Turkey to Holland: Freedom, equality and safety
Political prisoner Gulcan Coban fled Turkey after spending four years in solitary confinement. Having made her home in the Netherlands, she is full of praise for the rights she enjoys here but laments the gloominess of the locals.
Name: Gülcan Çoban
City of residence: Diemen
Date of birth: 1/11/67
Civil status: living alone, one child
Employer: Unemployed, studying the Dutch language and an integration course for highly educated people at the Hogeschool Inholland, Diemen.
Previous job: maths teacher
In Amsterdam since: 2002
I fled Turkey for political reasons. I was arrested by the police for distributing pamphlets while campaigning for workers' rights. I was held in solitary confinement for four years — political prisoners are not allowed any contact with each other.
Eventually, we — myself and the other prisoners — went on a hunger strike in protest against the inhumane conditions. Many people did not survive and others will suffer the physical effects for life. I was released from prison for several months to allow me to recover and I fled to the Netherlands.
Calm and orderly
The first thing I noticed in the Netherlands was that the people here are so relaxed, not only on the street, but also at home and at work. I have a feeling people here are more at peace with their lives than the Turkish people.
Dutch people speak very calmly and with a lot less gesticulation; Turkish people scream and gesture far more. I find that the people here interact with each other in a very modern way, meaning that they are very respectful to each other.
In Turkey, there is a row on the street at the slightest provocation. If there is an argument between two motorists, you can be certain that they will fight and the police might need to be called in.
Pedestrians are safe on a zebra pad here; but in Istanbul, where I come from, absolutely not! It is also very normal for cars to drive through a red light, so you must always be careful on the street.
The people here obey the rules much more and there are a lot of rules! In Turkey, everyone throws all of their rubbish, for example, in one bin while it is neatly separated in the Netherlands. Everyone waits fairly for their turn in shops, while in Turkey everyone elbows in.
Equal rights and respect
The relations between men and women are also much more equal and women have many more rights here than in Turkey. Take something like adultery by a woman, for example. If her husband kills her and is convicted of murder, he will probably get a reduced sentence due to the circumstances!
You also see that respect for each other in education. In Turkey, public schools are dominated by a military system. The children wear uniforms and must stand when the teacher walks into class. No one can speak if they have not been asked and they are beaten with a stick if they misbehave! That short of behaviour has no place in education. This sort of thing does not happen at expensive private schools.
There is a similar situation in the healthcare system. Medical knowledge — or at any rate the administration of healthcare — is not as good as it is in Turkey, but the way in which you are treated here is great!
Doctors and nurses are very friendly when you are admitted to hospital in the Netherlands. In Turkey, the personnel are only friendly and respectful to you if you have a lot of money.
The gap between the social classes is much larger than in the Netherlands. In Turkey, people look first at your clothing; do you have nice, expensive clothing? If that is not the case, you still have a small chance if you speak well. If that is also not the case, you can forget it. No one pays attention to my clothing in the Netherlands.
On the other hand, people in Turkey are much warmer and more cheerful than people here in the Netherlands. I often think Dutch people are so gloomy. They also don't make a connection with each other very quickly, not even in friendships.
Dutch people don't express their feelings; I never see when they are angry or happy. If you come across your neighbour, conversation is often restricted to "Goedemorgen, dag!" (Good morning, bye!) and then everyone goes back to their respective house. I think that's a pity.
You could say that Dutch people give their conversation partner zero points at the start of the conversation. If you work hard, you might gain a few points. Turkish people start with 10 points and you can then lose a few points.
Dutch people wait to see which way the wind blows. You must take the first step.
In Turkey, usually only rich people can afford a real vacation, while the rest do not take holidays or are limited to a week or a weekend away. Going out to a disco, a film or the theatre is also something limited to the affluent.
Poor people go to coffee houses; they are for everyone and are not expensive. Although, as a woman you are better off not going inside because all eyes will be continually directed at you.
It is not safe as a woman to be on the street at night either. You are constantly harassed: "Do you want to go out with me? Do you have a boyfriend?" And they try to touch you, it's very annoying. In the Netherlands, it is absolutely no problem if you want to ride your bike down the street at midnight.
My worst experience in the Netherlands dates back to the time that I applied for political asylum. When I arrived at the asylum seeker shelter, I was forced to undress completely. That was a general rule. I refused because I found it humiliating. I am no criminal.
I was also treated horribly later on by the foreign police, or Vreemdelingpolitie. They didn't want to believe that I was really a political refugee and not an economic refugee as most people were.
Because of this — and for other reasons — it took my son 18 months before he could come to the Netherlands. The police screamed at me and were very rough, but eventually they had to believe me and everything turned out okay. My son is now with me in the Netherlands.
I found pronunciation the most difficult thing about the Dutch language, but the grammar is also very different from Turkish. We place the verb right at the end, for example, while a verb can be placed in the second position in a sentence here in the Netherlands.
There are so many small words that you can use alone, but you can also combine them all. For example: er (there, here), op (up), uit (out), kunnen (can), ook, (also) eruit (out) worden (be, become).
And then the separable words: opbellen (call up), weggaan (go away) that can form one word, but can also be used apart. Reading and writing is no longer a problem, but I find speaking and listening a bit more difficult.
I recently moved to a new home in Diemen and I like it. My 13-year-old son also likes living in the Netherlands. He already speaks better Dutch than I do, despite the fact that he has been here for a shorter period of time.
When I am finished my studies, I will study maths at a university, as I did in Turkey. I gave maths lessons in Turkey and would like to do the same again here.
I will remain permanently in the Netherlands. Because of my past, I can never return to Turkey.
Gülcan Çoban told her story to Nicole van Schaijik, who owns and operates Talent Taaltrainingen (Dutch Language Courses), based in Amsterdam. (Tel: 020 420 66 59 or email: email@example.com)
27 October 2004
Editor's note: Domestic violence committed against Turkish women has been the subject of criticism. Expatica does not seek to imply that giving reduced sentences to men who are convicted of killing women adulterers is official judicial policy in Turkey, but it does recognise concerns have been raised about this alleged practice despite Turkey's recent attempts to improve its judicial system. See Amnesty International's press release.
[Copyright Expatica 2004]
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