Following the military coup of the 1980s, the Turkish state began an aggressive campaign to repress dissident voices within the country. In an effort to suppress Kurdish separatists, the Turkish government launched the so-called “dirty war” to silence those against the official state position through forced disappearances of significant numbers of the Kurdish community including human rights activists, students, and political leaders.

In one of the longest-running acts of civil disobedience, the families and loved-ones of the “disappeared” gather in Istanbul's Galatasaray Square every Saturday morning to demand justice, accountability, and acknowledgement from the Turkish government. Protestors are consistently subjected to state pressure to renounce their claims and stop demonstrating.

In September 2015, The Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation (BST) awarded a grant to the Karakutu Association in Istanbul, Turkey to implement the ‘Memory Journey’ project. Memory Journey is designed to give young people in Turkey the tools, knowledge, and support to dig deeper into narratives around violent events and human rights abuses like those that led to the protests in Galatasaray Square. The program challenges traditional state narratives and uplifts the voices of marginalized groups.

“The project addresses Turkish society’s polarization,” said Martins Murnieks, a program officer at BST. “Especially, the discrimination and exclusion of minority groups (ethnic, sexual, gender, socially disadvantaged) and their historic role. It addressed the need to come to terms with one’s history and make efforts for an integrated future.”  

Working through the sensitive and messy parts of Turkish history is a central feature of the Memory Journey project. By helping to equip young people with the skills to challenge official state narratives, the project moves beyond simply telling them about a new version of the past but works with them to think critically and question authority.

“The main objectives of the project are to recognize the injustices that discriminated people have been exposed to,” says Seval Gülen, the co-chair and board member of the Karakutu Association.

“We want to raise awareness among young people about human rights violations towards historically marginalized groups, contribute to social justice and peace-building through rethinking the widespread narrative of official history, and to generate a discussion.”

The Memory Journey moves participants through three different project phases:  the capacity-building of young volunteers, discovering ”places of memory,” and the ‘Memory Walk.’ Young people develop the Memory Walks themselves by meeting various area experts and conducting background research on a specific event with a project mentor.

“The Memory Walk is modeled after a treasure hunt, where small groups of participants try to explore the places of memory by solving the clues and the maps given to them,” explains Gülen.

“After finding the spot, this small group gathers with the young narrator to listen to the story that is linked to this place of memory before gathering for the closure session to discuss what they have experienced during the outdoor exploration process.”

The closure session is designed to allow participants to reflect on their ideas on how the experience has impacted them and to place their individual thoughts inside of a larger narrative of peace-building and reconciliation efforts.

Finding meaningful ways to heal historic wounds is a daunting task that is often fraught with cultural and political sensitivities on a grand scale.

“Raising apolitical children as a general tendency, […] causes children to not to know their history, and not to have information on past human rights violations and related struggles.,” notes Gülen.

The Memory Journey project is just one way to pay respect to the past while giving young people the skills to build a better future.