Going 'home': Bulgarian Turks who settled in Istanbul

ISTANBUL – In the winter of 1988, a 10-year-old Bulgarian-born Turkish girl came home from school in tears.

“She was upset because they called her 'Anita' (a Bulgarian name) instead of her real name, Ayten,” recalls her father, 65-year-old Fikret Ozgur.

A health worker, Ozgur has lived in Istanbul since 1989 when Bulgaria’s communist leader Todor Zhivkov’s assimilation campaign against the Turkish minority in the Balkan country resulted in more than 300,000 people migrating to Turkey.

Bulgarian Turks are the decedents of Turks in the Balkan region which was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for nearly five centuries. The Bulgarian communists’ assimilation policy has been viewed as an attempt by the party’s ailing leadership to use nationalism to create a homogenous country.

Ayten’s story is only one of thousands identified by Istanbul researcher Ayse Parla who points to a “systematic effort” to force people to change their names.

“The communist government launched a systematic effort to forcibly change Turkish-Muslim names to Slavic ones, ban the speaking of Turkish in public spaces and prohibit cultural and religious practices,” Parla, a Sabanci University assistant professor of anthropology, writes.

Today, holding both Turkish and Bulgarian citizenship, Ozgur tells The Anadolu Agency that the 1980s process was not really the beginning of assimilation.

He recalls his childhood in Bulgaria: “When I was at school, all our classes were in Turkish until 1960 until they (the Bulgarian government) changed the whole system and told us that we could only have two hours of Turkish classes every week.”

Eventually Ozgur, who was born in Aydogdu (Izgrev in Bulgarian), graduated from university and lived in Bulgaria for around 40 years until 1989 – the year he was forced to leave the Balkan country.

“I didn’t really have a choice. One day they give us passports and said we had four days to leave the country,” he says.

As he was politically active and took part in demonstrations against the Bulgarian state’s assimilation policy, which started in 1984, he was one of the first that the then-government wanted to leave.

In 1986 Amnesty International released a damning report on the Bulgarian state’s “rebirth campaign” against its Turkish and other Muslim minorities.

Just like many others, when Ozgur and his family came to Istanbul – leaving all their belongings behind – they had nothing apart from some money the Turkish government provided.

“We stayed in our relative’s house for a while,” he remembers.

According to Parla, 1989 was the sixth migration wave from Bulgaria to Turkey.

Two major migrations occurred in the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, followed by three big waves of return migration after Turkish state was founded in 1923.

“One [was] in 1925, following the agreement signed by Bulgaria and Turkey allowing voluntary resettlement; another [was] in 1950-51, soon after the advent of communism and the collectivization of land in Bulgaria; and a third in 1968, following the treaty to unite separated families,” says Parla.

In 1989 when Turks fled from the ethnic repression in Bulgaria, “they were accepted with much ethnic zeal and political fanfare as kindred fleeing the oppression of a communist regime,” Parla adds.

After 1989, the migration wave continued but this time as a result of economic struggles and the fall of communism in Bulgaria.

“The migrants arriving after the 1990s no longer had the same access to citizenship. Throughout the 1990s and up until 2001, Bulgarian nationals wishing to come to Turkey needed to obtain a tourist visa to leave Bulgaria,” Parla says.

Ozgur also recalls how some of their relatives who came to Turkey with them decided to return Bulgaria after the fall of communism.

“When we first came here we were kissing the ground. We were so happy to be here as we could call ourselves Turkish,” he says.

According to Ozgur some went back to Bulgaria before attempting to return to Turkey again but found the process more difficult than before.

In 2001 Turkey lifted its visa requirement for Bulgarian citizens. Approximately 1.5 million Bulgarian citizens visited Turkey in both 2011 and 2012, according to the foreign ministry.

Around 58,000 Turkish tourists visited Bulgaria during the same period.

Since the 1980s Bulgaria has changed both economically and politically. With its seven-million-strong population Bulgaria has been a member of European Union since 2007.

Domestically, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms is a political party which represents minority rights in Bulgaria. The party was part of the coalition government with the National Movement Simeon II and then with the Bulgarian Socialist Party between 2001 and 2009.

Bulgarian leader Sergei Stanishev apologized for the assimilation policies of the 80s both in 2006 as prime minister and then in 2013 as head of the Bulgarian Socialist Party.

The apology represents a break from the divisive policies of the past but minorities are still claim to be underrepresented at the national level. 

Living in Istanbul for the last 25 years Ozgur says: “I don’t want to die before seeing that Turkish minority in Bulgaria has autonomy rights.”

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