Roma People in Turkey: Interview with Ashoka Fellow Hacer Foggo

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SEATTLE — Many children do not receive a good quality education to develop their skills and improve themselves. Sometimes primary schools in different cities or even neighborhoods may not offer equal opportunities to its students. Therefore, there has to be someplace other than schools where students are able to satisfy their educational and social needs. The Borgen Project recently had the chance to contact Ms. Hacer Foggo who is doing her best to fill this gap for children. She was selected as an Ashoka Fellow for her efforts to help children in need as well as the Roma people in Turkey who are a minority community.

Ms. Foggo leads a project called Cimenev (Grass House) that aims to bolster children’s self-confidence via different activities. She has also been Turkey’s Human Rights Observer of the European Roma Rights Center. 

When asked about her path of social entrepreneurship and activism, Ms. Foggo had the following to say:

Ms. Foggo, let’s start by getting to know you first. How did your life story bring you to social entrepreneurship?

“I was born in 1967. In 1991, I worked as a journalist for various newspapers and magazines for 16 years in the field of human rights and minorities. Since 2003, I have started working on Roma people in different civil society organizations. I fought as an activist for 4 years in order to prevent the demolition of the 1000-year-old Sulukule, a Roman neighborhood, which was declared an urban transformation in 2006. Through this struggle, I organized national and international campaigns and open courts legally, and I established the Sulukule Platform. I pioneered the establishment of social activity centers in neighborhoods with neighborhood representatives to prevent Roma students from missing school in Istanbul or elsewhere. I was chosen as an Ashoka Fellow in 2015.”

How has the Çimenev (Grass House) formation passed on? As a result, what kind of effect do you have on the needy children? How do you think you see the results of this effect over the years?

“The children who went to the school in the morning at the time of the destruction of the houses in Sulukule were thinking that their homes would be destroyed when their mothers were returning to their homes in the evening. For the children, for the young, for the mothers, it was a great trauma. There, we built the Sulukule Art Workshop and started different pieces of training in semi-demolished houses with children. Mersin, Sakarya, Tekirdag and other poor neighborhoods were the next projects of this association. Now, with the leadership of the Roma Rights Association, we established the Çimenev Children’s Center in Elmadag, Istanbul with the aim of preventing the socio-economic deprivation of Roma and non-Roma children. The Center supports 16 children aged between 7-10, 16 children aged between 11-14, and 30 children on weekends. Çimenev supports children’s emotional, mental and physical development through extracurricular activities and the elimination of educational deficiencies. In terms of children’s self-confidence after our courses, we see successful feedback from their teachers in school.

Çimenev’s main objective is to support the development and training of these students. There are a variety of activities in Çimenev such as Hip-hop Workshops, Music Workshops, Children Art Workshops, Yoga Workshops, Theater Workshops, Foundation Maker Workshops, Homework Hour, Weekend Sulukule Children Workshops, Children’s Kitchen Workshop and Child Maker Workshop. For the families, the Reading and Writing Education Workshop, the Technology Workshop for Women and the Parenting Skills Empowerment Trainings are conducted as well.

These children come to our organization after school, eat their meals and start social activities. Maybe they do not have computers in their home, but they learn to write code here. They study music, develop hand skills, read books, make pastry pie and learn drama. On weekends, we worked in Sulukule during the demolition, and currently, the group of Tahribad-i rebellion is in charge of their music studies. They help children who are interested in music writing and music in general. Our volunteers are from Bogazici University, MEF University, Bilgi University as well as psychologists from universities, sociologists and social service students. Our volunteers also go through an education.

A voluntary psychologist who [visits] on Fridays talks to mothers and tries educating them about children. The Municipality of Şişli also supports the work of the children and established the Children’s Assembly. Of course, not all of this happened spontaneously. I knew my study coordinator, Melek Bahat, from her student years. Our friend Sevim Kahraman, who is continuing her studies as a sociologist with our students’ mothers, has introduced both children and their mothers to technology with the help of MEF University Computer Program student, Berker Özçelik.”

You have been engaged in relevant studies for many years with the Roma people. Could you please share with our readers what kind of obstacles the Roma people often encounter in our region? What are you working on in your studies for the Roma people?

“I started working on the Romanies in 2004. I currently work as a Human Rights Watch for Turkey in the European Roma Rights Center which is headquartered in Budapest. Particularly, I carry out studies on access to education for Roma children, economic freedom for Roma women, their right to marriage and also the rights violations and discrimination.”

Focusing on your experiences, are there any points that you associate with the global poverty problem as you have worked with children in need for years as well as the Roma people? Will you share a few of these points with us?

“The global hunger spot is particularly evident when Roma families living in tents and barracks. For example, between 2013 and 2016, families that set up empty land tents in Pendik in Istanbul had difficulty in finding food and water. They did not know what was in the water when they were supplying water from the wastewater. I was able to draw attention to the public with national and international campaigns for those who lacked basic needs. There are still Roma families living in tents. Many families living in tents do not send their children to school because of economic deprivation. Another reason that they do not send their children to school is that they cannot feed them or put money into their pockets.”

Do you have any plans in the coming years aimed at increasing the scope of your existing projects? Could you tell us in what areas you want to continue to work?

“By 2019, I aim to work for not only Roma children but also for young people who are mainly socio-economically deprived due to the economic crisis in the coming years. I am thinking of setting up a space that connects high school students and other young people, who can not register to universities, with students who can help these young people deprived of social activities because of economic difficulties. I will also continue to follow the families living with social assistance and possibly on the streets, due to the economic crisis. I will also develop mechanisms to enable them to continue their schooling, especially for their children.”

– Orçun Doğmazer
Photo: Flickr

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