For the first time ever, the estimated 6 million Roma citizens of Turkey are very near to achieving representation in Parliament.
If Republican People’s Party (CHP) İzmir candidate Özcan Purçu is elected, he will be Europe’s third Roma parliament representative.
Purçu was born in a nylon tent; he grew up as the son of a mother who peddled clothes and a father who sold baskets. When their tent was ripped up, they turned to the district governor’s office for help, and so it was that Purçu grew up steeped in an atmosphere of respect for the district governor’s office, believing it to be the zenith of the state. As a young boy, he was generally the highest ranked in tests and academic contests, but when it became clear he was ethnically Roma, he would invariably be eliminated from the finals. But now, while he couldn’t become a district governor, Purçu is preparing to stand as a candidate for Parliament from the CHP. And if elected, he’ll enter Parliament as Turkey’s first ever Roma deputy.
There are an estimated 5-6 million Roma living in Turkey, and in İzmir, an estimated 400,000. The well-known İzmir neighborhood of Tepecik is where many Roma live; the area has pinned its hopes on Purçu at this point. And they do seem to have the right man, for Purçu has met the discrimination he has faced throughout his life with pure determination. He notes that he has dreamed about today since his early primary school years, resolved that Roma children throughout Turkey ought not have only scrap metal collectors as their role models for future careers. In short, he’s prepared to represent the Roma in Ankara.
Purçu came into the world in the town of Söke, to which his family had relocated from Çanakkale. He was one of three siblings, and his father tried to support the family through the sales of woven straw baskets. They had neither running water nor electricity in the tent they called home, and they used the outside world as their toilet and bathroom. Purçu recalls: “My mother and father were uneducated, and not literate. There was absolutely no money, nothing. The river we were near would sometimes flood, getting everything in our tent wet. And then we would sleep outside. We’d get sick all the time; you had to either get better, or die.”
But the more difficult Purçu’s life became, the greater his resolve to become educated, and start to change things. But it was not easy of course; after all, according to the world around him, he was just a Roma, or a “çingene.” And his father didn’t want him to pursue school; he’d tell Purçu, “Start making baskets, earn some money; what are you going to do in school?!” In other words, the first objective was just to earn a living and fill some stomachs.
When Purçu’s father realized his son wasn’t going to give up on the idea of school, he decided the best course of action was to marry off his son. And so Purçu’s family asked for the hand in marriage of the young girl living in a nearby tent. When Purçu went to the girl’s father explaining that he didn’t want to get married, his own father intervened, beating him and burning his books and shoes. He was forced to attend school in his mother’s slippers after this.
In the meantime, school was not easy; discrimination began at a very early age against Roma children. In fact, Roma children were put into a separate classroom. But Purçu was hardworking, and in the end he was placed into another classroom, though the discrimination continued directly from the teacher, who placed him at the back of the classroom. In the end, though, his resolve won through, and he worked hard, finishing school as its number one student. Already, Purçu’s hardworking nature was opening doors for him and breaking down preconceived notions.
And so it was that Purçu was bent on studying and becoming educated, though of course he had obligations to help his family out as well. So he worked with his father, learning how to weave and sell baskets, though he never gave up on school. Because the family couldn’t afford to buy books, Purçu read everything he encountered, on the road, on walls, everywhere. His enduring dream at this time was to become a district governor: “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.”
In university exams, Purçu got enough points to attend cities like İstanbul or Ankara, but his mother convinced him to go to university in Bursa, telling him, “When I come get clothes to peddle from there, I can visit you.” And so Purçu received his undergraduate degree from the department of public administration of Uludağ University.
Family background hinders career
It was during his university years that Purçu’s leftist leanings become clear. The many socialist magazines and books he encountered at the time only increased these leanings. He recalls this incident from those years: “We had a class called political sociology. One professor told us: ‘Very intelligent people study at university, those of more middling intelligence finish off high school, and the less intelligent, primary school. And then there are the truly backward, like Roma children; they don’t study at all’.”
As he tells it, Purçu was unable to raise his hand and tell the professor that, in fact, he was Roma. But the incident increased his resolve to push forward with his education. He was just as successful at university as he had been in high school, and Purçu took all the exams for the district governor’s office, for local regional leadership positions, for consultancy positions and so on. And while he was successful in all these exams, when it would come time for interviews, that was when the nightmare would start for him. He recalls: “I took the exam for the Military Supreme Administrative Court [AYİM], which was going to be hiring personnel. I passed with flying colors. I headed into the interview, and passed this also with the highest of points. But then they told me there would be an investigation to check into my background. This is when they research a person’s family and background. And so the final report came out, basically telling me that I was not suitable for the position because I am Roma.”
After realizing that his Roma status was going to continue to hinder his progress, Purçu decided to start forming organizations aimed at helping Roma citizens. He says: “In Söke, I formed the Aegean Roma Assistance Foundation. At around the same time, the Council of Europe [CoE] formed a special group on the Roma, but there were no Roma representatives from Turkey. A delegation came from the council to interview me. One condition for the position was that the representative was to know both the Roma language and English; they took me directly, as there was no one else around that fit that description! And so it was that I 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.”
It was in 2001 that Purçu took his initial steps into politics, as a CHP member. He met with CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in 2009, after the start-up of the Roma initiative. And in the 2011 elections, Purçu was the 11th name on the list of candidates from İzmir. Following up on his words “I’m going to put an end to this shamefulness,” Kılıçdaroğlu this time around put Purçu up as the fifth CHP candidate from İzmir.
Purçu is clear on his number one priority for Roma children: education. He says: “Our children leave school early. Marriage is a real factor after the age of 13. Around 60 percent of young Roma between the ages of 13-17 are already married. So we need to get our children accustomed to education. We want to open up study centers in our neighborhoods. The first one ever was opened in Mersin some four years ago, but we need to increase the numbers. The state is just not present in our neighborhoods. So we have no democracy, no equality, no freedom. It’s only when it comes time for Roma young men to head off to the military that the state suddenly remembers us. Roma citizens get around 0.4 percent of the state budget. Not even that much, maybe.”
Another one of Purçu’s resolutions is to deal with crime rates in Roma neighborhoods throughout Turkey. He notes that around 30 years ago, narcotics were simply not a factor in Roma neighborhoods, but that they began to creep in when professions Roma had traditionally pursued began to lose their importance. Purçu notes that the psychology driving people to use narcotics in Roma neighborhoods is linked to the sense that there is nothing left for them to do professionally, and that they are dependent on the state or others for assistance. In this vein, Purçu insists that setting up not only study centers but also career training centers is crucial for the future of the Roma, especially the youth.
Talking about the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) stance toward Turkey’s Roma citizens, Purçu says: “We were very happy to see initiative started, but the more time went by, we began to see it as nothing more than election campaign material. You cannot really help people without actually listening to them. The AKP [AK Party] never even entered the field. We asked for help with housing and schools. But we were tricked by the so-called initiative.” Purçu notes pointedly that the same kind of help that has been given to Syrian refugees has definitely never been given to the Roma in Turkey.
In addressing the very real possibility that he might enter Parliament as a CHP deputy from İzmir, Purçu says, “The CHP leader saw my strength.” He asserts that the CHP leader was also impressed by his representation of the Roma in the European Council, but also perceived that he was a potential deputy for all factions and familiar with the problems of Turkey in general.
NURSEL DİLEK / ISTANBUL