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Sim­ply put, exile is an adven­ture in begin­ning one’s life anew. It may be an attempt at lay­ing down roots in oth­er lands, under a dif­fer­ent cli­mate. Your roots hav­ing been con­fis­cat­ed, it cer­tain­ly will not be easy, but you have to start somewhere.

When I start­ed ask­ing women who had been exiled from Turkey ques­tions that con­cerned me, as a woman in exile myself, I had the idea of turn­ing their answers into a series of arti­cles. So I start­ed writ­ing. How do these expe­ri­ences of the oppressed turn into knowl­edge for the ben­e­fit of the new­ly exiled women as they go through their lives?

I would like to start with Şengül Köker

sengul koker exil surgunI met Şengül Kök­er on the Swiss lands where I took my first steps in exile. I met Şengül, a teacher, who had her pro­fes­sion con­fis­cat­ed from her by the 1980 mil­i­tary coup in Turkey. I write Şengül Kök­er but being the most ancient among us in this can­ton, she is the eldest sis­ter of us all. Each migrant trans­ferred to our can­ton first meets “eldest sis­ter Şengül”. Com­bin­ing her pro­fes­sion as a trans­la­tor to her call­ing as a com­mu­nist, when there is need for a trans­la­tion, her door is always the one on which the door­bell first rings by migrants attempt­ing to bare­ly sur­vive on the aid they received from the State. Of course! I bear wit­ness to this, that door was nev­er slammed in any­one’s face.

So I knock on eldest sis­ter Şengül’s door. This time, I ask her to trans­late exile and talk to us about it. “How did your exile begin, big sis­ter Şengül?” I ask. And she begins the tale…

How long can a government last that fears 15 year old girls?”

In 1970 when I was 15 years old, I began attend­ing the Maraş teach­ers’ school,” she says, and continues:

School years were the ones when we began to read books. We read every­thing we could lay our hands on. We had begun to learn a few lit­tle things about con­tem­po­rary thought. We were eigh­teen in the group. We exchanged books among our­selves and then, exchanged on what we had learned. I would have liked to say that none of us had thought that these exchanges would exclude us def­i­nite­ly from school­ing. But, unfor­tu­nate­ly, those where the infa­mous days when the grey wolves roamed. A few months after our removal from school, Deniz Gezmiş et friends were sent to the scaf­fold. To tell the truth, today we under­stand while look­ing back that those “obvi­ous days” have nev­er changed in Turkey. Each time, they have sim­ply tak­en on a dif­fer­ent dis­guise between the civil­ians and the military.

Our exclu­sion was seen as a scan­dal and pro­voked reac­tions. I will nev­er for­get jour­nal­ist Uğur Mum­cu ques­tion­ing the gov­ern­ment in the columns of one of his chron­i­cles: “How long can a gov­ern­ment last that fears 15 year old girls?”

The judi­cial process and the annul­ment of the deci­sion exclud­ing us from school cost us two years of our lives. The ver­dict deigned to allow us to attend an edu­ca­tion­al estab­lish­ment out­side our envi­ron­ment, mean­ing, in anoth­er town! That is how my exile began. I was able to fin­ish the four year teacher’s train­ing pro­gram in six years. This was not my first exile in order to study. I attend­ed six schools in Kay­seri Antep, Adiya­man Besni, Adana and final­ly in Mersin where I received my teacher’s diploma.

My exclu­sion from the school in Adana was also interesting.

After the school in Adiya­man, I went to Adana. Not a sin­gle school want­ed to accept me in that town. At the time, the gov­ern­ment con­sist­ed of the Erbakan-Ece­vit coali­tion and Mustafa Üstün­dağ was the the Min­is­ter of Nation­al Edu­ca­tion. My father no longer want­ed me to study. So my moth­er went to meet with the min­is­ter in per­son. Fol­low­ing the arrival of a bul­letin from the min­istry, my reg­is­tra­tion was accept­ed at the school in Adana. My stay in Adana last­ed as long as the coali­tion did. When it end­ed, know­ing that my pres­ence “slight­ly both­ered” the direc­tor in such a way that I could­n’t stay, I trans­ferred to a school in Mersin where I fin­ished the program.

sengul koker exil surgun

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Is Fikri Köker’s communist daughter here?”

My life as a teacher has noth­ing to envy to my school days. Or I should say, they did not lead me to regret them, that would be a more pre­cise way to put it. As soon as I fin­ished my school­ing I was direct­ed to Türkoğlu, Maraş dis­trict. My fam­i­ly also lived in Türkoğlu. Maraş is a small town, Türkoğlu is even small­er. The week before class­es start­ed, an inspec­tor from the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion was to hold a meet­ing for the region’s teach­ers. All the teach­ers. We went. The inspec­tor came in, we stood up. He opened the meet­ing with a ques­tion that sur­prised everyone.

- “Is Fikri Kök­er’s com­mu­nist daugh­ter here?”

The new teach­ers looked around for Fikri Kök­er’s com­mu­nist daugh­ter and those who knew me looked at me dis­crete­ly. I was still very young, I was attached to my ideals. In fact, my pride impelled me to stand up and intro­duce myself.

I stood up and smiled “Fikri Kök­er’s com­mu­nist daugh­ter is here, Sir”, I said, “is the fas­cist inspec­tor hon­or­ing this meet­ing with his pres­ence?” That same day, they pre­pared the paper­work and I was sent to a vil­lage in Maraş. At the time, they spoke of a ‘post­ing’, they spoke of a ‘deci­sion’, they said ‘we’ve been ordered’, but every time, we knew what it was: EXILE…

Speaking another language than Turkish is prohibited in school!”

Frankly, with the inspec­tor look­ing for Fikri Kök­er’s com­mu­nist daugh­ter, I under­stood how the rest would pro­ceed. Dur­ing my life as a teacher I was exiled eight times, sus­pend­ed for a year, although “sus­pend­ed” is a bit of a mild way to put it. I was a clandestine…

Dur­ing my years as a teacher, the num­ber of peo­ple who thought like us, who joined us, with whom we shared our fate, kept grow­ing. The more we grew, the greater became the vio­lence of fascism.

I always taught in Kur­dish and Ale­vi vil­lages. And I did not only teach there. Every­where I went, I lived among the vil­lagers. We held meet­ings with the inhab­i­tants, we met with the young peo­ple every night, we dis­cussed with them. I pre­pared sem­i­nars for them. All I told them about was noth­ing oth­er than their own lives, real­ly. They were from Kur­dis­tan and I told them how to be from Kur­dis­tan. Under the con­di­tions of the time, talk­ing about all that was pro­hib­it­ed and looked upon poor­ly. I’m talk­ing about forty years ago, but I’m think­ing of nowa­days at the same time. Con­cern­ing the Kur­dish ques­tion, State intel­li­gence has not evolved at all, and goes on resist­ing the evi­dence. How sad!

With­in school bound­aries, speak­ing anoth­er lan­guage than Turk­ish was for­bid­den. Of course, the objec­tive being to pro­hib­it speak­ing in Kur­dish. As if not express­ing the pro­hi­bi­tions as such made them invis­i­ble. My pupils were tak­ing their first steps into a school with­out know­ing a word of Turk­ish. Those were the chil­dren learn­ing Turk­ish, only in school. The lan­guage is dif­fer­ent, the lands are the same. All the chil­dren, Kur­dish, Ale­vi. I con­sid­ered this pro­hi­bi­tion cru­el. Of course, I did not pro­hib­it. Because pro­hibit­ing Kur­dish was impris­on­ing them in deep silence.

sengul koker exil surgun

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One day dur­ing school hours, the door opened and an inspec­tor walked in. None oth­er than the inspec­tor who had been look­ing for Fikri Kök­er’s com­mu­nist daughter…in per­son. He told the chil­dren to place their school bags on their desks and start­ed search­ing through them one by one. I said “Mis­ter Inspec­tor, you are not from the police, attend to your own work.” At that moment the chil­dren start­ed talk­ing to one anoth­er, in Kur­dish. After the inspec­tor left, the gen­darmes were not slow in show­ing up. They shoved into my hand the doc­u­ment stat­ing the end of my link with the school, and left. Even if I had accept­ed this deci­sion, the vil­lagers did­n’t accept it. They want­ed us to go the pre­fec­ture togeth­er. We went. The vil­lagers sim­ply want­ed to stop them from reliev­ing me from my duties in that school…But “teacher Şengül incit­ed the Kur­dish peo­ple to rise up against the State”. Teach­ing is one thing but because of the tri­al that was opened against me, I spent one year in clan­des­tin­i­ty. And it was thanks to clan­des­tin­i­ty that I was able to avoid being tor­tured, and impris­oned as were my friends.

I went back to work in Konya, Sarayönü. My two chil­dren were born as exiles. My depar­ture from Konya was no dif­fer­ent from that from oth­er towns. We arrived in 1981 and there was no place for us to live. I picked up my two suit­cas­es and my two chil­dren and, under the escort of gen­darmes, I left Konya. And, ten days lat­er, the coun­try. I knew that teach­ers who were forced to leave their job this way were usu­al­ly tak­en a few days lat­er and tor­tured. Most of my friends, fol­low­ing heavy ses­sions of tor­ture, spent years in prison. When I left the coun­try, I had to leave my chil­dren with some­one because, believe me, I had no idea what to expect of the road of migration.

My children were my hope, but my daughter was the hardest and greatest struggle in my life”

It was a dif­fi­cult jour­ney. We left Istan­bul by bus, crossed sev­er­al coun­tries and arrived near the Jura, in Switzer­land, which was our ter­mi­nal. For the first few days, I stayed with peo­ple who were close to the fam­i­ly. I looked for work. That was the only way to bring over my chil­dren. Because I did­n’t know yet what asy­lum meant. I learned in an estab­lish­ment where I had been seek­ing for work. “You are enti­tled to asy­lum, you can­not work in a coun­try in which you are a clan­des­tine”. So I asked for asylum.

After­wards, I found a job in a watch fac­to­ry. When I donned the blue work out­fit, it felt odd, but after a while, I began to under­stand what it was like, look­ing out on life from the per­spec­tive giv­en by this garb. I was at once a refugee, a work­er and a woman. I was at a triple dis­ad­van­tage, exploit­ed three times over…

I could then see social dif­fer­ences much more clear­ly. I signed up with the Com­mu­nist Par­ty of the Jura. Dur­ing that peri­od, my pre­vi­ous life appeared even more pre­cious to me. The for­bid­den books back in my school days, those we read in secret, they were right, and we who lived through exiles were right also, but we had­n’t won yet.

I don’t think there is a sin­gle woman who does­n’t expe­ri­ence the dif­fer­ence in an active life, even today. For exam­ple, the man­i­festo from the strike women car­ried out last June also con­tains an arti­cle about the dis­crim­i­na­tion expe­ri­enced by women refugees. Equal salary, equal treatment…

My desire to fight was still red-hot but I had chil­dren and I had to work. My daugh­ter was the first to come under a fake pass­port. My son stayed in Turkey. I had been at the point of sep­a­rat­ing from my com­pan­ion and that meant I was at risk of nev­er see­ing my son again. My com­pan­ion might have cho­sen not to send him over, because of the divorce. I had even tak­en the risk of rescind­ing my asy­lum request. There is a name you may know, that of the poet Edibe Beyazıt, alias Edi­ba Sulari. She was the daugh­ter of the poet Sulari. We lost her dur­ing the Madımak mas­sacre. I went to Istan­bul with Edibe Beyazıt,‘s pass­port. I went look­ing for my son and I brought him over here.

As my chil­dren grew, the prob­lems grew along with them too. It real­ly was not easy work­ing as a sin­gle moth­er with two chil­dren. You go to work but your head is think­ing about your chil­dren. I lived that way for many long years. I worked and raised my chil­dren. But I have to say that the hard­est strug­gle of all was my attempt to save my daugh­ter. On her 16th birth­day, I learned my daugh­ter was tak­ing drugs. A famil­iar behav­ior for a teenag­er. She fell in love. Her boyfriend was also an addict. For a whole year, I tried to wrest my daugh­ter from that rela­tion­ship, with no suc­cess. And short­ly after, I learned she was preg­nant. My daugh­ter Fun­da was placed under State protection.

My daugh­ter was an addict and about to become a child-moth­er. I could­n’t accept that. I was very wor­ried. I had to make extreme efforts so as not to make a wrong move. I spoke with the direc­tor of the hos­pi­tal. I tried to explain that my daugh­ter was much too young, that she could­n’t pos­si­bly take care of a baby when she could­n’t even take care of her­self. Since she was under State pro­tec­tion, Fun­da need­ed con­fir­ma­tions from the can­ton, doc­tor, the gyne­col­o­gist and the social assis­tant in order to obtain an abor­tion. All of them were aware of the sit­u­a­tion but all they kept telling me was that every­thing was under con­trol. “Because this is Switzer­land, not Africa!” That was the social assis­tan­t’s response at the end of our meeting.

I request­ed that my daugh­ter be tak­en into a detox­i­ca­tion cen­ter after the child­birth. My request was also reject­ed. I don’t think the social assis­tant was against this idea, but I know the direc­tors refused for bud­getary rea­sons. One of their wor­ries was also that addicts like Fun­da avoid them, out of fear of the clin­ics, in oth­er terms, the fact a depen­dent would be leav­ing the State pro­tec­tion program!

sengul koker

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After a few years Fun­da reached a point where she could no longer care for her child. My grand­son was also placed under State pro­tec­tion. I ques­tioned the can­ton gov­ern­ment through the media, over and over again. I howled “save my daugh­ter” but I don’t think my voice was heard. My daugh­ter devel­oped gan­grene and lost her arm. On the day she came out of surgery, I start­ed pro­ce­dures against the doc­tor, the social assis­tant and the direc­tor of social ser­vices. The doc­tor’s dec­la­ra­tion in the file stat­ed they had nev­er object to treat­ment for Fun­da. No one asked “you did not object, but did you have her treat­ed?” I lost my daugh­ter in 2010. My grand­son lost his father when he was 6, he lost his moth­er when he was 13. The tri­al end­ed four years after my daugh­ter’s death. We did­n’t win, we did­n’t lose. The law is the same everywhere.

Today, I am 65 years old and when I look back, the only thing I can say is that it’s been very hard. I was the first to arrive in the can­ton from Turkey. After me, many peo­ple have arrived from Turkey and from Kur­dis­tan. Many peo­ple I can described as being from my lands, my own… In the hard­est peri­ods, my friends in the Par­ty have been by my side. They are all natives of the canton.

sengul koker jura

I have always been endan­gered by the machist State, the patri­ar­chal soci­ety. I was dis­crim­i­nat­ed against by my own, most of all, because I was divorced. I worked, I thought dif­fer­ent­ly. In our tiny soci­ety, there exists a notion of “decen­cy” devoid of mean­ing. Does­n’t the very exis­tence of the notion of decen­cy emp­ty out our souls? That is yet anoth­er real­i­ty! A con­cept of decen­cy which, instead of rest­ing on the fact you are some­one upright, hon­est, earn­ing your bread at the sweat of your brow, gets shoved under a wom­an’s skirt and her mar­i­tal sta­tus. We should have shat­tered that chain of archa­ic thoughts a long time ago, but there are some peo­ple who pre­fer to keep them alive still. And they want to grab by the col­lar those who wish to stay out­side, in order to drag them inside. The fact they were unable to drag me in was the rea­son for their cru­el attacks. But enough said on that…

These past few years, a num­ber of asy­lum seek­ers have arrived because of the polit­i­cal prob­lems in Turkey and in Kur­dis­tan. All of them are true polit­i­cal refugees. When I look at them, I am pleased for myself, but wor­ried for my coun­try. Because every­one liv­ing close to me for years has seen that Şengül is not alone, there are many peo­ple who think like Şengül, who live like Şengül. I am more opti­mistic than I was in the past.

sengul koker

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Our free­dom and our hope are what pro­vide our links to life. My life was spent on the roads of exile. As I said, it was not easy. But despite all the pain, if I can look up at the sky, at all the shades of blue and expe­ri­ence them, that rein­forces my con­vic­tion. In clos­ing what I would like to say to women refugees is: stay upright and stand on your own two feet, fight. Your fight is the only thing that will keep you stand­ing in the coun­try where you are attempt­ing to rebuild your life. There is no oth­er way.” That is how big sis­ter Şengül ends her story.

In lis­ten­ing to Şengül I under­stand that if you are exiled, you will nev­er have a ter­mi­nal, that your goods will always fit inside two suit­cas­es, and that the roads become your home. What is more, this feel­ing that you do not belong to the coun­try to which you immi­grat­ed will nev­er leave you. Big sis­ter Şengül, hav­ing cer­tain­ly lost the feel­ing of belong­ing to her coun­try, will­ful­ly aban­doned the Turk­ish nation­al­i­ty in 1994…


Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges | iknowiknowiknowblog.wordpress.com
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Dilek Aykan
Gazete­ci, siyasetçi, insan hak­ları savunucusu. Jour­nal­iste, femme poli­tique, défenseure des droits humain. Jour­nal­ist, polit­i­cal woman, defendor of human rights.