Imagine you’re a university student in Turkey. You have studied for years and spent countless hours preparing for a university entrance exam that will shape your entire future. You manage to score enough points to get accepted into one of your top schools and then perhaps move to a new city to start university. After all, you’re now 18. You long to experience life outside of the family home and all its pressures. You dream not only of studying hard to land a good job in the future, but also of making friends, experiencing new things, and enjoying what many call the “best years” of their lives.
For those who entered university in 2019, their best years began with a tragedy. By spring semester 2020, schools were shut down due to the explosion of COVID-19 cases in Turkey. Fast forward to the fall of 2021.
University students now entering their junior year will finally be returning to campus after a year and a half of online education. The situation is even worse for the sophomores: the return to in-person education this fall semester will be the first time they set foot on campus.
And just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse for university students in Turkey, they do. After almost two years of a deadly pandemic that made it impossible for them to attend in-person classes or socialize with their peers, now many students are facing an intractable housing problem. In short, the rents are too high and the dorms are either too expensive, out of space, or managed by state-supported religious organizations that demand you to adhere to a certain lifestyle.
It is not only in American movies that university represents a certain kind of freedom. Of course, many Turkish students continue to live with their families whilst studying, whether due to family pressure or economic constraints. Yet for many others, especially women, getting accepted to school in another city is the only way to escape their conservative hometowns and begin leading their own lives as adults.
Naturally, the only way to experience this independence is to have somewhere to live.
The housing crisis in Turkey is not disconnected from the culture war. The students most in danger of losing whatever precious freedom they have gained are those who see university as a chance to live independently or with friends, experiment socially, and discover themselves. The thing many students hated most about online education during the COVID-19 lockdown was that it forced them back into their family homes.
As for dorms, the system is designed to funnel students into those managed by religious orders (tarikat). While a private dorm can cost as much as 2,000 TL per month, a room in a government-subsidized religious dorm is almost a fourth of the price. But these dorms come with strings attached: enforced gender segregation, pressure to join daily prayers or religious lectures, a 9pm curfew every night, and the threat of calling your parents if you break any rules.
Fed up with the Turkey’s dormitory problem and the housing crisis that force them back into dependence, students are taking to the streets. Or the parks, more precisely. This week has seen the rise of the barınamayanlar, or “those who cannot find shelter.” Students across Izmir, Istanbul, Ankara, Eskişehier, Kocaeli, and beyond are sleeping in parks as part of what they are calling the Movement of the Unsheltered.
These students demand that the government solve the affordable housing crisis in Turkey. Today, only 2% of rentals in Istanbul are deemed affordable based on minimum wage. This year alone, real estate prices have increased 30.3% in Ankara and 33.9% in İzmir. Especially with the government reopening of schools and the return to in-person education, many landlords have upped their rents to make up for the last year and a half of losses. Alongside the housing problem, there has also been an astronomic increase in the cost of living over the past year with inflation. As a student, securing decent accommodation and surviving economically has become virtually impossible.
That is why the Movement of the Unsheltered is sleeping in parks to raise awareness about their plight. Whether in Yoğurtçu Park in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district or Haller Park in Eskişehir, students are grabbing their blankets and thermoses and keeping watching through the night. Meanwhile, the police have detained handfuls of students throughout Turkey’s major cities, saying that sleeping in the park is illegal and telling them, in an incredible display of tone-deafness, to “go home.”
In their recent social media announcement, the Movement of the Unsheltered called out to “everybody who has a problem with this system that leaves us homeless.” What the group wants is solidarity: “We call on all of you to take responsibility for finding a solution, to stand by the students, to watch out for us, and the expand the movement. Open your homes and cafes to students. We’re in the neighborhood parks—come! Come with your anger, energy and voice. Come with tea, soup, pillows, and dumplings in hand. There are thousands of young people unable to sleep. You, too, stay awake.”
The statement continues in an even more romantic vein: “Every night, we sleep together in parks, on the streets, in front of the university, at the gates of the dormitories, and we stay awake until morning with our friends. Instead of being alone in the damp, narrow rooms to which they condemn us, we meet under the stars."
What these statements from young people show is that the Movement of the Unsheltered is not only about the struggle for basic rights and affordable housing. It is also about a certain ideal about what one’s university years should be like. Of course, sleeping outside in the autumn cold and rain is not a romantic thing. Students are engaging in this civil disobedience out of desperation and necessity.
But this struggle also represents a vision of the university experience as a taste of community, a shared cause, and sleepless nights under the stars with friends.
As the Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin once wrote, “The class struggle is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist.” In other words, one can only focus on joy, beauty, and new experiences if one has a roof over one’s head and food in one’s stomach. At the same time, Benjamin says that the class struggle could not continue without the refined and spiritual “spoils” that the oppressed win through struggle. These spoils are “courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude.” And it is these qualities that we see in the Movement of the Unsheltered, just as we see it in the ongoing creativity and humor of the Boğaziçi University student movement.
In a terrible world that the older generations have bequeathed them, perhaps it is only through collective struggle that the young can experience the “best years” of their lives. The university experience must now be found in the streets, or parks, as much as on campus. For if there is any joy and freedom still to be had in higher education, it can only exist as opposition to the obedient, devout, and automaton generation of students the government would like to forge.