Cadi’s village, Mahala, in Istanbul, Turkey. (Sylvia Sawislak)

As I walk through a Roma village in Istanbul, I see pink and yellow painted houses that are rusting, with open windows that have clothes hanging down the sides. There is trash everywhere I step. Ahead of me in the distance, I see tall buildings that are multicolored and modern. These are the apartment buildings that are replacing the Roma village. As Roma activist Sadi Cati shows me around, the Roma people living in the little houses look very unhappy while staring at me.

These are the things I witnessed while visiting Mahala, a village in Istanbul, Turkey that has been predominantly populated by Roma people for over 50 years. When I visited, the people who live there were under threat: The government is trying to take over their village, which houses 2,400 Roma people, and replace it with high rise apartment complexes.

They have already built 300-units of these complexes on the outskirts of the village—as the development progresses, the buildings are inching towards the center of the village, where the Roma people live. None of the residents of Mahala will be able to afford to live in these buildings—each costs $700 or more per month. Everyone will be displaced: forced to move with nowhere else to go.

Sadi Cati is one of the people who stands to be displaced from Mahala. He and his wife Safika have lived there for over 60 years. During that time, the Turkish government has tried to evict Sadi and his wife from their house numerous times, falsely claiming that they weren’t paying rent. Now they may actually be evicted because of the new apartment complex.

“They are offering us to live [in the apartments] but we cannot pay. Not even normal Turkish people can afford to live there” he said through a translator. The government wants to build in Cati’s village because it’s cheap to develop and they are able to force the Roma people out. The government wants to maximize profit the easiest way. Cati says that the government has already bulldozed two other Roma villages, one in 2006 and one in 2008.

Cati also points out that culturally, it is not appropriate to move to those apartments. He and his family and all of his neighbors have lived in Mahala for over 50 years. These are their deep roots and the developers shouldn’t
be able to drive them out, which the government overlooks.

Sadi’s village is already suffering without much electricity or enough space for the big families that live in one room houses. The reason for this is that Roma people have been discriminated against by the Turkish government for centuries. For anyone un- familiar with the term Roma, it refers to an ethnic minority that predominantly lives in Eastern Europe. Roma people immigrated to Europe from Northern India between the 6th and 11th century, and has been among one of the most discriminated and persecuted ethnic groups in Europe ever since. They are historically known as travelers, or more commonly known as “Gypsies,” which is a derogatory slur and should not be used.

If the apartment complex is completed, it would only further the disempowerment of the Roma people. Family relations will become damaged because displacement causes disruption in families as they move apart from each other. Where do these families move? Cati says many move to another village called Kordela, which is two to three hours away. It’s a big challenge for families to move because they have no cars. Public transportation typically refuses to allow Roma people on their buses because they’re thought of as “filthy” and “thieves.” As families leave some way or another, they disperse and lose each other.

This story should not feel uncommon. In the United States, our government is doing the exact same thing. The parts of our cities that were once once predominantly populated by people of color—such as West Oakland, or South Berkeley—are being gentrified, and many long-time residents have been displaced. As rent becomes too high, they have to move away from the places they have lived all their lives.

In the past two months, the government has told at least 20 families in Mahala to come to the Municipality and sign a paper, get your money, and empty your house within 15 days. Sadi still lives in his house but has witnessed many of his neighbors leave because they were kicked out.

“I want land title. We have lived here 60-70 years and we have a right to this land. I don’t want any more buildings built” Sadi says.

About Sadi Cati

Sadi Cati is a Roma activist who fights for his community, which faces severe discrimination from the Turkish government. He was born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey and is 68 years old. As he tried to pursue an education, he dropped out of primary school because of financial limitations, but was able to complete primary education when he was an adult.

Cati became an activist in 2004. He has been inspired by what is happening in his village. As he and his community face severe discrimination, he has set his mind on his goals for their collective future. In his words, his hopes are to help “the poor people live a good life.”

Sadi says the most unforgettable moment in his activist career was when he witnessed the police destroying the houses of Roma people in his village, “as if they were enemies and they were at war with these people.”

In 2010, he gathered 2000 signatures as part of a petition to stop the destruction of Roma people’s houses. He wants to do more in the future but he says he needs more people to stand by his side.

Prior to committing himself to activism, he spent a lot of his time practicing religion. But Sadi doesn’t have a lot of free time. He dedicates his life to the gentrification issues that are happening in his village, and is considered a leader in his community. ■

Sylvia Sawislak is a freshman at UC Santa Cruz. She was previously the Youth Spirit Artworks Street Spirit leader.