A Forgotten Community: Together with local partners, we provide post-earthquake support to Roma people in Türkiye

Published: Mar 31, 2023 Reading time: 5 minutes
Roma in Gaziantep supported by Kirkayak Kultur, PIN's local partner.
© Foto: Kieran Seager

Adorned in colourful dresses and jewellery and beads in their matted hair, their appearance is as unique as their customs and culture. They are a community apart.

Known by many names in as many languages, these are the Roma people, who for hundreds of years have lived on the edges of settled communities from the Indian subcontinent to the Anatolian Plateau. Centuries ago, the ancestors of the Roma set off from what is now India and Pakistan, on a journey they call “the great walk”. In many ways, this journey never ended – the Roma are still a migratory people. An estimated five million of them are scattered across the Middle East, 500,000 of whom live in Türkiye.

They once earned money as musicians, dancers, weavers, and soothsayers, providing services for the communities they lived beside. Over time, these traditional sources of income dried up, leaving the Roma increasingly impoverished. Among their neighbourhoods there are still remnants of this lively, altogether more ancient cultural past – young girls tie brass bells around their ankles, musical groups keep traditional folk songs alive, and many women wear ornate, handwoven dresses.

Yet their existence on the fringes of society has left them neglected and often forgotten. Unable to shed the negative connotations of their Roma heritage, they remain a largely disadvantaged community, even more so after the recent earthquake.

For the past dozen years, the Turkish NGO Kırkayak Kültür has been providing support for the Roma in Gaziantep through protection, education, and outreach initiatives. More recently, Kırkayak has provided basic items such as clothes, diapers, blankets, food, and other essential goods in the aftermath of the earthquake in February, which plunged many Roma into even greater depths of poverty.

PIN has been working with Kırkayak since September last year, and helped to facilitate post-earthquake distributions by donating 70,000 dollars and 500 blankets to the organisation, funded by PIN’s SOS Emergency Earthquake Appeal, with more donations to follow. Before the quake, many of the Roma in Gaziantep lived in poorly constructed houses in specifically Roma neighbourhoods of the city – houses which they are now afraid to return to.

“We ran out of our house during the earthquake,” said Abdullah*, “I had to carry my disabled daughter out of the house. We had no blankets, no shoes on our feet. Now we live in this tent out of fear. We haven’t been back to our home since that night. It’s a terrible tragedy.”

We sat in his tent, set on a grassy plain on the outskirts of Gaziantep. Finely decorated and draped over the chopped tree branches that held it up at either end, the women of the family made this tent in only three days; testament to their skill in handicrafts passed down over generations.

Abdullah was a fortune teller, although nowadays he makes little money from it. He opened his palm and showed us the wood and coloured ceramic soothsayer beads. He placed a string of beads in each of our hands and offered a prayer for our health – we are gadje after all, the Romani term for outsiders, and the Roma pride themselves on being a hospitable people.

At 85 years old, Abdullah is an elder of the Dom, one of the two tribes of Roma (the other being the Abdal) who live in Gaziantep. Their tribal name is derived from the Indian-rooted Domari language; a relic they carried with them from the great walk. Although Abdullah speaks Domari with his family, he is multilingual, as many Dom are, acquiring the local language of whatever community they live alongside.

Abdullah is originally from Syria, having fled the conflict with his wife and disabled daughter to continue his semi-nomadic lifestyle across the border. Borders do not stop the wandering Dom from carrying their culture and customs wherever they go. Yet the thought of being deported back to Syria is a fear that grips many Roma, particularly those who are undocumented and carry no formal ID.

“We ran away during the war when the violence in Syria got worse,” said Mariam*, another member of the Dom community, “the children were afraid, so we came here and lived in a basement for a while. We couldn’t afford anything else.”

After the earthquake, Mariam told us her main fear is being sent back to Syria. Having fled her home following the quake, Mariam and her family set up a cluster of worn-out tents next to a highway in Gaziantep. They have no steady source of income, as without a fixed address, permanent work is difficult to find. Her children go out in the day to collect scrap metal, cardboard, and other items to sell or scavenge, and travel outside of the city for agricultural work with the changing seasons.

“I am not in any condition to work, and I can’t support my family. We have no income – what are we to do?” she said.

Like many Roma, Mariam and her family have received little aid after the earthquake beyond that which Kırkayak has provided. The distribution of food, blankets, and other goods are essential to ensure the earthquake-affected Roma communities in Gaziantep can meet at least their most basic needs. For a people whose plight is often forgotten, and who have already endured conflict and natural disasters, it is a long road to recovery.

“This tragedy will never end. The world will never hear or see us,” Mariam said.

*Names have been changed for protection purposes.

Autor: Kieran James Seager, PIN's Communications Manager for Syria and Türkiye

Related articles