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Scene in Berlin

Berlin Turks carry on long march for democracy

As the protests in Istanbul reverberated in Berlin, DW's Stuart Braun discovers an alternative side of the capital's Turkish community.

When I saw the red flags and a large crowd gathering on my local square earlier this month, it made sense the people were marching in solidarity with the protesters in Istanbul. Hundreds of thousands had just massed peaceably in Istanbul's Taksim square to oppose the government's unilateral decision to build a shopping mall in a local park. When police, unprovoked, hit protesters with tear gas, water canons and plastic bullets, it sent immediate shock into my neighborhood, the core of Europe's largest Turkish Diaspora.

The 10,000 protesters that gathered on my street in solidarity with Taksim was a strong show of support, a sizeable chunk of the 200,000-odd people of Turkish origin that live in Berlin. Here was the liberal, often secular, pro-democratic core of Berlin's Turkish community in action. It was a side of the community I hadn't quite appreciated, a side that contradicts the dominant media narrative of an isolated, religious, and highly conservative "parallel" society.

Perhaps, I started to believe, this Turkish community has also helped to shape Berlin's vaunted tolerance and liberality.

Taksim is everywhere, resistance is everywhere reads a sign at a demonstration in Berlin in July 2013

"Taksim is everywhere, resistance is everywhere"

Omnipresent Taksim

"Taksim is Everywhere. Resistance is Everywhere," reads the sign fronting a protest tent erected in the shadow of the social housing blocks that tower over Kreuzberg's Kottbusser Tor - a Turkish-dominated area sometimes known as Little Istanbul.

As people busily come and go from the tent featuring an image of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, I meet Ertegrul Genc, a journalist who fled Turkey 20 years ago. With him is Kamber Erkoçak, a human rights activist who once spent three years in a Turkish jail for his political beliefs. Genc and Erkoçak tell me that events in Taksim typify decades of oppression in their homeland. They remind me of the Taksim Square massacre of May 1, 1977, when security forces then killed 37 protesters. There has never been real democracy in Turkey, they say.

It seems inevitable that these Turkish political dissenters have sought refuge in freedom-loving Berlin. Many of them are Alevis, a humanist Muslim minority claiming to have been long persecuted in Turkey. A couple of weeks back, when I saw thousands gathering again with red flags in the square near my apartment, it was to remember a massacre of Alevi intellectuals and artists in Turkey two decades before. Among the hordes, I spied Genc holding up a "Taksim is Everywhere" banner.

"Democracy is living in Berlin," says Turhan Gülveren outside the protest tent at Kottbusser Tor. He had been an organizer of a small socialist political party in Istanbul when, in 1998, he evaded a certain jail sentence by seeking exile in Berlin. As proof that pro-Turkish government conservatives are in the minority in Berlin, Turhan says that these supporters of the regime have never staged a protest in the city. "The [Turkish] population here are mostly democratic and liberal," he claims. I soon start to believe him.

Nearby, Yeter serves me coffee and a pastry in the Lava bakery in Neukölln, on the border of Kreuzberg. As a former Istanbul resident, Yeter condemns the police violence in her home city. She says state oppression was similar when she left Turkey in 1986 to join her husband in Berlin, who was then studying accounting. Yeter respects her adopted home; here, she says, she can express her opinions and protest without fear of police violence.

Human rights activist Kamber Erkoçak at a demonstration in Berlin, July 2013

Human rights activist Kamber Erkoçak says there has never been real democracy in Turkey

Indeed, democracy and basic human rights have kept Yeter in Berlin, despite the bitterly cold winters and the fact that her "heart" is in Turkey.

But after nearly 30 years away, and with her daughter now working for the German embassy in Ankara, Yeter is now ready to return to Turkey. She hopes, however, like many Turkish-born Berliners of her generation, that there will be political change before she gets there.

A direct link

Turkish intellectuals, artists and activists are in the majority among the mixed crowd at Café Kotti on Kottbusser Tor. Set on a terrace of the peeling prefab housing blocks where many Turkish families reside, the mélange of ages, subcultures and nationalities that gather at the venue belie the popular media image of a pious, parallel Turkish world.

Café owner Ercan Yasaroglu, a social worker, was a student activist turned political refugee when he fled Turkey for Berlin in 1982. Hundreds of thousands of dissidents were then being jailed by the leaders of a 1980 military coup. He is, unsurprisingly, in solidarity with a long-running protest for refugee rights in nearby Oranienplatz, the walls of the café bearing photos of their recent demonstrations.

In Café Kotti I meet Sükriye Dönmez, who as a young child moved from Turkey to Kreuzberg with her parents and has lived here ever since, though she has been based in Istanbul for much of the past five years. An actor who has worked with award-winning German-Turkish director Fatih Akin, Sükriye was living on Taksim Square when the protests erupted. As tear gas drifted up into her apartment, she soon joined the anti-government rallies.

Café Kotti near Kottbusser Tor in Berlin

Café Kotti is a gathering place for Berlin's liberal Turks

As summer sun pours into the cafe, Sükriye says she deplores the violence on Taksim Square and abhors what she calls "macho," authoritarian Turkish leadership. The protests will continue, she adds.

When thousands of Berliners marched in step with the Taksim protests, Sükriye watched the footage in her Istanbul apartment. It was big news in Turkey, she recalls. "I believe that another 20,000 were with us in spirit," says Turhan of that day.

Though Turhan has two children, a wife and an IT business in Kreuzberg, he, like Yeter, would also like to return to Istanbul. But first real democracy must come to Turkey. It seems that, beyond Taksim, Kreuzberg will be a vital site for this struggle. "The fight goes on," says Turhan, "The fight has now just begun."

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