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Yazidi candidate hopes for historic first in Turkish election

If the pro-Kurdish HDP passes the 10% threshold in the general elections on June 7, Feleknas Uca will be the first Yazidi member of the Turkish parliament.

"A political action movie" is how Feleknas Uca, 38, describes politics in Turkish parliament, referring to macho behavior and physical fights that sometimes break out. She thinks it will be difficult for her to adjust to it, after having served two terms, from 1999 to 2009, in the European Parliament in Brussels. "In Europe," Uca said, "you are respected for your opinion. In Turkey, politics are carried out undemocratically."

Still, she is eager to start working in the Turkish parliament after the June 7 general elections. If her party, the People's Democracy Party (HDP), a leftist party with roots in the Kurdish political movement, manages to exceed the 10% threshold, she will for sure occupy one of the orange seats in the "meclis." She is the fourth HDP candidate for the HDP in Diyarbakir, an HDP stronghold that is expected to send at least eight or nine representatives to Ankara.

"People are being tortured in this country," Uca said in an interview with Al-Monitor, "and mothers lose their children. Working in the Turkish parliament will not be easy, but compared with what others live through, that is only a small thing."

Uca was born and raised in Celle, a town in the north of Germany. She is not Muslim like most Kurds, but Yazidi; Yazidis are followers of an ancient religion originating in Mesopotamia. The family is part of an 8,000-strong local Yazidi community. The contrast is huge: in the whole of Turkey, less than 1,000 Yazidis remain, after 80,000 to 100,000 of them, also from Iraq and Syria, left for Europe in the second half of the 20th century.

Uca, asked why her parents left the town of Beseri in Batman province more than 40 years ago, said, "For economic reasons, but because of oppression as well. Yazidis had no rights in Turkey, and they still don’t. On our identity cards, it says ‘no religion,' or just an 'X' is put in the religion section. Yazidi children have to attend the Sunni religious classes in school, just as other children in Turkey who are not Sunni Muslims, like Alevis. Only a new Turkish Constitution can solve these problems."

She became politically active at a young age and became a member of the European Parliament for a leftist group at the age of 22 in 1999. "I engaged in politics because of the war in Yugoslavia," she said. "I was against war. After examining all party programs in detail, I decided to join the leftist PDS [Party of Democratic Socialism]. I proposed myself as a candidate for the European Parliament a year later, and was elected."

"It felt like a great success," Uca said, "to be in the European Parliament as a 22-year-old woman with black hair and brown eyes. I wanted to be the voice of migrants." In the 10 years that followed, she focused on fighting racism and stood up for women’s and migrants’ rights in parliament itself, but especially also outside it. She traveled in Europe and beyond to set up and support projects to battle violence against women, female genital mutilation and child marriages.

Turkey, the land of her parents, was never far away. Since she was around 15 years old, she has been traveling there regularly as part of the Kurdish movement. She put her knowledge and contacts to use in Brussels, for example, by co-organizing the first conferences in the European Parliament about the Kurdish issue in Turkey, set up to monitor the issue during Turkey’s EU accession talks, which started in 2005. "For years, I have functioned as a bridge between the EU and Turkey."

Now, she crossed the bridge and landed on the other side. Since July 2014, she has been living in Diyarbakir, the political capital of the Kurds in Turkey. The situation of her own people, the Yazidis, has her special attention. There are some 32,000 of them in Turkey now; 31,000 of them are refugees from Iraq.

Their problems are huge, Uca said, "5,000 to 7,000 Yazidi women are in the hands of [the Islamic State, or IS], and the fate of many men who were taken by [IS] remains unknown. A group of some 15,000 Yazidis didn’t flee from Shengal, insisting on staying on their historical lands. But it’s dangerous, because [IS] is still not driven away from there. Fierce battles continue."

Some of the refugees who came to Turkey have returned to Mosul and Zakho in Iraq, but many in Turkey are afraid to follow them, even if Shengal is fully liberated. "They have experienced such horrible things," Uca said.

She added, "Yazidis who want to stay in Turkey should be allowed to. They should get a status, like refugees from Syria. They should not be subject to state assimilation policies."

The latter is a sensitive subject. In the refugee camps for Yazidis run by the Kurdish movement, efforts are made to offer education in Kurdish, the Yazidis’ mother tongue. "But we don’t get any help from the state. Municipalities are paying, the DBP [the HDP’s sister party, active in the Southeast of Turkey] is contributing and civilians help out. But it’s not enough."

Similar problems exist in health care: since the Yazidis lack any official status, they are only entitled to health care if their life is directly in danger. "We have set up a system with doctors who work voluntarily. They visit people in the refugee camps. But problems arise when somebody needs treatment in a hospital."

What it boils down to is that Uca has come to Turkey for the same reason as she once started in politics: to work for peace. "I want to contribute to the peace process in Turkey. Change something in this country. More democracy, the strengthening of the youth and development of the regional economy, women’s rights." She said the HDP is aiming at 15% of the vote, but anything above the crucial 10% is fine. She already announced she wants to take the parliamentary oath in both Kurdish and Turkish. "Kurdish is my mother tongue," she said, "and I am trying to quickly improve my Turkish now. I think every language you learn is an enrichment."

When confronted with the severe problems that women in the Southeast still face, such as child marriages and honor killings, she said, "These problems have significantly decreased since the Kurdish movement has been active. In the Kurdish movement, the women explicitly step forward, come out of their houses. Women’s problems haven’t been solved yet, true, and that’s why we keep working on it. You can’t change a patriarchal society overnight."

When asked whether she misses Germany or not, Uca said, "My family is there; of course I miss them. But you know, I have a family, and they support me. I can call them and talk to them any time I want. Do you know how many people are not that lucky?"

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