Hacer and ROMFO bring together Roma NGOs and communities across Turkey to unleash their potentials in bringing full citizenship to Roma people. Under the ROMFO umbrella, Turkey’s Roma people are co-creating solutions to their mutual problems, getting empowered by practicing changemaking first-hand, and consequently, challenging the stereotypes forced onto them. ROMFO is also acting as a platform to effectively plan Roma people’s future and communicate with decision makers, helping realize the potential of Roma NGOs to cause systematic change for Turkey’s most underserved populations.
Hacer strongly believes that the only way for solving Turkey’s Roma populations’ problems is to empower them with the skills and confidence to develop their own solutions. Seeing potential in Turkey’s new yet ineffective Roma NGOs, her new idea is to bring together previously atomized Roma NGOs to co-create solutions, share best practices and form a common voice to shape their future together.
Hacer has developed a bottom-up approach to changemaking that helps Roma NGOs and communities first identify their problems, resources and strategies, then develop and implement solutions that are sustainable and impactful. The identification of problems, resources and strategies happen in traditional community meeting settings where Hacer facilitates the first meeting and passes on the role of the facilitator to others. Once there is a roadmap that is agreed upon, Hacer accompanies the NGOs at critical milestones and supports them in opening doors as needed, but for the most part, the NGOs develop their capacities by doing themselves. Hacer also pulls in other experts and organizations as needed, to support the NGOs on specific issues and trouble-shooting.
Experiencing changemaking first hand through this process, Roma NGOs are later able to design and launch their own initiatives, which Hacer and ROMFO continue to support as needed. In doing so, Roma NGOs have started to demonstrate that they can cause systematic change to the Roma communities. ROMFO also acts a platform for the skills, learnings, models and inspiration to travel from one Roma community to the other. Through regular regional meetings and ambassadors of successful initiatives making visits to other communities, ideas and motivation spreads across the country. Last but not least, building on their acquired skills and success on the local level, ROMFO members have also emerged as a viable partner for the government. In 2015, they are playing a critical role in the development of Turkey’s national strategy document for its Roma population.
An estimate of 4 million Roma (5% of the entire population) live in Turkey and make up the most disadvantaged and marginalized segment of the population. They live under severe discrimination and poverty, which comes hand in hand with human rights violations, a lack of access to shelter, health services, education and employment. Roma children and youth hardly manage to finish high school, many ending up in early marriages and only 1 in 10.000 making it to university. Unemployment is widespread, while employment opportunities are almost always at the lower, unskilled end of the labor market: Roma usually work as flower sellers, waste (paper, metal, plastic) collectors, street vendors and street musicians. Moreover, Turkey’s ambitious urban renewal projects of the last decade have forced a large segment of Roma out from their historical neighborhoods in city centers. As a result, many started to live in newly founded ghettos on the peripheries of urban centers, where they experience an even more intensive poverty compared to their previous lives.
In the last decade, in parallel with the development of civil society in Turkey, Roma people established over 200 associations across the country. Yet, these organizations remained weak in their organizational capacities, could not communicate or cooperate effectively and their impact remained limited to their immediate communities. Unfortunately, many of these organizations ended up becoming charity cases for the public and could not go beyond meeting the most immediate and urgent needs of their communities. Many became instruments for populist politics, dispersing in-kind donations and promises to their communities in exchange of their votes. Although Turkey’s bourgeoning Roma movement has yet to bring systemic solutions to Roma’s deeply rooted problems in the past, it was instrumental in making Roma realize the importance of being “together” to solve their urgent problems.
Hacer believes that although weak in capacity, Roma NGOs present an opportunity to empower Roma communities in developing sustainable solutions for their urgent needs, challenging the negative prejudices forced onto them and actively driving policies and plans that affect their common future. She guides a unique process that brings together principles of community organizing with Roma culture, helping Roma identify and mobilize around social challenges, develop strategies, leverage resources and organize related stakeholders to launch new interventions, projects and organizations. Through a series of community meetings she facilitates, Hacer helps the NGOs identify their most critical problems, resources and steps of action. Once they agree on a roadmap, she accompanies them at each milestone – such as first visit to the municipality, first press declaration, first crisis – and acts as a volunteer consultant through-out the process. Where specific needs arise, she pulls in other experts to provide the NGOs pro-bono support and trainings.
The training programs implemented with the Roma NGOs in the past 3 years gave birth to a Roma community center where Roma children and youth get formal and non-formal education support to develop their self-confidence, social skills and school success; adults get literacy courses and guidance in finding employment. A women’s cooperative where Roma women are producing baskets to support their homes and the children center’s activities has also been established, along with a women’s social business making wedding gowns and organizing weddings. Mainstreamed with a “learning by doing” aspect at each stage, and through the capacity building and exchange of experiences, ROMFO members are already launching their own initiatives – such as a self-sustaining kindergarten and new women’s cooperatives.
Building on its successful local initiatives, the Forum is currently cooperating with the Ministry of Social Affairs to develop Turkey’s first national strategic action plan on Roma population, covering critical issues such as access to health, education and employment, planned to come into effect in 2016. The model Roma community center has already been included in the strategy where the government will be using it as a model to launch new ones across the country. Hacer and ROMFO have realized that their solutions are also having a positive effect on other populations living under extreme poverty in Turkey, such as the Syrian refugees and other poor Arab and Kurdish communities. By enabling them to benefit from the centers run by Roma, Hacer and ROMFO have started supporting other vulnerable groups break their cycles of poverty and discrimination.
Hacer grew up in a politically active family, where social problems were always the main topic of discussion at the dinner table. As a result, she was introduced to civil society activities at very early ages: she grew up doing homework in civil society meetings on week nights and attending street protests with her parents on the weekends. She organized her first mini-social movement in her high school years; among the workers of the textile workshop she was working to support her family. She organized the workers to demand change from their employer – a mini-strike that resulted in better working conditions. Hacer went on to become a journalist reporting on human rights abuses, especially of ethnic and religious minorities and workers, but always felt dissatisfied with her job. She would write articles about individuals and their families, but she could never forget about them, always trying to keep in touch and find support from her immediate surroundings.
She crossed paths with Roma communities when she was reporting from Istanbul’s back streets, where urban renewal projects were harsh, forced evictions and human rights violations were plenty. Starting to specialize in these large scale urban renewal projects that were launched in the early 2000s to re-shape the city’s landscape, she started to spend more and more time in Roma neighborhoods that were being demolished. When she reached out to her colleagues in the media, civil society or private sector, their lack of responsiveness made her realize that the dimensions of discrimination, stigmatization and poverty faced by this group was like no other.
Once she had this realization, she felt a sense of responsibility so strong and so deep that she realized she could not go on without doing something for this population. She started by facilitating protests, taking legal action and acting as a spokesperson to protect the Sulukule neighborhood in Istanbul where Roma community lived for over 1000 years. She continued until the last house was demolished and built herself a strong reputation in the Roma community as a “Gaci” (non-Roma woman), an active participant in all cultural Roma events, a capable facilitator, communicator and reliable leader. However, she also left Sulukule with a strong conviction that if Roma were to succeed, it was going to be their self-organization skills and self-respect, which could only be achieved by experiencing changemaking first hand. She established ROMFO in 2012 to act as a platform to facilitate just that.