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Since November 2007, when Istanbul began its large-scale project of urban transformation, Sulukule, old and legendary neighborhood of Istanbul famous for its Roma population, has received its share of attention. Moving the Roma community to a new district is being advocated by an Italy-based social activist association
ISTANBUL - Turkish Daily News
The legendary neighborhood of Sulukule, famous for its Roma population, is being passionately advocated throughout Europe by an Italy-based social activist association.
“Musicians play their instruments, the girls belly dance, people laugh, they have fun; my dear Sulukule, lovely Sulukule,” chant people here, in one of the oldest districts of Istanbul.
Their songs have a melancholic tone, but Roma always manage to dance to them. Their traditional communal culture is known for its musical talent. Most Roma start learning to play instruments at the same time they learn to walk.
Since November 2007, when Istanbul began its large-scale project of urban transformation, Sulukule has received more than its share of attention. Its renovation project predominantly moves the Roma community to a new district called Taşoluk, some 40 kilometers from their current home in Sulukule.
Demolishing 571 houses
Roma can buy houses in buildings in Sulukule to be built as part of the urban renewal program, but the majority of the population cannot afford it. So they will move out, one way or another. The Italy-based association EveryOne Group, that operates outside any political wing or faction and in favor of human rights, is organizing a campaign for the Roma in Istanbul's Sulukule.
A group of 3,500 Roma living in Sulukule stood against the decision to demolish 571 houses when the project was announced. Now 17 percent of Roma are part of this project, which promises to restore and maintain the mosques, churches, fountains and registered historic artifacts and buildings. The project also includes construction of a culture center, which will have a conservatory, education in Roma music and a boutique hotel.
Roberto Malini, writer, screenwriter and human rights activist, is co-founder of EveryOne Group, which focuses on safeguarding the rights of the Roma people and their culture. EveryOne was created when a group of people with the same ideals decided to join forces, experiences, and ideas in order to defend human lives, cultures and lifestyles. Most articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights start with “everyone,” so the group took this phrase as their name two years ago, said Malini. The nearly 20 members of this international group are from Italy, France, Romania, Iran, the United Kingdom, Albania, Greece, and South Africa. “There are also several Roma members, among them professors Marcel Courthiade, Saimir Mile and Santino Spinelli,” said Malini. Many other organizations and people around the world collaborate with and support EveryOne Group.
“Thanks to international collaboration, our group is also committed to fighting anti-gypsy sentiments in other countries, from Romania to the UK, from Germany to France,” said Malini, adding, “We sometimes compare our group to the Westerweel group, which opposed the persecution of Jews in Holland and the Holocaust in the early 1940s. The Westerweel group saved many Jews from deportation and the gas chambers.”
Two years ago he met Mirjam Waterman Pinkhof, 90, a Holocaust survivor and leader of the Westerweel group. Malini describes her as “capable of transmitting the true force of humanitarian ideals, a force made up of a combination of courage, altruism, responsibility and sacrifice.” Mirjam never gave up that fight; she now helps and supports EveryOne Group.
“We want to save human lives and protect the weak from persecution,” said Malini, describing the goal of EveryOne Group. Members are capable of risking everything for others, of defending the ideals of equality even when faced with hatred, violence, and threats from those in power, he said.
They face enormous difficulties in their job, said Malini, referring to the persecution of Roma in Italy as well. “The central government passes true racial laws under the guise of ‘national security packages;' mayors are also involved, and police prefects order camp clearances and expulsions, explaining their actions with reasons the public will accept,” said Malini. “In the case of the Roma, the equation is a simple one,” he said. “The politicians and authorities claim the Roma ‘don't possess anything, and they do not do things that allow them to support themselves,'” said Malini.
Italian press' cencor
People witness unimaginable scenes of horror when bulldozers destroy their makeshift shelters, when the police kick families out. The Italian press heavily censors these actions, according to EveryOne Group. The association has reported these crimes against humanity taking place in Italy in Newsweek, the Washington Post, BBC radio and Romanian TV, and they introduced a motion that denounces anti-gypsy sentiments in Italy in the European Parliament. The motion was supported by international political forces concerned with human rights and resulted in the resolution of Nov. 15, 2007.
EveryOne Group, together with other associations that defend the rights of the Roma in Europe, also presented a report to the United Nations and the International Criminal Court in The Hague. This report was recently accepted and the courts will meet to decide how to proceed. The Italian government will appear before the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) commission at the U.N. on Feb. 20 to answer for its persecutory policies. “These results were obtained through hard work, struggling against countless difficulties, and this is the path we intend to continue along,” said Malini.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) shares an interest in the campaign to save Sulukule. EveryOne Group has asked UNESCO representatives to give Sulukule priority in its activities, because the Istanbul neighborhood represents a truly unique and traditional historic heritage. It is essential that these people be recognized as a nation without a territory in order to protect the rights of the Roma, said Malini.
Prejudices about Romas
“The Roma have suffered centuries of persecution, slavery, and genocide; they have been the scapegoats of Europe. Countries are starving them and forcing them to live in conditions of abject poverty, basing this persecutory attitude on prejudices. These prejudices say they are lazy and do not want to work, that they prefer to live off their wits and begging, that they are violent criminals, swindlers, and child kidnappers and that they want to live a nomadic life,” said Malini. “The truth is very different. Like all people, Roma wish to contribute to the development of human civilization, the way they always have done. They want to live in dignified conditions and see their right to a home, work, traditions and cultural activities recognized.”
Istanbul has one of the oldest Roma communities, but very few scholars in Europe are aware of the Sulukule neighborhood, said Malini. They settled in Istanbul more than a thousand years ago, when the city was the capital of the Byzantine Empire.
Dressed in their brightly colored clothes, the Roma have a special spirit. The women have traditionally read fortunes for a few coins, the men are very talented livestock breeders and they all have a history of excelling in music and dance.
Dealing with the Roma inspires mixed reactions because anti-gypsy sentiments are very much alive throughout the world and some people are afraid of Roma communities. People fear what they do not know, said Malini.
Malini also works in cinema and television with Dario Picciau. They have made documentaries for networks including Mediaset and Zdf. “If the Sulukule campaign is a success, we will be proud to make a documentary about Sulukule, which would help reveal one of the world's most important hidden treasures,” said Malini.
Turkish Daily News