Zozan Yasar is a Kurdish journalist from Turkey. Denied access to education, Zozan taught herself to read and write and went to university to get a degree before working as a journalist. As a Kurd, she struggled to officially register her Kurdish name with the government in Turkey. After arrests and harassment, she was eventually forced to seek asylum in the UK.
"I remember the day I applied for asylum in the UK so well. Instead of a new beginning, it felt as if it was the end of everything for me. Nobody, I thought, will ever know what I have left behind. Nobody here can understand what it is like to feel you have lost all hope. The thought that all the fights I have had in my life will start once again."
Fast forward a few years from that day and Zozan's smile shines as brightly as her yellow jumper. Her asylum claim was granted quickly by the UK authorities. Now she is busy and determined to build that new life in the UK, even if the sadness for what she left behind is never far away.
“I am not used to being the subject of an interview,” says Zozan shyly. Underlying the shyness is a sparky energy, however. Zozan’s big eyes sometimes brim with emotion but the tears never fall. Even the hardest of situations she recounts with a gritty determination and a smile.
For someone so eloquent it is hard to imagine a time when Zozan had to teach herself to read and write, because, as a Kurdish woman growing up in Turkey, she was denied access to education. Due to political tensions, many schools in her region were closed when she was growing up. She not only taught herself to read and write, she also enrolled at the prestigious Istanbul University and graduated with flying colors.
“There was not only one reason that brought me here [to the UK] but a lot of factors,” explains Zozan. “I was born in Kurdistan in 1990. At the time there was conflict between the Turkish government and Kurdish forces, the PKK. Kurdistan is an area that Turkey does not recognize. Basically, I was born in a village near the city of Diyarbakir (which is called Amed in Kurdish). The village where I was born was destroyed alongside about 3,000 other villages by the Turkish government. My family had to relocate.”
‘If you are a female, you do not exist’
It was one of the worst times to be born, thinks Zozan. “If
you are a Kurd, it is not easy at all. There was no school, no education, no
rights, no nothing. Tension was really high and things were closed most days
and there was no connection between the city and the villages. I didn’t have the chance to go to school.” Things are even worse if you are a woman in this
society, explains Zozan.
“War and hierarchy have a huge impact on life in the Middle East,” she says with a shrug, immediately followed by a defiant lift of her chin. Zozan knows the situation well in the areas she used to report on, but that doesn’t mean she readily accepts it. “Women in Middle Eastern countries find it hard to exist. If you are born a female, you basically don’t exist. For me it was really difficult to fight with two different things, with the authorities and the hierarchy: To tell them that you do exist, as men do.”
“I had to fight a lot,” she says simply, lifting her chin once more. Zozan fought to go to school even when all her sisters and female cousins weren’t able to. She pushed to register at school but came up against the twin barriers of the conflict and hierarchy. When she was 15 she defied them anyway and registered on a distance learning course.
Moving to the city
When Zozan was 17 she moved to the Diyarbakir city center. There she started working with women’s organizations and her battles grew even more intense. “There were a lot of cases which were interesting for me to see,” she explains “How women are facing violence and horrible things and persecution. That encouraged me to start fighting against these things.” Zozan took further inspiration from seeing the restrictions continually placed on her female relatives’ lives in comparison to her own.
“They were never allowed to do anything. Still I ask my Mum: ‘What do you like? Do you dream of going somewhere and eating what you feel like, or wearing some clothes that you would really like?’ Of course, I don’t get an answer to these questions,” says Zozan but it made her even surer that she needed to pursue a life where she had choices to make.
Zozan grew up speaking Kurdish at home but that language was banned from public insitutions in Turkey. There weren’t many televisions in the village where she grew up but she managed to learn to understand Turkish from listening to the news and reading anything she could get her hands on. At 18 she began teaching in Kurdish, an activity which was banned up until 1991 and could lead to arrest. The experiment to allow private Kurdish-language teaching schools was closed in 2004.
“Some people were killed in front of me, as a child,” remembers Zozan, talking about teachers who defied the ban to teach in Kurdish. “It was not a good childhood,” she concludes.
Zozan started campaigning for Kurdish rights in Turkey. “I was just defending human rights and women’s rights and the Kurdish language and just my identity,” she says simply. That identity encapsulated her name which was also banned in Turkey. When she was finally issued with an ID card, after 15 years without one, Zozan was appalled to see that they had “bent” her name to make it more Turkish. “When I was 20, I went to court to take back my name,” explains Zozan.
Legally owning her own name was really important to her. “Basically you have a lot of identities in the Middle East, you are someone’s sister and daughter and a woman,” says Zozan. Then when they took away her name and her Kurdish identity, she felt enough was enough. “The court asked me ‘why I wanted to change my name?’ and my answer was simple: ‘I don’t want to change my name, I want to get my name back. I was born with this name and my family named me in Kurdish.”
In her early twenties, Zozan was working hard in order to
gain admittance to university. “It is not easy to go to university in Turkey,”
she explains. A month before she was about to take her entrance exam, Zozan was
arrested. On her release, “my psychological state was awful,” she admits. “I needed a
lot of support."
Nevertheless, she won a place to study at Istanbul University. “I couldn’t believe it; I thought this is something magical!” Zozan studied political science and international relations. Initially she had wanted to study law but through her campaigning, she saw so much injustice that she couldn't imagine becoming part of that system. “I wanted to do something for those who are voiceless and make changes. So I decided to become a journalist. […] It was the best way for me to express and write about the situation but it was hard. I was writing every day about people being arrested in front of me and tortured, beaten.”
The torture, Zozan experienced herself too, she says, almost in passing. “It is really difficult to talk about…” she says quietly. “Still I am feeling the effect of that in my life.” Like a true journalist, Zozan tries to stick to the facts of the wider picture, rather than concentrating on her own personal story. There is a pause and Zozan takes a deep breath. “It was a huge trauma. The Turkish government, when it arrests women, feels it can do anything: Rape, sexual abuse, torture, physical abuse, psychological abuse. Even after you are released, it doesn’t mean you are safe. You know once you have been arrested this kind of treatment could continue.”
‘You have to learn how to fight these things’
Zozan knows that she will live with these things forever. “You have to learn how to fight against these things and how to live with them,” concludes Zozan looking down at her feet and then lifting her chin almost imperceptibly. “The reason I left my city to start university -- it wasn’t just to go away but I wanted to get away from this climate. In my city, I would go home on the bus and the police would be walking beside me, showing me their guns, threatening me.” The intimidation was daily, sighs Zozan shakily. “It wasn’t good,” she says forcing a smile.
In Istanbul, the threats continued. In her second week, she says a group of police in civilian clothes stopped her and asked to see her ID. She tried to refuse, not being sure who they were and they grabbed her arm and twisted it, saying “we know who you are, show us your ID.” Scared she brought out her student ID and they said “Oh, you are studying politics, do you think we will let you finish your degree?” Zozan’s answer was to keep as low a profile as possible, just study hard and take her exams. “You need a lot of luck to be safe,” she concludes.
After the coup
"Psychologically it was difficult," confides Zozan. She left for a while to get a break. When she came back, for a while things seemed to be going more smoothly. Then, after the coup attempt in 2016 “everything became even more complex. The Turkish government criminalized everyone in Turkey and people stopped trusting each other and started to hate each other.”
Imagine a country, says Zozan, her speech gaining momentum and strength “where MPs and journalists are in prison. Thousands of people lost their jobs.”
Zozan was working for Voice of America and Kurdish media outlets. She loved her job and didn’t want to leave. However, the stress exacerbated a pre-existing heart condition and she felt she was caught between working hard, trying to stay safe and hospital visits. “The work you do really exposes you. When I was working as a journalist I witnessed 17 bomb attacks. Most of them I went there and covered the stories; I saw dead people in front of me.”
Every day became a game of jeopardy about which route she should take to get somewhere which would avoid threatening police and bomb attacks. One day, the stress became too much and Zozan fled to the UK. It was meant to be just a bit more time out for her, before returning to report. For a few weeks, she told no one where she was. Then she found out that in her absence, her apartment had been raided and a warrant for her arrest had been put out. She wanted to know what the charges were, but her lawyer told her that she wouldn’t know unless she returned and surrendered to arrest, then she would be told on what charge.
Building a new future
“I didn’t want to take that risk and I applied for asylum,” says Zozan. She never expected to become an asylum seeker. Learning English has become her latest challenge. “I spend most of my time at the library. After the library I hang out and meet people, all to learn English. I love working and so I want to be able to work here too.”
While waiting for the right to work, Zozan volunteered for charities and bookshops. “My challenge was how can I turn this into a positive,” says Zozan, and then immediately admits that when she arrived, she felt that “journalism was finished for me.” Being a native speaker is very important in journalism, maintains Zozan. “I felt like I was born again, in a new language, in a new country.” Zozan is used to that feeling, since even in the country in which she was born, she had to build up her reputation in a language which wasn’t her mother tongue.
Now 29, Zozan is quietly hopeful for the future. “It is difficult to work as a journalist here but it is safer than in Turkey.” She is taking things step by step: Her participation in the Refugee Journalism Project in London has helped enormously. Since joining the year-long course she has been offering stories to The Guardian newspaper and the BBC. She has also made contacts in the UK in order to find new stories and stop being the subject of her own reports. “Being able to call myself a journalist in the UK is really important to me.” Zozan wants to make sure that the voices of her fellow Middle Easterners are heard in the British media. She might not like being the subject of reporting but the right to tell her own story and those of her region is paramount.
Zozan got offers from six different universities and will start her Master degree in September at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in Middle Eastern Politics. "I love studying and I really want a qualification in this country, so I am recognized in what I have done and what I am doing." Despite the challenges, she is quietly hopeful for her future. "On that day when I applied for asylum, I didn't know that decision would be the beginning of yet another hard journey, a journey to build another new life, a new identity, thousands of miles from home." At least though, that journey is being built from the start under the protection of her own name.