Report from Turkey - Cross-Cultural Solidarity Exchange

Between 28th February and 8th March, members of Action for Education attended the 2020 Cross-Cultural Solidarity Exchange hosted in Eskisehir, Turkey. During the conference, AFE represented the historical and contemporary conditions related to migration and asylum in Greece, joining with 3 other organisations from Italy, Turkey and Denmark. Below is a report by Sophia Agathocleous:

When we arrived in Cesme, Turkish flags flew from windows, doorways, overhead cables, balconies. The red was bright, savage, fresh. German was lingua franca and, hitching a ride to Izmir, we saw the streets were clean, the roads were new. Forests had been planted. A long bus ride to Eskisehir rolled us through a small fraction of Western Turkey – a flatland at an angle, gently rising. The travel was effortless, the people were kind.

We travelled to Eskisehir to participate in an Erasmus+ Youth Exchange on Cross-Cultural Solidarity, with a focus on the Refugee Crisis in Europe. It aimed to reflect on activism, its tools, and youth engagement civil society. Organisations sent participants from Denmark, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

By morning Erdogan had declared the borders open.

On reaching the Madame Tadia Hotel in the evening, we learned that 33 Turkish soldiers had been killed in Northern Syria. Fresh red flags the size of swimming pools hung on hotel buildings. By morning Erdogan had declared the borders open.

The ten-day exchange drew on our collective experiences, knowledge and inspiration to promote and build cross-cultural solidarity. It was refreshing to see curious young people, keen to be involved in finding solutions to global issues. Discussions centred on activism, the youth in Europe, the refugee context of Turkey and Europe, eating pickled herring in Denmark…

Behind us in Chios, attacks and intimidation against NGOs started after the people fought against the national police force and won. The Greek border became a live-fire zone. Refugees who did make it through were beaten, forced back. Charles Michel came to Greece and condoned human rights abuses at the border. Greece became the ‘shield of Europe’ and the right to asylum was abolished while we slept. In the background lurked the virus.

The Youth Exchange explored how digital activism and social media can help raise awareness and generate action around causes worldwide. In the last three days, we worked in separate groups with different media tools to create content around the themes of activism and refugees. One group wrote a manual for young people interested in getting more deeply involved in activism.

TV news, loud with colour, played at us every morning. Idlib; the funerals of the fallen; Idlib; the tear gas in Edirne; Idlib, Idlib, Idlib. Red and white was everywhere, indoors and in the streets. Our Facebooks flooded: schools burning down on Lesvos, warehouses on Chios. People are being attacked, our kind of people. Surrounded by activists, we couldn’t feel any resistance.

The lesson is: beware. Beware how quickly democracy can become dictatorship.

Turkey was still sparkling and kind. But the same news footage played on loops. Sometimes the internet went off. People can’t gather in over groups of five. Something doesn’t feel right. The clean streets, the bright lights, the people too, too normal in such turbulent times. There’s something sinister about how people won’t say his name.

Beyond activism and civil society, a lesson fell together for me between conversations with Turkish participants, a Syrian journalist, and a friend met in a dungeon pub in Kadikoy. The lesson is: beware. Beware how quickly democracy can become dictatorship. Beware your precious rights, and which ones you surrender for security, because you may never get them back. Whether you know how to be an activist or not, become one: there’s no time to lose.

We woke up one day and we couldn’t say anything anymore.

Turkey was once a political place: protests, marches, voices in opposition to the state. There were elections, democracy, debate, human and civil rights… all the buzz words. Now all steps against power lead to prison. ‘These things happened so fast, it happened overnight’ people told us ‘we woke up one day and we couldn’t say anything anymore.’ The irony of learning about activism in a place where it couldn’t be practised was suffocating.

We returned to a different Greece. A Greece where the far-right had come from all over Europe to defend their racist, exclusive, murderous values. A Greece where the gloves were off and the government didn’t have to pretend to respect human rights anymore. A Greece of black-sites for pushbacks; a Greece that shoots refugees; a Greece that welcomes Neo-Nazis; a Greece that say yes to Europe and no to humanity.

Europe needs its youth to act now more than ever.

Europe needs its youth to act now more than ever. Our politicians do not represent us, our governments cannot speak for us, our policies do not work for us. If these are the dying days of Democracy in Europe, then let's learn from Turkey and not go quietly – Europe Must Act now, and if its governments won’t then its people must. If you are a young European and you want to be involved in change, you don’t need to go on a Youth Exchange to ponder how. Gandhi said it years ago: be the change you want to see in the world. Embody your values. Do it simply and do it well. Do it now.

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