IPCR Alum Organizes Protest for Disabled in Northern Cyprus
By Sarah R. Schwartz ’10
Mehmet Erdogan ’06M, Project Coordinator for Management Centre of the Mediterranean, a non-profit organization in the Republic of Cyprus, recently move his nation’s government to action, putting his master’s degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution to work. During the Northern Cyprus presidential elections earlier this year, Erdogan was compelled into advocacy as his mother, who has been living in a wheelchair for the last decade, was unable to vote because her polling place was an inaccessible local elementary school.
“My mother was unable to even access the building, as she, and many other disabled individuals like her, had not been considered during the election-planning process,” he says. “The room that had her voting booth had at least seven or eight big steps, and she couldn’t even enter the room. I watched her being turned away and witnessed up close her sense of demoralization, and it pushed me to a place of anger fueled by this incredible sense of injustice.”
Erdogan notes that the incident was symbolic of a much larger, all-too-familiar struggle—the complete invisibility of disabled individuals and their alienation from public spaces. Friends and family worked to mobilize the local media, and with his position in civil society, he was able to gain the support of more than 50 civil society organizations, including non-profit associations and almost all active political parties. With this support, Erdogan organized a protest, during which a petition was launched, which asked the Northern Cyprus government to sign the UN Declaration of Disability Rights. This initiative, now known as EngelSiz, asks the question, “Am I disabled? Or are you the disabler?” The group strives to show that it is possible to live without being disabled from public life if only society at large puts effort into it.
By distributing a petition over the Internet, EngelSiz collected more than 4,000 signatures in less than a month. The group presented the signatures to the Parliament on July 13, 2010, and only two weeks later, the legal committee of the parliament took it to the main meeting, where, they voted unanimously to sign the declaration. “We see this victory not as the end but as the beginning of the struggle,” he says.
The northern part of Cyprus is not considered a legal state by any other country other than Turkey, the government cannot sign or be held accountable for the UN Declaration. However, EngelSiz hopes to use the UN Declaration as a basis in the updating of legislation related to the disabled community. “Therefore, as a volunteer, independent group of activists, we plan to continue doing awareness raising activities as well as staying involved with high level authorities in seeing through the full implementation of the law.” In addition to his professional and activist roles, Erdogan is an artist, writer and photographer, hoping to open an exhibition of his photography in the near future. “In the mean time,” he says, “I am enjoying collaborating with many of my friends and my mother on such a worthy cause as this one, and I am also enjoying being back in my beautiful home country and spending close time with loved ones.”
Initially drawn to the unique structure and content of Arcadia University’s M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution program, Erdogan began working as an HIV case manager at a non-profit health center in Philadelphia after graduation. As his “interest in the intersectionality of human rights and public health grew,” he earned a master’s degree in public health. Armed with an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution and an M.P.H., Erdogan moved back home to Northern Cyprus during the summer of 2009.