Turkish-speaking communities in Britain: a rude awakening

Turkish-speaking communities in Britain: a rude awakening


Written by: Peray Ahmet

A new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation examines some of the major issues affecting young people from one of Britain’s long established, yet little heeded, ‘invisible’ minorities. Here, a community worker reflects on some of those issues and the need to air them in a wider debate.

‘I’d rather be a P*ki than a Turk.’ It is a chant that, in recent years, has been heard coming from football fans, including, occasionally, at England matches. For ‘Turks’ who live in England, hearing the chant was a rude awakening. We realised that, although many of us are visibly ‘white’, when it suited we could be treated just as ‘badly’ as the ‘Blacks and the Asians’. But the discrimination against our community is something that is not only ignored by the establishment but also by many segments of the community, mainly those who have benefited economically from their lives in England.

Different histories

What exactly is meant by a Turkish speaker? This is a broad-based term used to describe people of Turkish, Turkish-Cypriot and Turkish-Kurd origin. The history of migration to the United Kingdom is different for each of these groups. The Turkish Cypriots were the first to arrive in England and are, in many ways, better established than more recent arrivals. Their history on Cyprus is hundreds of years old, a legacy of the Ottoman era. The ties to Britain are stronger for this group, as Cyprus was a British colony until 1960. Some came here to escape ethnic tensions between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, which culminated in the Turkish invasion of the north of the island in 1974, while others came here as economic migrants. Next to arrive were Turks from mainland Turkey, who left for various political and economic reasons. The final groups to arrive have been people of Kurdish origin from Turkey. They have come to Britain mainly as refugees and their exodus from Turkey is linked to the mass level of oppression and discrimination they faced there.

Turkish speakers are heavily concentrated in the London boroughs of Haringey, Enfield, Waltham Forest, Islington and Hackney and, to a lesser extent, Southwark and Lambeth. Estimates of their numbers vary – there are no accurate figures available, in itself, an illustration of the failure of local government to address these groups’ specific needs. Because their numbers are not significant nationally, Turkish, Kurdish and Turkish-Cypriot communities are not classified in the census. This has meant, in turn, that locally these groups have been rendered invisible (a fact stressed by Aydin Mehmet in her excellent book Turkish-Speaking Communities and Education: no delight).

The histories and experiences of these groups are different in many ways and marred by much conflict among themselves as well as with external groups. Although the majority of Turks and Kurds are Muslim, tensions exist as they belong to different sects of Islam. There is much debate as to whether the needs of the Kurdish Turkish community are best served by being classed as ‘Turkish speakers’. However it is a term I prefer to use for a number of reasons, including the perception of others outside these communities and the fact that Turkish is the language spoken by most Kurds from Turkey, especially the young people that I have worked with in the boroughs of Haringey and Enfield. The reasons for this are numerous and are clearly linked to the suppression of the Kurdish language and culture by the Turkish state. But, in the context of Britain, ‘Turkish-speaking’ can be a useful term, as long as the main differences are not overlooked – more often than not we are all just lumped together as Turkish for the sake of convenience. For example, on more than one occasion, I have noticed criminal suspects described in the local press as being ‘of Turkish appearance’ – whatever that might mean!

Discrimination ignored

The discrimination faced by these groups is on many levels and in various different sectors, such as housing, law and order, education and employment, though the extent to which each group faces these problems may be different. For the Kurdish Turkish community, which has not been in this country for as long as the Turkish Cypriots or the Turks, the barriers faced are often more obvious and more pronounced. But for all, the issue of educational underachievement is a huge problem and is yet to be tackled effectively, despite its being so long-standing. The lack of effective monitoring systems and statistics means that the problem can be ignored to a large extent. Furthermore, the emphasis on support for other more visible groups (crudely speaking, Turkish speakers can vary in skin colour from ‘white’, to ‘black’ and ‘in between’) has meant that this group’s needs are not seen as a priority, despite evidence that the education system is failing them massively.

Between East and West

As ‘Turks’, therefore, we do not fit neatly into any of the categories that the authorities and the police like to use. Are we Middle-Eastern? European? Muslim? Eastern? Western? White? Black? Asian? Mediterranean? The truth is that we are fitted into whatever category they want us to be in at the time. If we complain about the lack of provision the community is receiving, we become White Europeans and are thus deemed as not needing special treatment. If they want to talk about crime and terrorism, then we become Middle-Eastern, Muslim or Asian. This confusion is tied to historical factors and the whole process of ‘modernisation’ mounted by the Republic of Turkey from 1924, as well as the more specific historic factors associated with Turkish-Cypriot and Kurdish identities.

On a global level, these issues remain unresolved and Turkey finds itself in a precarious position. It is not totally accepted by the ‘Christian nations’ of Europe, partly but not entirely because of its notorious human rights record and repressive policies towards the Kurdish population. Neither is Turkey accepted by its Muslim neighbours, whom it has made such a big effort to distance itself from. The delay in Turkey’s accession to the European Union (EU) has many causes but one is the fact that it is one of the largest Muslim countries in the world. Helmut Kohl’s description of the EU as a ‘Christian club’ is a perfect reminder of this. These debates on the international level have both a direct and indirect effect on Turkish speakers living in Britain; both in terms of how we perceive ourselves in relation to others and in the way that others perceive us. Thus, most of us are aware that, although we can be called ‘Mediterranean’, we are not as acceptable culturally, politically and religiously as others who come under this category, such as Greeks, Italians, Spaniards and the Portuguese. And we are, therefore, more likely to face both overt and covert forms of racism.


As Turkish speakers, we are constantly aware of and affected by negative stereotypes. On a day-to-day level, we are repeatedly reminded of the fact that organised crime, and criminal activities related to drug use and selling, are there in Turkish-speaking communities. But of course the majority of us are not involved in such crime and have no wish to be. And we want to avoid a situation in which all members of the community are labelled as drug suppliers and our young men are pathologised as gangsters and thugs. The reasons for the involvement of young men in gang culture are complex and contentious, and cannot be adequately entered into here – though racism, poverty, discrimination and pressures of expectation and identity all come into play.

Indeed, what is the model for Turkish-speaking communities in Britain? The only time there is any representation of this group on films or television programmes in Britain, it is usually negative and derogatory. Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (a film focusing on the experiences of an American in a Turkish prison) still serves as a warning of the ‘barbaric’ capabilities of the Turk. On one trip to Turkey, I spoke with a middle-aged English couple from Yorkshire. They told me a friend had warned them not to go to Turkey because of Midnight Express. Although the film is now many years old and may not have as much credibility as it once did, current media portrayals are still highly negative and extremely damaging in the stereotypes they create and perpetuate. On British television, programmes such as The Bill and Spooks usually portray us as gangsters, thugs and gamblers. The image of the ‘barbarian’ lives on.

Take the way in which the media dealt with, and continues to deal with, the football-related incident in Turkey, in which two Leeds United fans were stabbed and killed. British press headlines were highly offensive and racist. There was no recognition of the existence of a highly vibrant community of Turkish people living in London who would be affected by their inflammatory statements. It was left to us in the community to pick up the pieces after shops were damaged and people attacked. What is interesting is that when incidents like this occur, your everyday racist is not concerned with the differences between a Kurd or a Turk or a Turkish Cypriot; all of this is irrelevant and the term ‘Turk’ is the only one that seems to apply.

Young Turks and Kurds: a set of invisible disadvantaged groups, published recently by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is a welcome recognition of such issues and how they affect young people. However, reports such as this and their recommendations need to be put into action in order to have a real effect on the lives of young people, as well as the wider community. Whether or not they will, remains to be seen.

Related links

Read the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report Young Turks and Kurds: A set of ‘invisible’ disadvantaged groups

Add your comments to the debate on Turkish-speaking communities in Britain

Peray Ahmet works for Connexions North London as a personal advisor at Enfield College, which has a Turkish-speaking population of around forty per cent. She also acts as the Turkish-Cypriot community representative on Haringey's Race Equality Joint Consultative Committee and is in the process of setting up a research group consisting of Turkish-speaking young people. She writes here in a personal capacity.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

8 thoughts on “Turkish-speaking communities in Britain: a rude awakening

  1. Turkey never invaded Cyprus. It was Greece who invaded. The Turkish just intervened to help their fellow Turkish Cypriots.

  2. HI. i am a Turkish psychologist and a postgraduate student living in Birmingham for the last 8 years. I recenlty have been involved with Turkish asylum seekers and refugees. my experience was almost shocking for me in terms of negative attitudes and hidden racism against them. It does not matter what kind if turk we are, there a huge amount of ignorance in both authorities and turkish-speaking individuals themselves. I found our people extremely ignorant and having a kind of identity problem here. I would like to do more, doing academic research about them in order to develop more accurate and efficient policies towards their problems. i am mainly interested in especially women and young people as they will be our represant in the future. there is growing number of people in the West Midlands. As an educated person, i believe that it is our responsibility to explore the problems and the needs of our people to make them healthily growing population and contribting the society they live in. It is also our responsibility to help health professionals to obtain wider and more information about our communities for better services in the UK. However, i do not know where to and how to start. Can anyone share their suggestions and experience?any recommended book to read or any person to talk or any insitution to turn? Thanks merih bektas fidan

  3. Hi Merih I am looking for some direction regarding Turkish community’s in North Lodon,,, reasons for my request is as follows,, I work as a recruitment consultant in the public sector of housing, and due to a domestic violence within the Turkish community I have been asked by a client to seek an experienced worker within the north london area that I could place in this post. We work on excellent hourly rates for temporary assignments for our candidate, giveing support & guidence if & when needed. Can you help me with my request? my contact number here is 020 7403 8177. I look forward to hearing from you if you can help. With kind regards Jo Turner Supported Housing Consultant.

  4. My father was a turkish cypriot, mother was english.. i grew up in a middle class family in surrey where there was not really a turkish community, by chance i met a friend at boarding school whose father (strangly they knew eachother as boys!) was also turkish cypriot, but her mother was swedish… we are still very close and often discuss how we have no ‘identity’ we dont feel we beong to a certain group, neither do we fel we ‘fit in’ anywhere We both look very ‘mediteranean’ or ‘turkish’ and often when i meet new people they ask about where my parents come from.. when i say turkish cypriot i can see that they maybe assume certain things about me (i am sure this is not always the case) i find that many of my friends now are from other ethnic backgrounds without meaning them to be (such as nigerian, chinese, portuguese) My turkish cyprot friend and I, often discuss that it was difficult growing up in such a strong culture, but in britain, and has caused us alot of burdens. we dont feel we belong to any sort of ethnic group and feel that is why alot of groups in london act the way they do, causing a bad image. I used to spend 4 months a year in cyprus with my family and would only truly feel content there. I now live in bristol where the ethnic community is mainly afro caribean with again very few turks i almost long to be in a turkish community to feel like i am actually part of something, like the community in london

  5. Hi Jo,

    I am so sorry that I come back to you very very late in 2012!. I did not see your message and also I have thought that my message would be in the internet!
    Thank you very much for your kind offer as well!

    The Turkish community seems to be settling better than before; however they still need a lot of input in many aspects of the life.

    We in the Midlands come across slightly different issues regarding familial difficulties within Turkish speaking communities. That is women are left home as their husbands go for searching jobs elsewhere, mostly going far away. This increases the possibilites of suffering from mental problems as women have to take the burden of their offsprings, managing familial matters alone, and most of the time they try to achieve these without sufficient command of English. By being occupied with daily-routine activities around daily matters, these women find it dfficult to spare enough time for their teenager children, which turns to a nigthmare for the whole family, even for the community when those youngsters suffer from lack of aim, mission and most importantly lack of identity.
    Therefore I highly value of empowering women and families. Based on my experience of offering emaotional/psychological and languages services to Turkish speaking communities (Turkish, Kurdish, Azeris, Bulgarians and some Turkic states originated people), I have now realized that men too have been largely ignored. We have to help them to overcome these difficulties and encourage them to help their wives and their young children. By doing this, not only men, women, and children benefit from this, but also the whole family, their own community and the big society will experince more creativity and better citizenship in individuals.

    Furthermore, we as bilingual professionals, we have to encourage our youngsters and children to be more active in the society they live in. But doing this we have show them our love, thoughts and attention for them by offering ailored support and education. Families and community leaders must not leave them alone, giving them inspiration and encouragement.

    For the better and peaceful society!
    Merih Bektas Fidan
    BA, MSc, MRes Psychology
    Doctorate Candidate

  6. Merhaba.
    I’m desperately looking for a Turkish lawyer in UK, preferably in the north east but anywhere will do really.
    Can anyone help please?

  7. Turkan Ozaran bir Turk avukatidir, bilmiyorum niye ihtiyacin var ama, bir zamanlar, Londra Turk Radyo istasyonunda akil/yardim verirdi.
    Ayrica, Turk cocuklari, ister Kibrisli, ister Turkiyeli ister Kurt basarirlar gelenikle….bazillari cok birsey basarmaz ama cokluk’ta degildirler.

  8. Hello, I am an Irish catholic and my parents came to the UK for work when I was seven. My mother would not let me or my siblings mix with non Catholics at our Protestant school and she insisted we did not take part in “protestant” prayers. Her actions made it extremely difficult for us to fit in in at a time when wanting to fit in was critical. . We were labelled as “different” . It was very isolating. We eventually moved to a catholic school and began to settle. Mum, for she wielded the power in our home, found it hard to settle and wanted to return to Ireland. She hated being here and denigrated the UK In her conversations with us and the wider Irish community. She didn’t want us to become “English” in the way we spoke, ate and thought. I asked her why, if she hated this country so much, she didn’t go back to Ireland. The truth was that, whilst we faced “racism” such as “thick Irish paddy” and my sister was told by her supervisor, “let’s be clear here, I hate the Irish and blacks”, we had a much better opportunity here in the UK to prosper. Mum insisted we achieved at school, that being the way out of poverty. As children and young adults we were struggling to assimilate because we still had to adhere to the cultural identity my mother insisted on, marry within the Irish community etc. Her attitude coloured our view of England. It meant I couldn’t have a rational conversation with her about her views. I am glad my parents came to the UK, it has provided me with a free education, saved my sight, I was born with a congenital eye condition, through the NHS and by a determination to do well, a good career and the opportunity to go on learning if I want to. It was easy for my mother to blame this country for her woes. She never expressed gratitude for the opportunity to be here and the wonderful opportunities that has provided for my family. We forget to look outside our communities, to widen our perspective and to show by example we are more than just our nationality and ethnicity. I met a Turkish Muslim man recently, quite by chance, who offered me the opportunity through our conversation to see a different view of “Turks” and Islam and I thank him for that. It was just a casual conversation and it made me think. None of us are so different from each other in our hearts. If my mother had come to the UK in gratitude for all it can offer, my divided loyalties wouldn’t have tormented me in the way it has and at the age of 64, still with a sense of separateness.

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