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Reporting housing protests: Interview with journalist Hazar Dost-I

Mert Batur

Click to read in Kurdish or Turkish.

Journalist Hazar Dost discussed the housing problem and the murder of Mehmet Sami Tuğrul.

Hazar Dost is a journalist who has been making important coverage about the right to housing since September 2021 and was detained while investigating this issue. We discussed with Hazar what happened in the past year regarding the housing problem, the “We cannot find shelter” (“Barınamıyoruz”) protests, and the coverage of Mehmet Sami Tuğrul’s murder, which led to his detention.

Hazar Dost talked about the housing problems he witnessed while working as a journalist in Istanbul and the situation he saw in Antalya while investigating the murder of Mehmet Sami Tuğrul. We discussed the solutions to the housing problem and the core characteristics of this problem.

“In 2021, while the capacity of KYK dormitories decreased, that of the İlim Yayma Cemiyeti increased”

You have covered the housing problem before the last year’s “We cannot find shelter” protests. So let’s start from there. What was the situation before the protests?

At that time, the issue regarding the student housing crisis was exploding because the number of Credit and Dormitories Institution (KYK) dormitories remained stable. Still, the number of students was constantly increasing. During this pandemic period, it was not noticed much due to remote learning and online classes. While the number of students increased in these two years, and since no KYK dormitories were built, students were expected to encounter a particular problem when returning to the dormitory. The landlords followed a different path by making the two-year hike at once. That was the moment when the student housing crisis unfolded. Students all over Istanbul started looking for houses simultaneously, which revived the market.

Something else emerged at the same time: The capacity of the dormitories close to the government was constantly increasing. We started to investigate how this happened. We saw an increase of up to 200 percent in the capacity of five publicly known foundations. This increase was due to the transfer of public resources and the opportunities provided by the municipalities. We knew this from the Turkish Youth Foundation (TÜGVA) documents that were leaked before, but we did not realize that it was at such an intensity.

Some foundations made this information public, but some kept it secret. For example, the İlim Yayma Cemiyeti (according to its website, the foundation performs due to ‘national and moral values which founded more than a hundred İmam Hatip Okulu -a Sunni-based religious school) is hiding it. The İlim Yayma Cemiyeti is one of the foundations that achieved the highest capacity increase with the government because most of the dormitories taken from FETO after July 15 (the military coup attempt in 2016) were allocated to this foundation.

Isn’t this the foundation that Bilal Erdoğan, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son, is on the Board of Directors?

Yes. One of the reasons why dormitories are allocated to this foundation is that they have been assigned to these works for years. While the government gave the “civil society” part of this work to foundations such as Ensar and TÜGVA, it also gave the duty of student dormitories to the İlim Yayma Cemiyeti. The İlim Yayma Cemiyeti was also hiding the information and financial source about the dormitories. That’s what we revealed. When we studied the annual reports in which the dormitories’ addresses were listed, we saw that the dorm addresses were increasing page by page over the years. The dormitory list was only one page in 2010 and had reached three or four pages by 2021.

The government claimed to increase the capacity of KYK dormitories in this process, but in 2021 it became clear that the accommodations in Istanbul had decreased. For example, some KYK dormitories were closed after the July 15 coup attempt. Because either because the property owner of these dormitories is directly Fethullahist or because FETO took over these dorms in an incredible way, there was no other choice but to close them. Of course, the victims were, again, the students.

The situation with the rents was also bad. For example, Kocamustafapaşa is one of the most popular districts for students. Today, the rent of a 1+1 house in the district is five-six thousand Turkish liras. When I was there in September or October 2021, a landlord asked 1,400 Turkish liras for a windowless flat. It was very high, and the rent is probably three to four thousand Turkish liras today. Since a student with a KYK scholarship would not be able to pay for this place, an ever-widening housing crisis began.

“Two days after the Ministry said that the bunk system ended, it opened a bunk bed tender”

Was the situation last year unusual situation or did we experience the beginning of a long-term problem?

That was definitely a start. Here’s where we’ll see how big this crisis truly is: Why didn’t the thousands of students who won this year enroll in the university? Is it the economic crisis, the housing problem, or the livelihood problem? Every year, the number of students placed in the university breaks a record, but this year’s number is also a record for those who do not register. (Around 105 thousand this year) The size of the crisis is huge in places like Istanbul, where students live intensely. Today, four students cannot come together and buy a house in Istanbul.

There is a straightforward equation: While the area where students can live is kept constant in at least 27 cities, this need cannot be met if the number of students constantly increases. Due to the housing crisis, no house can be found, and even those with a house become displaced. The government is trying to solve the increasing housing problem in Istanbul by not developing a dormitory policy.

For example, we follow the tenders of dormitories. The Minister of Youth and Sports stated: “We ended the bunk bed system in the dormitories.” However, two days later, the Ministry opened a tender to maintain and purchase bunk beds in dormitories. That means it didn’t end, and a new system was not introduced.

The government claims that dormitory capacities have increased by 100,000 this year but conceals that a significant part of this increase is due to the number of beds in dormitory rooms. The four-person rooms were extended to six, and the six-person rooms to eight.

The demand for quality accommodation in KYK dormitories is already prominent. After all, accommodation isn’t only about being within four walls. Quality accommodation is a form where students can study, sleep, listen to music, and engage in social activities comfortably. The main issue that creates the problem here is the government’s dormitory policy.

While the foundations to which public resources are transferred are marketing themselves with “We are waiting for you,” in KYK dormitories, students have to stay in dire conditions, or as in Boğaziçi University, students are directed to these dormitories.

“Everyone was aware, but no one could react alone”

Last year, while students struggled with all these problems, “We cannot find shelter” vigils started. You followed these vigils as well. What were your observations in terms of the debate both in the parks and in public?

I think there are two reasons why the “We cannot find shelter” protests spread and were embraced by the public very quickly. First, everyone was aware of the increase in real estate prices, but it was absurd to react to it alone. The fact that the students were sitting in a park and saying, “We cannot find shelter,” caused the demands to be embraced quickly by people who thought, “We really can’t find accommodation; if we look for a house, we can’t find it.” Secondly, this is a severe problem, not a problem that can be solved immediately, but it is a vital problem. For these two reasons, these demands spread very quickly. Everything the students said was based on a very legitimate point.

The enthusiastic support for the students’ demands included the demands of all workers and unemployed people who had the same problem. For this reason, vigils spread rapidly. It was also quickly embraced politically. However, statements of the government on this issue were not convincing. Students who said, “we cannot find shelter,” were labeled as “related to such and such,” and the response was, “Is this the solution now?” Regarding the youth movement, the vigils were perhaps the reflection of the most real politics and the most real demand on the street since 2014-15, and they put the housing crisis on Turkey’s agenda.

The news agency reported: ‘Murder in student dormitory’

Right after these vigils, we learned that Mehmet Sami Tuğrul was killed in a community dormitory in Antalya. You also set out to investigate this but were detained at the city’s entrance. What happened before and after?

After Mehmet Sami Tuğrul was killed, there was a news report from the news agency saying, “Murder in the student dormitory.” We also started investigating. We talked to the security sources, and they told us they could not issue an information note. I don’t know why because it’s impossible for the police not to issue a memo. We learned that an information note was not issued due to order. So I went to Antalya to investigate it.

They showed me a detention warrant issued against me. So, yes, there was such a decision. But there was neither a reason nor a date on it. On the warrant issue, only the year 2021 was written. In other words, the police, who showed me this document, could have taken me into custody at any time. So we realized that something was interesting there.

As a matter of fact, the dormitory was unregistered. The president of Antalya  İlim ve Kültür Derneği (ALİM-DER) was the assistant principal at an imam hatip high school, and the vice president of the association was an academician at Akdeniz University. The property on which the dormitory belonged to the security chief inspector. They were high-ranking officials working in government offices and security forces and ran an illegal sect dormitory in the heart of Antalya.

The main concern of the students there was: “Do we have to put up with this?” Everyone was asking about my news source. My source was the students who rebelled because they had to stay in these dormitories due to impossible accommodation. Akdeniz University students, whom I did not know, were texting me; they were reporting everything. That was part of their reaction. Most of them said they knew me from the “We can’t find shelter” vigils.

The monthly fee of the place known as the dormitory where Mehmet Sami Tuğrul was killed was 450-500 Turkish liras. Officials said it was not a dormitory. Students stated that they regularly paid this fee every month. Students regularly pay rent, roommates are determined, and people wear slippers inside. How is this not a dorm? No investigation was conducted about the incident. The case was closed. I was detained because I went there. It will probably turn into a lawsuit, but there has been no investigation into what happened there. It was a murder like the Susurluk accident. It was a case that showed how these sects are linked with the police, the university, the Ministry of National Education, and the state.

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