Situated on Kalyoncu Kulluk Caddesi, a few houses down from the police station on Tarlabaşı Boulevard, the Tarlabaşı Community Centre has become an institution in the neighbourhood, providing free education, lectures and a place to spend after school time for seven years – but financial problems might now force the centre to shut its doors forever.
The centre was opened in 2005 as a project of the Istanbul Bilgi University Centre for Migration Research. “We founded the centre to assist Tarlabaşı residents, and mainly the women and children, to adapt to life in the city. Most of the people here are migrants who have moved to Istanbul from [rural areas] of Turkey”, Neşe Erdilek, sociologist and head of the community centre, said.
The centre offers various courses and lectures for all residents who can find the time to attend: lectures on women’s health and hygiene for women and girls, literacy courses, psychological assistance to parents and children for issues like drug addiction, domestic violence or the challenges they face with family relationships, parenting, or inter-family communication. Volunteer teachers provide homework clubs, visual arts, guitar and rhythm classes amongst many others. In addition to that, the community centre works with several lawyers who provide free legal council on demand.
Now the Tarlabaşı Community Centre struggles for survival – if no new institutional sponsor is found, the centre might have to close its doors as early as December of this year.
Initially funded by the EU, the centre received financial support from a private foundation after the EU Project came to an end, single projects and activities were financed by separate sponsors. While most of the people working at the centre are volunteers, fixed costs are very high: 6250 Turkish Lira of monthly rent alone, plus amenity bills, and salaries for the small core of local full time employees. “We are in a very serious financial crisis”, Erdilek said. “But we hope we will find supporters in Turkey, so that we do not have to close.” The Beyoglu Municipality pulled out of the project when EU funding ended and has not renewed the partnership since.
“From the very beginning we made clear that our association does not support any party politics”, Neşe Erdilek points out. Only a few doors up the street is the headquarter of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) – how hard is it to keep out of politics in an area where about 50% of the residents are Kurdish, and where clashes centered around the BDP headquarters with the police are relatively common? Erdilek says that the centre successfully managed not to get involved: “We drew a very clear line and made clear that we want to be a centre for all residents of Tarlabaşı – not a centre for Kurds, for Roma, or anyone in particular.”
Inter-ethnic tensions between Kurdish and Roma residents are a problem that the centre successfully tackled: “Provocations, if they occur, mostly come from outside the neighbourhood”, Erdilek says. “We never took sides for one or the other, and they know and understand that here, everyone is equal. People from all areas [of Turkey] fully trust us now, they know that everyone will get advice and help if they ask for it.”
She underlines that the community centre is not a charity, and that people do not receive any goods or money. “And since we made that clear from the beginning, nobody has ever asked for anything”, she explains. “Taking [alms] from someone puts people in a very difficult position morally, it takes away their pride, and it becomes a habit: they will not try to earn something by themselves, but will get used to ask others for help.” She smiles. “We try to raise the children in our centre to be proud of what they are doing.”
12-year-old Mert has been coming to the centre for five years. “It’s great here”, he says, sitting over his homework. “I love it here, because our teachers treat us so well, they are so nice to us, and I learn a lot.” If he can find the time, he comes seven times a week: for homework, to learn English, to go to the Games Lab. “It’s an awesome place.” His friend Ibrahim agrees. “I have been coming here for three years – learning English, and for art classes. I do all my homework in the centre.”
A place to do homework – a quiet room, a desk, a chair, a person who will help where help is needed – is not a given for many children in Tarlabaşı. “The international standard for a child’s wellbeing is that they have a room of their own. If we adapt that to Turkey, the question should be if they have a bed of their own”, Ebru Ergün, psychologist at the centre, explained. Many Tarlabaşı residents live in poverty and whole families often have to share two or three rooms.
In addition, public schools in Turkey rarely offer after school activities, sports or homework clubs, and private tutors and classes are expensive, far out of the reach of lower income groups which is yet another reason that the centre is so popular in Tarlabaşı.
“[When we first opened the centre], people here were suspicious and it took a while for them to understand and accept us”, Erdilek recalls. “Now, after seven years, we have their full confidence. First children came here, and then their mothers.” And she adds: “Very recently, fathers have also started to come, and they want to talk about their issues, too.” Every month, about 200 children and 60 women come to the centre on average, and every term, about 50 volunteers work here.
11-year-old Sevcan and 13-year-old Melike have both come for the first time to the centre this term, and are excitedly planning the courses they want to take: “I want to do visual arts”, says Melike. “I would love that.” Sevcan nods: “We don’t want the centre to close. It is the thing I love most about our neighbourhood.” And do the children like Tarlabaşı? Mert laughs and jumps up: “It’s the best place in the world!”
Donations to the Tarlabaşı Community Centre can be made at:
Tarlabaşı Toplumunu Destekleme Derneği hesabı
Garanti Bankası – Cumhuriyet Caddesi-Taksim Şubesi