“I wish people would be curious on who the person standing in front of them is, would put aside their prejudices and talk to them, and most important of all, would listen to them. Then the gateway of an Africa they never suspected will be wide open to them!”
In recent years one of the most important social changes that occurred in Turkey is its transformation into destination that receives very large number of migrants. Our social identity is shaped by variables such as geography, language, religion and ethnicity and this underlies some sociological approaches to the question. When international migration and the associated topics of social exclusion and discrimination are examined, we realize that certain ethnic groups among migrants are more likely to be excluded than others.
This intolerance is fueled by anti-immigrant rhetoric and practices finding expression as hatred, discrimination, and it is ultimately the result of deep insecurity experienced by the society that act as host to the foreigners. At a time when the rapid growth of the migrant population in Turkey is generating opposition in the society, I conducted this interview with Dr. Guler Canbulat, a postdoctoral researcher in the “Sub-Saharan African Migration to Turkey Turkey” project, led by Professor Mahir Saul.
Can you tell us about yourself, Guler Canbulat?
Guler Canbulat. I’m 40 years old. I was born in Kayseri and grew up in Izmir. I came to Istanbul to go to college. I have been living in Istanbul for the past 20 years. Currently I work, as you mentioned, as a postdoctoral researcher in this project hosted by Kadir Has University. During my university cursus, I transitioned from architecture, art management, communication and cinema to migration studies, thus receiving an education in a way that gave me a broad perspective. I earned a master’s degree in Communication Sciences from Kadir Has University. In did my PhD and I successfully defended my thesis at Bahçeşehir University, Department of Cinema and Media Research. My research is generally interdisciplinary, combines different disciplinary pespectives.
You are currently part of a team at Kadir Has University working in a TUBITAK project on African migrants. What led you to work on that topic?
In 2015, I married an immigrant who was a citizen of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I can say that this is what brought me in contact with migration studies. At that point in time, I had just started my PhD and was still working in the field of communication, but I wasn’t sure what subject I wanted to tackle for my doctoral thesis. In 2014, I had served as an assistant in a summer school. It focused on migrants living in Istanbul. It was part of a collaboration between Delft University in the Netherlands and Bilgi University in Istanbul. Merve Bedir, a Doctoral student at Delft U. at the time, was organizing it, and I was working as his helper in Istanbul. We walked the streets, introducing ourselves and talking to migrants and trying to get a sense of the climate. At that time Syrians migrants were very dominant. That’s was my introduction into the migration topic. As I was able to speak French I was dealing mostly with Africans. That’s when I met the person who ended up being husband. It turned out that we were also neighbors and our acquaintance turned into a friendship. We decided to get married in 2015. In Turkey, Turkish women who marry African men like to talk about the “African bride” (Afrika gelini). I don’t like that expression, but it is true that when you marry an African, you kind of become part of that community. It is as if you were absorbed as a relative, it is a condition that they respect very much. My husband is Congolese, for example, but all the Africans I meet show me a lot of respect, as if I were their own sister-in-law. I was already a person who could communicate with migrants easily, but this “sister-in-law” situation gave me a major added advantage in conducting research among Africans.
Later, in migrant social environment, certain phenomena starting drawing my attention as a result of personal observation. For example, that they were making an excessive use of phone and internet, that they were greatly involved in commerce, they were absolutely dedicated to cloths and adornment… As I became familiar with such behavior, the initial curiosity started turning into academic questions. Before I became familiar with Congolese communities, I was thinking of them as people fleeing war and starvation, as the general stereotype of Syrian migrants in Turkey is. Or I was thinking of them migrants who want to transit through Turkey to reach Western Europe. As I became familiar with them, I realized that the situation was different. Going abroad was a step for them toward the objective of achieving a dream; often it was also an investment many times… The dream can be to achieve a good life, or to become a businessman or a businesswoman. In the course of my research, I learned how important dreams and desires are in motivating African migrants to international mobility. I noticed for example that the first thing a migrant arriving from Congo would do in the city was often to go and buy new clothes for himself or herself, which I found fascinating.
You are saying that when these migrants come to Turkey the first thing they do is change their image. Would you think that they are doing this in order to adapt to Turkey?
No, it’s a change to achieve an image that is completely internal to their own culture. There is an image of a Congolese person going to Europe, they are trying to look like that, not like the Turks. In fact, there is a special name that is applied the Congolese who go to Europe, they are called “mikiliste”. Its literal meaning (in Lingala) is something like “the person who measures up to worlds”. It is really a cool thing to be called that. In the past, they would send home photos of themselves from Europe where they posed in this new image. You know, the workers who went to Germany from Turkey also sent back pictures, in the ’80s and ’90s they were doing something very similar. Congolese who immigrated to France and Belgium apparently send pictures of themselves from there, and if they could afford it would return home with gifts for the holidays. What I noticed is that this culture is digitizing. Now I see tht these new image photos are posted on Facebook, and they receive support in culturally appropriate ways with comments like “Hey, you mikiliste, you look so sharp!” or “You’ve become a true European!” And I realized that these people who were trying to reach western Europe were not running away from war or starvation as I had thought, most of them were simply pursuing their dreams, and that is what I wrote in my doctoral dissertation.
You wrote a doctoral dissertation entitled “Mediatization of migration culture through information and communication technologies!” Can you tell us a little bit about the content of your thesis?
As I already said, when I started my research I did not know all that much on African migrants. I became aware in my conversations of the dream of being able to migrate outside of the African continent and acquire mobility, of the desire to achieve a good life or of the goal of becoming a businessman or a businesswoman, and the prestige that all this brings. After conducting a number of interviews, I engaged in a period of heavy reading in order to determine the sections of my work. I read about first of all about the history of modern Congo, then about the migration of Congolese, intra-African migration, the two great wars that affected the country and the waves of migration that come with them. With the knowledge thus acquired, I tried to define separately the kind of migration that is undertaken following the dreams, as was just telling you, and I focused on the idea of going to Europe, that is, accessing worlds other than Africa. This idea was established in the popular culture of Kinshasa, the capital of the Congo, starting in the 70s and 80s. Then it was reproduced and brought again to the country by Congolese in the migrant diaspora. For example, one of the most popular singers of the Congo, Papa Wemba, at some point in his life settled in Europe and the lyrics of many of his songs is about the Congolese migrants in Europe, the Mikilists. There is a word for Congolese who adopt a fashionable and extravagant clothing style, they are called Sapeur. These popular songs, give expression to pursuing the west European dream, the fun aspects of life in Europe, but also the difficulties. Today, this issue of migration out of Africa is still an important part of popular Congolese culture, but now it has been carried over to a digital environment. The songs have been replaced by Facebook posts or YouTube videos. Life in Europe, or rather life of a world that lies outside the African continent, is now publicized in digital format.
In fact, you are describing the transformation migrant life after the spread of digital culture and social media networks.
Yes, we can say that the channels haves changed. And, of course, and with the development of technology, migrants became more connected. For example, this is how they explain it to me: “A friend whom I knew from my neighborhood [went to France] and one day I saw that he had posted on Facebook a picture of himself taken in front of the Eiffel Tower. I thought to myself: ‘if he can do it, so can I’ and I left.” This connectivity is also crucially important when migrants plot their travel paths. For example, a Congolese person who is in Turkey but who plans to continue his travel toward Europe is simultaneously in contact with others who are presently in Congo but want to come here, with their countrymen who have been living as migrants in Turkey for many years, and also, through channels of modern communication, with Congolese migrants who had been in Turkey but have gone to Europe and live there. Consequently, they evaluate the possibilities and their options in light of these connection and take decisions accordingly. In my research, I’ve found that technology helps immigration in very important ways. The theory of social networks had been focusing on such issues a long time ago, but we can say with confidence that the new information and communication technologies accelerated and made tremendously more effective the social networks of migrants.
Actually, isn’t it that way with us, too? Especially if we consider the Turkey-Germany migration of the past; Relatives and friends would tempt each other. Which is something still happening in our day…
That is exactly right, that’s something that already existed, as you suggest. And it has already been theorized before. What is the difference now? It is the digital environment and the acceleration. In the past, for example, you could lose communication with a person who has traveled. Now you can find it on Facebook and reconnect. I want to underline especially the impact of Facebook, because, you can change countries for example, or you can change your telephone number, but on Facebook you’re always in the same place. I know it from my spouse, too. Very frequently somebody calls him and says, “How can I come over there? How can we get from there to Europe?” The digital environment facilitates and accelerates this. Yes, there’s always been distance communication and the exchange of ideas, the same logic operated, but digital technology has made this communication much easier today, and faster. For example, when I tried to understand how the migrants perform trade, how the Congolese in particular were doing it, there were previous studies on the subject, especially there were the publications of Mahir Saul, and I learned very much from them. For Africans, normally you had to have some saved money that you could use as capital, to do business with. Or otherwise, you would serve as guide to visiting African traders and you can start making money that way. Or you could buy some merchandise and send it to a trusted person back home; if it’s sold, you would make a profit. However, with the new technology, it is now possible to earn money without following these conventional paths, without having any initial capital. Migrants who have no money for trading, for example, go to the stores around the Grand Bazaar or to Laleli and take pictures of the products displayed there. They then post these photographs and share them with people in their network through apps like WhatsApp or Facebook. Other people abroad see these pictures and pass an order from abroad. So the prospective trader takes orders on his phone or the Internet, with no need for starting capital, and gets paid for that order before he makes the purchase, and of course, this money includes his commission. In other words, as I provided examples in my thesis, using digital media in this way it is possible to start trading even without any capital. In summary, in my doctoral research I tried to understand in what way exactly the digital transformation affected the lives of migrants.
What is your take on Prof. Saul’s “Sub-Saharan African Migrants in Turkey” project and where do you stand in this project?
Mahir Hodja already had 20 years of work behind him on “African Migrants in Turkey”. He had already accomplished two year-long projects with grants he had secured from funding agencies abroad. So he had perfect control of the field. I think the support given to this new project is very significant. The TUBITAK program that funded his proposal was established in order to bring back to Turkey important academics originally from Turkey who developed careers abroad. I find that decision very appropriate. Besides, in the past 20 years Africa acquired great important place in Turkey’s foreign policy. Turkey wants to build strong ties in Africa, our businessmen and politicians want to start cooperative links, but the problem is, we don’t know Africa well. This recent interest in Africa has very week academic background or support. This is because we don’t have an African Studies tradition going back many years, as is the case in Europe or in North America. The work that exists is too limited in volume and scope. Therefore, I think this project is very important. It is very important that Mahir Hodja gathered this team of people who are interested in this field and offers his support and motivates them to do what they want as research. Therefore, we are a team o people working on topics not been well examined before in Turkey. Within the scope of this project, we are looking at certain issues that have never been researched. In the social science circles of Turkey, the topic of Syrian migrants is studied almost excessively. African migrants, however, do not have enough visibility to be on society’s agenda. People think of Africans in uninformed ways, but when we talk to the African migrants, we discover something totally different. For example, we find a migrant who works in a simple, unskilled job. His boss imagines this person to be fleeing misery and with almost no education. But when we talk to that person, we find out that he has graduated from the best university in his country, maybe that he also got a master’s degree, that he comes from a good family, that he can speak five or six languages. It’s important to know the real Africa, the Africans, and to be able to tell people in our society.