Paper collectors across Turkey cry out against public prejudice
Fevzi Kızılkoyun – ANKARA
Paper collectors say that what is painful for them is not working 12 hours and walking 20 kilometers a day, but the prejudice the public shows against them. “Do not approach us as if we are stricken with plague. We are only trying to make ends meet,” say many of them, with whom daily Hürriyet has conducted interviews.
The head of the Street Waste Collectors Association told daily Hürriyet that about 500,000 people make a living by collecting recyclables off the street and from public waste bins. “We die in the abandoned buildings, cars hit us on the streets, we fall victims to traffic accidents…Waste collectors are being ostracized by the public, they see us as if we are ‘stricken by plague or a disease or are criminals.’ For this view to change, a legal framework needs to be undertaken. Our rights need to be given to us with laws and regulations,” Recep Karaman said.
Karaman’s comments came after five people died and 11 others were injured in a fire that broke out in March at a building used by paper collectors in Ankara’s Altındağ district.
“Since we work in unhealthy circumstances and accommodate in buildings that are abandoned and in ruins, we catch some illnesses. But we are the indispensable component of the ‘Zero-Waste Project.’ If it were not for street waste collectors, there would not be any recycling,” Karaman said, calling on authorities not to “turn a blind eye” to them.
“We provide the biggest contribution in terms of protecting natural resources and nature. By collecting wastes –plastics primarily – which do not dissolve in nature and harm the environment and water resources, we protect the nature and also contribute to the economy,” he said.
Halil İbrahim Akar, 21, is one of the 8,000 paper collectors working in Ankara. He is known to be one of the most “experienced” paper collectors of the capital Ankara. He is called “İbo, the conqueror of the streets” by his friends.
“We work between 12-15 hours a day. We walk 15-20 kilometers on average per day. Sometimes I walk the Kızılay-Sıhhiye-Ulus line four times. We are striving to live our life, we sweat blood for everything we earn. But, people see us in different ways on streets. That they see us as ‘offenders, thief’ hurt us. We are workers. We neither steal nor cheat anyone. We do not beg, we are not green-eyed towards others’ properties. We make our money sweating blood and we want some respect,” said Akar.
Mehmet Sait Yılmaz, 23, similarly earns his living collecting paper. He is the father of two girls and has been doing this job for the last six years. “Sometimes families get their little girls away from me. I am a father of two girls, what they do really hurts me. I am someone who would die for their children. When I see them, I remember my girls and get sad,” Yılmaz said, asking people not to be prejudiced against them.
“We are struggling for life in an abandoned building. The only thing we ask [from authorities] is that they do not condemn us to death and form permanent areas such as organized industrial sites that we paper collectors can use. We are using abandoned buildings in ruins as houses and staying 10 people in jerry-built small rooms. We cannot even fire up stove [to get heated] with the fear that a fire will break out and something will happen to us,” he said.
Another paper collector Hürriyet interviewed is 15-year-old İdris Akar, who came to Ankara from the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa three years ago. “Since my family’s financial situation was not good, I left school. I came to Ankara with my relatives, most of whom became paper collectors. So, I started collecting paper as well, making 40-50 Turkish Liras per day depending on the amount of the paper I collected,” Akar said.
Akar said that he wished he could have continued school instead of collecting paper every day. “I get sad when I see my piers go to school. Another thing is that I miss my mother a lot. Her dishes, her stroking my hair, her hugs,” he said.
Yakup Kamal, 19, has been collecting paper for the last two years on Ankara’s streets. He similarly quit his education. “When I walk around streets, people change their paths and when they pass by us, they pull faces. When I see these, I get very sad,” he said. His biggest dream is to one day have a girlfriend and to wander around the streets of the city holding her hand.
Paper collectors are generally considered poor and have minimal skill sets, making them deemed as one of the most downtrodden workers. Such descriptions, however, fail to give a realistic depiction of the collectors’ plight.
Although they have gained more attention by the public, they are still virtually ignored.