Thousands of state employees accused of supporting the Kurdish insurgency in their war against Turkey have lost their jobs — a mass crackdown that has forced many to make radical career changes.
The largest number of firings have occurred in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, and have included teachers, civil servants and local municipality workers.
Some of those dismissed workers are now employed at the Emekciler restaurant, founded by former court official Mustafa Ozer, who opened the restaurant with 22 of his fellow fired workers.
"Of course, it is not that simple to be sacked from your job of 23 years,” Ozer said. “Suddenly one night, your whole life’s effort is taken from you. You are being marginalized, and you are denied the bread that you bring to your home."
Ozer claims his dismissal had more to do with trade union activism than his support of Kurdish insurgents, and called his firing a release in many ways.
“There were daily, weekly lists of people who were sacked,” he said. “We were checking those lists every day to see if our name is on it. Every day, we had the panic. Our nerves were really stretched to the edge during this period. And eventually, our names appeared on the list, and our employment got terminated.”
Ozer and his partners contributed 11,000 lira (about $2,000) to start the restaurant.
“Some of us have a master's degree. Some are two-year college graduates,” said Ozer. “Some headed departments. Some were branch chiefs. Here is my colleague, Seyhmus. He used to work at the state employment agency,” added Ozer.
Seyhmus, who only wanted to be identified by his first name, modestly admits he has few skills to offer.
"I can't really cook, but I help with the running of the place. I don’t have such talent, unfortunately,” he said.
Seyhmus admits adjusting to the loss of a career in which he devoted his life was difficult, but the camaraderie he discovered at Emekciler restaurant helped.
“I am OK now because I saw the true value of friendship. We are like a family here,” he said.
Many of Emekciler's customers are former colleagues. Ozer said they visit, risking trouble at work for eating at a restaurant run by fired workers.
Ankara defends the crackdown, claiming supporters of the Kurdish insurgency have deeply infiltrated the state across the region.
Local and international human rights groups have sharply criticized the firings, claiming most are arbitrary with little or no evidence to justify the dismissal. The government created an appeals process, but so far, less than 5% of applicants were successful.
Zeki Kanay, an academic at Diyarbakir’s Dicle University, lost his job after signing a petition calling for an end to the decades-long war with Kurdish insurgents.
Kanay turned to organic farming on a small plot of land outside city walls. He works the farm with other purged workers and has not yet made a profit. But he said there are other rewards.
"If we didn't have that (the farm), life would be even harder, because this system pushes you to be alone, alienated,” he said. “It (the state) tries to instill fear and break us apart. However, on the contrary, we try to get closer to each other, and that’s how we all can stand on our feet now.”
Bishar Ilci helped Kanay set up the farm. He is working to reintroduce native seeds to the region.
Ilci worked for Diyarbakir’s municipality until Mayor Gultan Kisanak of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) was removed from office and jailed, accused of supporting terrorism.
“I worked in the municipality for 10 years and managed good projects,” said Ilci. “There were various social projects. My last 2.5 years in the municipality was devoted to the (Syrian) Yazidi refugees. We initiated educational projects, vegetable gardens for each family, and ran activities, especially with women. We had done serious work on farming.“
Ilci said he has little hope of getting his job back.
“It feels like the state is trying to discipline us with hunger. We have to learn how to stand on our feet,” he said. “We have given a good struggle for Kurdish rights for many years in this region, and now we say, 'Why can't we do the same with the land, with animals? And why not help your people with healthy food?’”