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.
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!
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.