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Interview: Turkey used the refugees as a trump card against Europe

by - 18 November



My intreview with the turkish journalist and writer Meltem Yilmaz about the destiny of refugee women, about the dangers they're facing in and outside refugee camps, about the role of refugees in the complex relationships between EU and Turkey.
Meltem Yilmaz worked many years in the oldest and the opponent newspaper of Turkey, Cumhuriyet. Recently she has written the book "Soraya" based on the story of a young Syrian woman who she met in a refugee camp in Turkey. At Berlinale Film Festival 2016 „Soraya“ was selected as a book with potential for screen adaptation.

1. Meltem, your book „Soraya“ is based on a true story. Why and how did you decide to tell exactly this story? What does distinguish this story from the others?
For years, i  have been trying to be the voice of the disabled groups including LGBTs, gipsies, drug addicts, street children, homelesses, women under violence and refugees via my interviews which are published in the oldest and the opponent newspaper of Turkey, Cumhuriyet. The story of “Soraya” was born in one of those interviews: The refugees who escaped from the battle in Syria and took refugee in Turkey. In those interviews in the refugee camps, border towns, and even in the stay up all night streets, i have seen that escaping from a war and trying to survive in a foreign country -especially as a woman- is a terrific traumatic experience. It is of course not true to race the miseries yet the Syrian refugees in Turkey is in a deep despair. The women refugees are sold to the night clubs, children are begging for money in the streets, men are working 14 hours a day just for peanut. All those stories i have listened from them really affected me and made me think to do much more. The “much more” was literature.

2. Did you meet the woman behind Soraya in person? What happens with her? Do you follow her story?
“Soraya” is a novel which was fictionalized from the story of a young woman whom i met in a refugee camp. During the time we met, she wasn’t married yet. But she told me that she was going to marry a man senior, just for leaving the camp permanently. The situation she was in inspired the main theme of this novel. Bu I have to say that there is not s single Soraya, thousands of Sorayas are surviving today in Turkey. And I am trying to follow the goings on of these woman  whoever i can reach.  

3. Why does Turkey open its borders and close its heart for the refugees?
Because the open door policy of Turkey towards the Syrian refugees was completely a show off.  It never had a basis, the refugees’ suffer was clear from the beginning. Erdoğan got under a charge which he can never bear with the tought of being the leader of the Middle East. Even most of the Syrians hadn’t been recorded oficially when they were entering into Turkey as the government rejected to take the responsibility of these people. And where we stand now is: 3 million unprotected, desperate, futureless people.

4. Did your country accept the refugees initially as a way to „barter“ them in exchange for funds, visa liberalization and progress in EU membership negotiations? What will happen with the refugees in your country now with the potential collapse of the EU-Turkey deal?
Turkey, as we have witnessed a short time ago, used the refugees as a trump card against Europe. Besides, Europe is keeping silent towards Turkey for the very reason. Yet, if the relation between Tukey and Eu  incline conflict, than Turkey will shut its eyes to the refugeess who want to flee to Europe.

5. People used to think about refugees as one entity. Maybe there is a special focus on the children refugees. But there is a lack of reports that draw the attention to the women refugees. Many people aren’t aware of the dangers they face while in a refugee camp. Why do you think women refugees aren’t enough represented in the world media?
Because in the Middle East, women are just shadows... In this region, women are the one who regularly denigrated, exploited, and even destroyed. Turkish laws do not protect even Turkish women sufficently. Because of this reason, they face violence, harrssement and rape in daily life. Nevertheless, as Syrian women are not been protected by the laws, they are much more open to face life- threatening situations. And unfortunately refugee women already experience violence, harrassment and rape in the hands of the human trafficers. It’s not so hard to guess what happen to them in the foreign countries.

6. Your book shows the female side of the refugee drama. But the tragic feeling in it is so strong. Isn’t there any hope for the women refugees?
I wish i could tell that i am hopeful, but i am not. Moreover, it is a region in which conditions evolve worser day by day. After Afganistan, Iraq, Syria, now Turkey is on the verge of war. ISIS, by its bloody attacks,  rough up the whole country. It will be foolishness to be hopeful for the refugee women when the suicide bombers explode in the very center of the metropoles in Turkey.

7. It seems that the women across the Syrian-Turkish border share the same destiny (except for the war): they feel oppressed and have the same problems but they don’t help each other. Why is that?
Thank you very much for this question. Because this is also the issue i have emphasized from the beginning of my carreer as a journalist: Opression of the opressed to the other Today, who wish the refugess to be deported most are Turkish women due to the several reasons such as neoliberal policies, the pressure of religion, the unadequent education system. I have written Soraya mostly because of this reason: To make tthe Turkish women share the pain of Syrian women.
After reading the book they became to share the pain of the refugee women. Many women told me that their point of view has changed towards the refugee woman begging in the streets or prostetuting themselves. Soraya, fortunately, worked as developing emphaty.

8. In the book, you compare war with love. Soraya said that love could be more dangerous than war. Love is like the last hope for her, which at the end is lost too. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. Do you believe in love and in the humanity? Do we people have lost our human face regarding the refugee crisis?
If a woman loses everything in her life because of the war, and then takes refuge in love, the betrayal of that love can become much more destroying than the war itself. In opposite, a woman who loses everything of her because of the war, she can only rescue by a real love. This means i believe in the power of love, still. Yet in fact, in the eastern societies where co- wife phenomenon is common, a man is able to marry 2 or more women and love loses its meaning in such relationships. Moreover, today in Turkey, refugee women mostly function as second wifes. Thus, the victimisation of refugee women are abused  by the patriarchal family structure. These refugee women submit several abasements so as to live under shelter and unfortunately one day, they are thrown in the street as if they were never existed.

9. Did you put yourself in Soraya’s shoes while writing the book? How did you feel? Would you change something if you were at her place?
This is a very special personal experience yet  i want to tell it. When i was writing Soraya, i such became intergrated with her that, i got into a deep depression from the beginning till the end of the novel. There were times when i gave up writing and strarted to cry. I felt her depression to the hilt. As if i was living the same things. I have asked myself that what i would do if i were in her shoes several times. Yet, what can a refugee woman do if she has no national id card, no money, no family? Where and how can she escape? How can she know that she won’t die in the hand os the human trafficers in those refugee boats? I think Soraya had no choice.

10. At Berlinale Film Festival 2016 „Soraya“ was selected as a book with potential for screen adaptation. Is there any progress in this direction?
Negotiations are proceeding in this matter yet i haven’t made an agreement yet. I don’t hurry as i wish to set to work with who is able to reflect the story best.

11. As a journalist who have worked at Cumhuriyet, how do you feel now when you’re seeing so many from your colleagues incl. the editor in chief being arrested?
We are going through an awful process. However, as Brecht says,  in dark ages we need to sing the songs which depict that darkness. I am also trying to depict the darkness both in my interviews and in my books. And fortunately, people hear my song.

12. Are you afraid to be a journalist in Turkey today? 
 No, I'm not afraid. Moreover, I have started work in a newspaper which is extremily opposite to the government (Birgün Newspaper). I will continue to make my news, write my books and exhibit the reality.

13. Where do you think Turkey is heading? Are you optimistic about the future of your country?
Today in Turkey, lots of journalists, authors and academicians are in prison because of their opinions. Many of them are obliged to leave the country.  Moreover, the educated and opponent new generation is planning their life abroad. Is it possible to be optimistic in such conditions?  

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