About a year ago, the world turned upside down with the arrival of the pandemic. As the virus spread so did hysteria, since both states and their people did not know how to cope with the disease. However, one thing was certain: People needed to stand in solidarity and welcome each other in order to defeat the common enemy. Aware of this reality, Turkish women in Europe united during the pandemic and offered their services to the communities they call home. Recalling the past year with both sorrow and gratitude, the women said that their efforts have helped change how the Turkish community is perceived in Europe while also strengthening community bonds.
"Since there was a problem in communication during the pandemic period, we wanted to turn this into an opportunity to turn social ties into solidarity. Although we see ourselves as a part of Germany, we wanted to introduce ourselves again since there are still problematic ideas within German society such as Islamophobia," said Ayşe Aşut, the sixth and seventh term head of the women's branch of the Union of international Democrats (UID), a Turkish nongovernmental organization (NGO).
According to Aşut, the UID's women's branch aims to increase the social status of women, strengthen their ties with their countries and provide training in various subjects. At the start of the pandemic, the women noticed the shortage of masks and started an initiative in which they produced masks themselves that they then distributed to those in a range of places catering to people in need such as nursing homes and pharmacies.
"We first started mask sewing in Belgium and then in France. We gave these masks we sewed to clinics, nursing homes, etc., even pharmacies demanded them to sell. Our work started like this," Aşut said.
"In Germany, for example, we were bringing masks, chocolate candy gifts to our hospitals, thanking the healthcare professionals. We met with famous German professors through this work," she continued.
However, their work was not limited to mask production for long. The women also fed those in need, including those at nursing homes and the homeless.
"We even sewed gowns for clinics and doctors upon their demands," Aşut noted.
Germany, which is still struggling with the pandemic, in late January banned most travelers from countries reporting COVID-19 mutations and places hardest hit by new, more contagious coronavirus variants.
Only a handful of exceptions are allowed to enter Germany from these countries, including returning Germans and essential workers.
With neighboring EU countries continuing to report high infection numbers in part fuelled by variants, German leaders fear that keeping the borders open could compromise the country's efforts to curb the contagion.
Aşut emphasized that as fear grew, people began to become more understanding of others' spirituality.
"The church here reached out and said they would light candles every evening at 7 o'clock in praying for the pandemic's elimination. They asked our mosque to join their movement and then we started to recite adhan at 7 o'clock every evening for support," Aşut said, noting that under normal circumstances it is forbidden to sing adhan in mosques in Europe.
"Thus," she continued, "maybe the adhan (prayer) struggle that we have been fighting with for years has been realized with the virus scourge."
"We couldn't believe our ears when the adhan was recited," said Nevin Tekin, a member of the UID in Germany's Bayern.
According to Tekin, when the curfews were first announced in Germany it felt as though a war had just begun.
"There was a great fear in people, everyone was afraid for their mother and father's health," she said.
Recalling a dear memory, Tekin explained: "There is a nursing home. There are 10-15 Muslim elderly people of Turkish origin. We have been going there regularly for the past three to four years. Every year we cook dinner and go to a chat. Last year, I sewed a mask with my own hands, there was no mask anywhere. I could not find any fabric, I could not find any rubber, and the women in another branch, close to Munich, sent me rubber. I sewed the masks and called the nursing home and said that I wanted to bring a mask, they were so happy."
When Tekin delivered the mask to the nursing home she received a grand welcome.
"All the employees of the nursing home greeted us, thanked us, including the management. I sewed those masks with great difficulty, but it was worth it. However, not being able to come in to have a conversation was too long for me, it impressed me a lot," she said.
Aşut highlighted that one of their main priorities was to be in constant communication with Turkish citizens across Europe.
"When the international flights were canceled, our (Turkish) elders here were very worried because it was rumored at the time that people over the age of 65 would not be able to receive treatment. Thus, many Turkish citizens who needed the treatment brought by private plane to Turkey," she recalled.
Europe, a continent that quickly turned into the epicenter of the pandemic, is scraping through the crisis, as each country to fend for itself while the European Union fails to come up with a collective response. Still, the Turkish diaspora on the continent holds onto its determination to overcome the coronavirus outbreak and are making do with what European states have to offer. Longing for their homeland, however, breeds discouragement.
Turkey offered free air ambulance services for its citizens across the globe during the pandemic. In April 2020, Emrullah Gülüşken, another COVID-19 patient, was airlifted to Turkey from Sweden where his family claimed he was unable to receive treatment. Turkey also initiated a mass evacuation for citizens stranded abroad. More than 100,000 citizens were brought to Turkey from 141 countries on charter flights in just one year. The country also regularly dispatches air ambulances to other countries to transfer coronavirus patients who wish to be treated in Turkey.
Aşut added that they would go grocery shopping for the elders of the Turkish community when there were curfews and also bought them their medicines.
"During this period, Turkish women also had deep psychological problems. There were even some who said they wanted to throw themselves off the balcony. Hygiene sensitivity was oriented toward the disease. There were even those who washed their children six times a day. We contacted our consulates on these issues, and in some places even contacted the police," Aşut continued.
Aşut also mentioned their work with children who were unable to go to school during the period.
"When the children were at home and they could not go to school, we organized a painting contest on the subject of “stay at home, our home” all over Europe so that they can have an activity. Very beautiful paintings were produced by our children, and we will even exhibit them as a memory of the pandemic days in German museums here as an archive. We also had an essay contest in both Turkish and European languages," she said.
In Tekin's opinion, one of the most memorable moments from the last year was the UID's traditional commemoration ceremony for the anniversary of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, held in line with COVID-19 safety measures.
"We are also organizing an exhibition of the painting from the eyes of the children for July 15. One picture I will never forget was the twin children and the one they drew, they said to their mothers at that event: "Mom, I realized how powerful a nation we are," she remembered.
"All women really tried to do their best within the bounds of possibilities," Tekin said and noted: "Whenever I asked, they were always in the room for something. When we are together, we are very strong. Strength arises from unity, it really does. That's why this friendship means a lot to me. I do this very fondly. Even my mother says you are tired, you don't get money, why are you doing it, but I am very happy when I help you."
"They saw the unrequited favor of the Turks. They saw our determination to have solidarity," Tekin said.
In Bayern, Tekin and her friends also helped women who live alone and provide psychological and spiritual seminars for them.
Germany, however, was not the only European country in which the Turkish women accelerated their activities.
"First of all," Rukiye Şentürk, who lives in France's Marseille, said: "It is very important for us expatriates and especially for women, that Turks are in unity, solidarity and solidarity in expatriate hands in Europe. Within the framework of this thought, it was proud to be in solidarity, unity and solidarity with Turkish women."
"The importance of this solidarity and friendship is very important to me," Şentürk expressed. "Because," she continued, "we women meet and experience the problems of the country we live in every field. When we meet among women. We make a consultation and evaluate. In this way, in order to solve the problem, we take the thoughts of our women and communicate with the institutions they are affiliated with about the problematic issues with a common decision and try to solve our problems together."
Şentürk was very surprised when three doctors working in the SOS Médec (a health center) in the city of Avignon, where she lives, called them and asked for the masks handmade by Turkish women.
"I was very surprised and upset when I found out that a health care worker of a state institution is without a mask. I immediately contacted them and took away their masks. When I presented the masks to them, I was very touched when they said they were grateful to Turkish women with tearful eyes. Those doctors were so desperate. There were no mask sales anywhere at that time," Şentürk said.
She said that during the pandemic period, they managed to reach many French, African, Moroccan and Algerian citizens.
"We helped institutions of the French state and French associations. We distributed the masks made by Turkish women to the health center, retirement home, orphanage and the police," she said.
"In May 2020, we delivered more than 100 items of food," Şentük underlined and continued: "We gave these foodstuffs to African, Moroccan and Algerian families in French associations. By doing this, we had the opportunity to show how helpful Turkish society is. It helped to destroy the bad thoughts on the Turkish nation. Most importantly, the help of Muslim Turkish families to the French community destroyed the thoughts of Islamophobia."
France's main COVID-19 indicators have reached two-month highs recently. President Emmanuel Macron previously defended his decision to hold off on a new lockdown, telling the public he had faith in their ability to rein in COVID-19 with less severe curbs even as a third wave spreads and the vaccine rollout falters. Meanwhile, angry owners are protesting against the government's decision to keep restaurants closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Another UID member, Fatma Sönmez, who lives near Strasbourg, said that she had the opportunity to work with both Turkish and French associations.
Sönmez and her team gave gifts on Mother's Day and holidays, made congratulation video messages in different languages to celebrate April 23 and held competitions for children with awards. The women organized social, health, education seminars as well as assistance and reinforcement classes for primary, secondary and high school students. They also carried out studies between French and Turkish associations and provided quality services by creating a bridge between parents and teachers.
"The exchange of knowledge and culture between Franco-Turkish women has been realized," Sönmez underlined, and added: "An incredible synergy has emerged."
"In the country we live in, the sharing between Muslim Turkish women and French people, who set an example, in order to break the Islamophobia, made a very decent improvement. Thanks to these activities, great friendships, a spirit of brotherhood and solidarity were formed. The most emotional moment I experienced was the return of the nurse, crying and making a heart sign during the distribution of the health personnel. The pandemic was a great opportunity as a result of the valuable services that do not include race, religion."
"Maybe it was a precious period in which humanism took place ... the pandemic created the opportunity for solidarity and integration. Humanity returned to its essence and started to give value to its original values," she emphasized.
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