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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

Rags & Riches
March 18, 2000

Hail whizzed by my face as I tried to look up at the area around me. The swift winds made the little ice pellets hit even harder, so I buried my face in my scarf. "Come on! You can stop to look once we get inside!" my friend Oslem hurried me along. It was my first time in Kushtepe, but it seemed that the cold storm didn't want me to see any more of this part of Istanbul than the gray slush melting in the potholes. Head down, I set my gaze on Oslem's boots and followed her weaving through the puddles...the quicker we make it inside, the happier we'd both be!

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And where, you might ask, were we going? To school of course! Oslem is a junior International Relations major at one of Istanbul's newest universities, Istanbul Bilgi University (IBU), and she thought that visiting her school would be an interesting trip for me. You see IBU is one of the finest universities in Turkey, and like fine universities all over the world, IBU attracts some of the wealthiest students around. The irony is that this university was built in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Istanbul, Kushtepe. "We 'invaded' the neighborhood 5 years ago," explained Oslem.

Kushtepe is known to most Turks as a slum or a ghetto. "It's where the gypsies live," I've been told by many people. There were no gypsies in sight as I made my way towards the enormous modern building ahead of me.

"AAHHHH!!!," Oslem and I sighed in relief as we entered the large glass doors. The warm embrace of the heated building soothed our chilled bones.

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With our wet coats off, I could finally start to take in a little of my surroundings. IBU's campus consists of only 2 buildings, but these huge buildings are as state of the art as they come! The large glass walls and high ceilings let in a lot of light and allowed me to get a good view of the world around me as well as the world outdoors....and what different worlds they are. Inside the bright, warm building were hip, young students, dressed in the latest name brand fashions from Europe and America. Outside, in the cold gray rains, were covered women rushing into old houses with leaking metal roofs. There were children running by carrying newspapers over their heads. "Where are they going?" I wondered to myself. "Why aren't they in school too? Don't they have umbrellas or raincoats? Is there a warm building or home for them to escape to like I just did?"

Now I can see why Oslem suggested I visit her school. It wasn't the university itself she thought I should see, it was the huge division between rich and poor...a division that seems to grow larger and larger even when the two worlds get closer and closer, as is the case here in Kushtepe.


notorious - well-known, having a reputation (usually a negative one)
secular - having no relation to religion

All over the world poor peasants from rural areas have been migrating to large industrialized cities, and Turkey is no exception to this trend. In 1980, 43.9% of Turkey's population lived in cities, today it is over 67%. Istanbul, which is already the largest city in Europe, attracts almost half a million new citizens a year... mostly peasants from Turkey's wild and undeveloped east, an area called Anatolia. The peasants from these rural regions come to the cities in search for a better life. They arrive in the cities with no land or money , and often build shacks for homes out of whatever materials they can find. In Turkey, these shacks are called gecekondus, which literally means "built overnight." Kushtepe is just one of many neighborhoods that have sprouted up around Istanbul in the past few decades as a result of just such a migration. The gypsies from the east moved in and started building their gecekondus. It didn't matter to them that the land was technically government land, all that mattered was that they could have a roof over their heads at night. Within a few years, Kushtepe's population had grown to such a degree that relocating all these families was out of the question. Illegal or not, shantytowns like Kushtepe are here to stay.

Wealth, Poverty & Religion
Is there a relation between wealth and poverty and religion? I'm not sure, but this question enters my mind a lot as I travel to new countries and learn about new areas stricken with poverty. After all, it was the poor people who missionaries most easily attracted to Christianity in many parts of Latin America, Africa, and India. People in desperate situations becoming increasingly aware of the inequalities around them were told of a God that saw them all as equals. They saw hope in praying for a world that was better than the one this life had offered them. Here in Turkey too, the poor people in neighborhoods like Kushtepe have found hope through religion. And the religion they have been exposed to here is Islam. While on the surface Turkey is striving to adapt to Ataturk's vision of a modern, secular nation, neighborhoods like Kushtepe remain very much traditionally Muslim.

IBU's campus is a prime example. While the students of IBU walk around in their latest fashions, the people of Kushtepe dress in conservative Muslim tradition--women with scarves over their hair and some even covered in full veils. The conservative Islamic political parties find much of their support in poor neighborhoods like Kushtepe. While Turkish people around them seem to be getting richer and richer, driving nicer cars and wearing fancier clothes, the people of Kushtepe feel more and more alienated by the secular government that does nothing to improve their situation. Unlike the leading secular political parties, the conservative Islamic party addresses these peoples' immediate needs. "They have built a Koranic school that educates and houses boys from the area for free. They also bring people gifts like food to eat, water in the summer, and coal in the winter," said Oslem as she tried to explain some of the reasons why neighborhoods like Kushtepe are generally so conservative. Whether it's an escape from their reality through prayer and hope, or a political party that addresses their needs, religion is an important part of life for many of the impoverished people of Turkey.

But as Istanbul grows and becomes more cosmopolitan, so too grow property prices. So when a new university wants to open in an ever-growing city, where can they go? Where can they find land to buy and build on? Yup, you guessed it! In the heart of the city, Kushtepe is a prime location. IBU bought the land from the government, and in 1996 "invaded" the area, and Kushtepe will never be the same again. The big, new university brought fancy new cars and a flashy modern culture that is in stark contrast to the conservative culture of the people of Kushtepe. "The first year we were here, the people on the streets would stop everything and stare if they saw a woman wearing pants. If they saw a man and woman walking together, they would practically faint," recalls Oslem. "Now they are used to us. I'd have to carry my boyfriend on my back to get them to look twice now!"

There is one draw back to IBU's central location, though. Like all "ghettos" or "slums," Kushtepe is known to those who don't live there as a dangerous place to be, a place where you cannot walk alone without being held up or mugged. How can you open a university that will be attended by the richest 1% of the country and place it in such a notorious location? IBU's answer has been security, and lots of it. There are security guards all over the tiny campus, and IDs are checked when anyone enters the buildings. It actually reminded me a lot of visiting Columbia University in New York. Columbia is on the border of Harlem, which, unfortunately, also has a reputation of being a dangerous place for some people. I remember finding it odd how intensely you needed to check your IDs at every building and every dorm when I visited Columbia.

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The streets around IBU's campus have changed quite a bit in the past 5 years. There are now a number of sandwich shops and convenience stores that were opened to cater to all the new students arriving in the area. But beyond these immediate surroundings, students from the university told me, it is not safe to walk around or park your car too far away. Just a block away from the campus, the hill starts to slope downwards, in to the great unknown--a dangerous place where it is said that cars get stolen and drugs are sold.

Your Turn!!!

What creates such different cultures between the poor and the rich? Why is good education so out of reach for most poor children?

Share your thoughts
and see what others wrote!

Oslem took me on a quick tour of IBU's beautiful facilities: the classrooms, the radio station, the computer labs, and their incredibly plush cinema hall. "I was surprised to see this enormous film projector," laughs Oslem. "It's probably worth as much as Turkey's national deficit!" We went to the dining hall where all the students hang out in between classes and ate some surprisingly yummy food (not bad for a school cafeteria!). After a few hours, she had to go to class, so we said goodbye and I decided to leave the comfortable and sheltered college to make my way home in the rough outdoors. She had told me that I could just flag a bus down in front of the campus, rather than walking too far to the bus stop, but the weather had cleared up a bit, and I decided to see for myself what Kushtepe was really like. I made my way past the parked BMW's, Land Rovers, and Mercedes and started walking down one of the "dangerous" streets.

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larger view
I found myself gripping on to my purse and walking with that slightly scared feeling I sometimes get walking alone at night. Then, two girls ran across the street. They stopped and looked at me and started giggling. Maybe Oslem and her boyfriend can get away without being stared at these days, but a tall Indian girl with a nose ring isn't your normal sight on the streets of Kushtepe! An older woman, whose hair was hidden behind a scarf, came to hurry the girls along. She looked at me and smiled shyly, then turned away. I kept walking until an old woman sitting in front of a shop started calling to me. She was speaking in Turkish, so I couldn't understand her, but it seemed as if she was asking me if I was lost. I smiled and started to tell her I was just looking around, but I knew she couldn't understand my English either. But as I've found in many places that we've visited on the world trek, sometimes language doesn't matter, and within minutes the man from inside the shop joined us carrying a chair for me to sit on. They brought me a cup of tea, and using my small Turkish phrase book, we shared a little small talk, but mostly just laughed and used sign language to communicate. The old woman's daughter returned home and greeted me with a smile. She spends her days selling flowers on the street in one of the richer areas of Istanbul, and even today, through all the hail and wind, sat outside under a plastic tarp trying to sell anything she could. After a half hour or so, I thanked them for the tea, and caught my bus headed home.

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As I sat on the bus looking out at the small homes of Kushtepe, with gardens of small herbs and flowers planted in old cans, with broken windows and tin roofs, I wondered, how could all the students at IBU be scared of this place and of these kind people? We all know places like Kushtepe; places we've been taught to fear. Like Soweto in South Africa or Harlem in New York, historically poorer places have acquired reputations of being dangerous. But maybe it's our own fear of these places that keep these myths alive and keeps the division between the rich and the poor more defined rather than more understood.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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