Atessacan and a small group of other Roma from Muratli launched their new organization two months ago, scraping together the money to rent and renovate a small, one-room storefront office by pooling contributions from their meager incomes. The 49-year-old Atessacan, a wiry man with a salt-and-pepper mustache, says he and others even cut back on smoking, putting the money they saved on cigarettes right into their new venture. Many of the Roma men in the city, including Atessacan, earn meager wages as agricultural laborers, stacking bales of hay onto waiting trucks.
Though still in its infancy, Atessacan says he hopes the foundation can become an advocate for the rights of the Roma living in Muratli. "We have families that can barely afford to send their kids to school," he says. "We have lots of young people without jobs. We need housing we have two or three families sharing the same small house."
Roma rights workers in Turkey say Muratli's nascent foundation is only one example of an emerging consciousness among the country's Roma population. Over the last two years, Roma-led advocacy organizations have opened in five Turkish cities, while another five are in the process of being established. After decades of living on the margins of Turkish society, it appears that something may be shifting.
"I think there is something happening here like in the 70's in Europe," when the Roma rights movement first started to develop, says researcher Elin Strand Marsh, who teaches Romani Studies at Istanbul Bilgi University. "It feels like something may be starting in Turkey now."
There are officially about 500,000 Roma in Turkey. However, community activists say that figure is based on an outdated census. They contend the real number of Roma in Turkey is closer to 2 million. Strand Marsh and others point out that while the Roma in Turkey do not face the same kind of deep-rooted prejudice that Roma face in other parts of Europe, discrimination is still persistent. Laws dating back to the 1930's allow the Turkish government to refuse some Roma citizenship, and give police the authority to monitor "gypsies who do not have a proper job."
Rights activists say Turkish Roma face continuing problems with access to education, healthcare and housing. In Istanbul, according to a 2003 report by the European Roma Rights Center, a municipal housing project built a few years ago in a Roma neighborhood was surrounded by a two-meter (six foot) high wall, cutting the residents off from their non-Roma neighbors. Still, even this was an improvement over many of the Roma neighborhoods in Istanbul and other cities, which are often filled with rundown shacks and dilapidated homes built out of scavenged materials.
Muratli's Atessacan says employment discrimination against Roma is common in his town, whose hay and sunflower fields are slowly giving way to textile factories. "We have young men who go to factories for jobs and will be denied work because of their ethnicity," he says. "What's left is seasonal labor, working for one-and-a-half months a year in agriculture. There's no social security with a job like that."
While the appearance of these new Roma organizations represents an important change, workers in the Roma rights field warn that the groups face significant hurdles. "The needs are great. Even if they get organized, they don't know how to run an NGO, how to raise funds," says Ana Oprisan, a project coordinator at the Turkish aid organization International Blue Crescent, which is working with the Roma community. "There's a real need for capacity building."
One new project, a human rights training program in Edirne, aims to fill the existing knowledge gap. The program -- developed jointly by the Turkish NGO Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, Bilgi University and the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center will offer neighborhood-based training in basic human rights concepts. Edcinkay, a year-old local Roma rights organization, will also participate in the project.
"In recent years, we have seen a progress in minority rights in Turkey, in general. We have been able to see immense progress in terms of rights and in terms of the discussion, but Roma have not been part of that progress," says Helsinki's Sinan Gokcen.
"[The Roma] don't have any advocates for them within this country," he adds. Erdinc Cekic, Edcinkay's president, says that's precisely the reason why his organization was founded. "We know the gypsy problem is being discussed in the [European Union, which Turkey hopes to become a member of], so we know it's an important issue," said Cekic, a small businessman who was also involved in municipal politics before getting involved with Edcinkay.
Cekic grew up in one of Edirne's Roma neighborhoods, but the family's identity was never discussed at home. His parents even forbade the speaking of Romani in the house. "The reason I felt the need to reassert my identity was political," Cekic, who has a bearish body and a baby face, said during an interview in Edcinkay's Edirne office. "Politicians would always come to gypsy neighborhoods and make promises they wouldn't keep and speak to us in humiliating ways, in language they wouldn't use elsewhere. That pushed me to work for my community."
Cekic's group has already been busy. It hosted a symposium on Turkey's Roma in early May and has started reaching out to local politicians and other Turkish NGOs. Cekic says the organization is also starting to give scholarships to promising young students.
"One of the main aims of our foundation is to educate, to make 10 gypsy lawyers, 10 gypsy doctors, 10 gypsy judges," he says. "Then we will be able to change people's minds. Then we will succeed. ... First what needs to be done is erase all the prejudices that people have when they hear the word
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.