I have followed the Sarmaşık (Ivy) Association for Combating Poverty closely since its founding in 2005, and worked on their projects of fighting poverty in the southeastern region of Turkey, where a majority of the country’s Kurdish population resides.
The association was established with widespread community participation. Many foundations, institutions, non-profit organizations, and activists came together in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır for the occasion. The Sarmaşık Association was established with a very novel structure.
Some of the founders of the organization went on to become members of parliament through President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). The maxim was not to help the poor, but to build solidarity with them, and the organization’s mechanisms were structured in accordance with these values.
The slogan of Sarmaşık was “let’s give hand in hand, so that no one has to beg for a helping hand.” It’s mechanisms of combatting poverty were in line with this slogan. First Sarmaşık workers identified the families who were below the poverty line. Then they opened a Food Bank.
.Through the Food Bank, these families received monthly nutritional support. The system in place allowed families in need to come and get groceries, just like at a grocery store. Municipal governments across Turkey, run by various AKP, HDP, and CHP governments adopted the Food Bank as their model and implemented the same system in cities across the country, from East to West.
Based on requests from municipalities, Sarmaşık employees would travel to different cities and share their experiences. In many cities, public sector organizations, governor’s offices, and mayor’s offices established similar food banks.
Sarmaşık had breathed new life into projects that combatted poverty across the nation.
Before it was shut down, Sarmaşık provided monthly food assistance to roughly 5,400 families, or approximately 35,000 people. The organization had taken on the job that the government should have been carrying out.
One of Sarmaşık’s most noteworthy qualities was the fact that it was financed by contributions from thousands of people. This was a first not only in the region, but also in Turkey, and demonstrated that the association had been able to connect with thousands of people. In their final years, they had also opened a Child Support Center for children working in the streets.
This association, which was a cornerstone in combating poverty in Diyarbakir and the surrounding cities, was shut down by government decree in November 2016, following the July 2016 coup attempt and ensuing government crackdown. Before it was shut down, it had been targeted by numerous investigations and audits, passing them all with flying colors.
The day after Sarmaşık was shut down, I met with Şerif Camcı, who had been the secretary general of the association since its establishment. Together we went to the building that housed the association. Over 165,000 euros worth of nutritional assistance, which had been collected with great effort, was left in the building’s storage. Our hearts ached.
Since the government had sealed the doors of the storage units, we were not able to retrieve the food and distribute it to families who needed it. Ivy had asked for more time before the doors were to be sealed, but this request had been denied.
Sarmaşık was much more than a charity. Sarmaşık not only stood in solidarity with families in need, it also sparked debates about what impoverished people in the southeast needed, conducted many research projects, and strategized about how to prevent poverty.
The Sarmaşık Association Secretary General Şerif Camcı went on to become the HDP co-president in Diyarbakır. Last month, in the sweeping arrests conducted across Diyarbakır, he was taken into custody and later arrested. His indictment was completed last week, and a case was brought against him asking for a 15-year prison sentence.
The indictment identified his membership in the Sarmaşık Association for Combating Poverty as a crime. A friend of mine, who was sacked from his job at the municipal government, recently sent me the ground for expulsion document. The reason for expulsion was his membership in the Sarmaşık Association.
After these people have fought to ensure that 35,000 people do not go to sleep hungry, their fight is now being labeled as membership in a subversive organization. But what about the AKP members who founded Sarmaşık? Why is it that HDP members who founded, or even become members of, Sarmaşık are accused of having committed a crime, whereas the AKP members are considered innocent?
I am at a loss for words in the face of these debased notions of justice.
Yes, yes. Şerif Camcı is guilty. He is guilty of taking on responsibility for what the government should have been doing for years, for fighting to ensure people would not go to sleep hungry.