabled are among the groups who trying to be a part of decision-making mechanisms and their needs are not seen in the region where I work.

Which civil society organisations are active in the area of culture and identity in the field or city in which you work? 

Tarlabaşı Community Centre, Sulukule Volunteers Association, SPoD, Lambda İstanbul, ASAM, Support to Life, IKGV…

What are the conflicts and discrimination aspects which are specific to identities? Could you categorise these? (Politically based, expression-based, etc.)

In general, they are political and expression based. Homophobia, transphobia, discriminatory/racist attitudes toward Kurds/Alawis/Armenians, hate speech… Imagine a Kurdish-Alawi trans-man. There is a risk that he would be discriminated against for many reasons…  Most conflicts are the product of political discourse and the media. And it seems easy to make these groups scapegoats to “protect” people. In fact, in this country, if you are not a Turkish, Sunni, white, heterosexual, able-bodied male, you will be exposed to conflict and you may be subject to all kinds of discrimination. When you look at city life, the laws, all education and livelihood systems are planned according to this. The slightest feature/difference that is outside of this, then it is enough to exclude you.

Regarding the discrimination which identities and culture groups are subject to, are there any areas open to cooperation with the aim of transformation and acting efficiently? What would be your suggestions?

There are a lot. Education, for example, is crosscutting in ​​all areas; the right to urban life and the city, similarly, health and freedom of expression… We can add shelter to this list. For example, as the Equality Department of the Municipality of Şişli, we strive to make the city a place of equality, with access to rights and a safe place for all groups. For this, we work with focus groups and listen to their needs. Civil society organisations are always our partners; we listen to their in-depth and expert work in the field. For participation in decision-making mechanisms, we allow for the effectiveness of every group in which that decision has an impact. All of this is possible even within the municipality by advocating and lobbying, putting pressure on decision-makers and creating areas where we bring together groups that are distant to each other. Sometimes we facilitate in cases of tense confrontation and other times we enable different groups to act towards a common target and get to know each other while being productive together.

What should be the objectives of civil society organisations for the steps to be taken? 

To focus on the activities which strengthen the culture of living together.

There’s an issue that, in my opinion, is a big mistake: while humanitarian aid was provided to those arriving from post-war Syria, support required for those groups in Turkey meeting these needs was overlooked. Both the lack of professional staff working crisis intervention and the allocation of resources to emergency aid caused unforeseen difficulties at the beginning of the process. The groups and conditions in Turkey should have been prepared for the existence of this group.   Syrian children are supported in schools, for example, but Turkish children should also have received support. Efforts should have been made to enable the children to develop empathy for each other. To reduce the negative impact of a new situation on the different groups, an integrative approach should be taken. When the aid recipient and the aid provider relationship was structured in a hierarchical system, Syrian children were expected to adapt without exception, without firstly changing the education/school system. Support was inadequate for Turkish children and teachers to prepare. The peer bullying related to their identities, in addition to the already difficult schooling conditions, on top of migration, war related trauma and poverty caused the children to drop out of school. The unjust process was the outcome of wrong policies. Sincere attempts at doing good, ended in bad results. Civil society organisations are trying to amend this now; the process is better than in the beginning and adaption/peace efforts have accelerated. But it should never have begun like this to start with. In this beginning, donors also have an impact. When activities are not conducted according to the needs, they can turn into markets that follows certain trends…

I think civil society organisations should have more interaction with each other. Experience sharing and knowledge transfer is important. There is no need to re-discover America. In the field there are examples of best practice. All social cohesion activities should be more integrative; not just for a single group. It is essential to develop comprehensive policies, to work in a multidisciplinary way and to include the actors of the issue in decision-making mechanisms.

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