Team Red in Izmir (May 7-9)

The first thing you want to do after a 12-hour night train without sleep/food/shower is, by no doubt, to go to a barbecue party in the park with 50 members of AEGEE-Izmir (of which 30 (!) present at Agora-Enschede)…

Lesson #1: Never ever get yourself a seat next to an automatic door. Especially not the ones that are too afraid to make Type II errors (in non-technical terms: the sensors were triggered by a single breath and the door kept slamming next to my ear). Luckily, an old man noticed my battle against technology, and directed me to seat 27: empty, as if by magic. Later, after having asked where I was from, this man told me in surprisingly good English that he had worked in Rotterdam, my city, for years. Again: a miracle.

Rotterdam is the city in the Netherlands with the highest percentage of non-Western immigrants. The Dutch word allochtoon (literally: emerging from another soil), as opposed to autochtoon (the same soil), is supposed to be used for people with one or two parents that were born abroad. Like me (Ele), since my mother is from Belgium. However, the Dutch government has recently decided to stop using this word, because of its stigmatizing nature, since people (especially the media when talking about crime) would usually use the word to refer to exclusively non-Western immigrants (so not me) although it was meant to be a neutral term.

Recently, in March, several hundreds of people were rioting and protesting in front of the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam, because they wanted to see the Turkish minister for family affairs who was forced out of the Netherlands. In Turkey, they expressed their anger by squeezing oranges (symbolizing the Dutch) and drinking the juice (our blood?) So… I must say that people around me were a bit concerned when I said that I was going to Turkey for Europe on Track. But, okay, this post is about Izmir, not about Rotterdam, so why do I bring this up? Well, interestingly/sadly enough, one girl who was planning to spend her summer in Hamburg, and one boy who dreamed of visiting his uncle in Den Haag, both asked me the following question: “If I go to Western Europe, how will people respond to me?”

“To be honest: I don’t know,” I admitted, “I believe the population is generally open-minded, but I bet you are all very aware of current events, with rising right-wing nationalist extremism and xenophobia, and increasing tension between many countries and Turkey because of your situation with the government.”

“Actually… I am not that aware,” one of them replied, “I think that you guys abroad have way better access to reliable information about what is going on here in Turkey than we do. You guys have the bigger picture.” She continued, “You know, especially in Izmir, things are different… But being traditional and open-minded is not mutually exclusive.”

One other participant said, “I’ve been to a lot of places in Europe, and I’ve learned how to be an open-minded person, and how to listen to different points of views. I feel more free. I feel like an individual, and not like I am part of the Turkish society, because I don’t think like how most people think in Turkey.”

These two topics, 1) access to information and different viewpoints and 2) Turkey’s geography and culture, were center to our discussions here. As you may have noticed, the theme of this year’s Europe on Track is Mind the Gap. This does not only refer to the gap between the platform and the vehicle in the London Underground, or the stagnant and the way forward, but also to the many gaps that divide the society, such as the gender gap, the generation gap, the income inequality gap, or the knowledge gap. In our Active Citizenship workshop, we repeated the pizza-chart activity described in our blog post of our stop in Cluj-Napoca, wondering if the outcome would be different – any volunteers for some legit data analysis? In this activity, we ask people to indicate how much they care about certain aspects of society: gender equality, sustainability and environment, media and freedom of speech, culture and education, migration and refugees, minority rights, public health and government and justice. Then, we ask them how much action (with a tangible outcome) they actually take. This was the result:

The red dots represent the ‘How much I care’ and the blue dots the ‘How much I act’ – the closer to the edge, the stronger. As I alluded to before, the most interesting difference was that people here in Izmir strongly cared about media and freedom of speech as well as government and justice, but that they were not very active in these areas. Why? They simply had no idea how to. At least not “without getting into jail.” Participants claimed that, as individuals, they were too far removed from the system and the higher level authorities, a gap that was also based on more traditional cultural and religious ideals. Songs (amazingly sung by our Broadway Brett) such as the Izmir March (İzmir’in Dağlarında Çiçekler Açar!) have been used as a silent protest since it symbolizes secularism, freedom and the parliamentary system, which were introduced by Atatürk (especially in light of the referendum of which the outcome may oppose these values).

Jumping back to the perception of Turkish people in Western Europe, one participant explained that Turkish emigrants actually tend to be much more conservative or traditional than the people living in cities such as Izmir or Istanbul (which are allegedly more European), probably because they came from rural areas with little education, and culture and religion is then the only thing from home that they can hold onto (I mean, look at these pictures…)

Our visit to Eskişehir and Izmir has been eye-opening for us. Personally, I have been living in several cities with a large Turkish minority of which I, admittedly, knew and understood too little… The young people we have spoken to seem optimistic about the future, despite the current turmoil, but they are worried about how they are perceived abroad in the media. We have felt and continue to feel very inspired by the energy (in amount and density) of both AEGEE-Eskişehir and AEGEE-Izmir – your involvement with and contribution to AEGEE is very important. Thank you for your drive and dynamism, thank you for your hospitality and humor (chakkamakka!) and thank you for sharing your culture and opinions with us.

BUT Let’s not end this blog post with such a serious tone, so please, let me present you this wonderful piece of art by AEGEE-Izmir (next-ambassador-material?) – don’t miss out on the Ele-being-spoonfed-count:

Written by Eleanor Denneman, Photos by Paweł Lenarczyk