June 20, 2011
by Jenny White
At precisely 9:03 am on Friday, May 24, 1996, the attractive blonde woman on track thirteen at the Zurich station slipped into the gap between the platform and the moving train. Şafak Pavey was a nineteen-year-old Turkish art student. She had recently arrived in Zurich to study and to live with her new husband, a British musician. When she entered their apartment, instead of her husband, she found a note explaining that he was leaving her. A few days later, a musician friend of her husband appeared at the door. In an advanced stage of leukemia, Mira was on his way to Geneva to try a last-ditch treatment they had found for him. He had traveled a long way in fragile health, and he was broke. Şafak took time off from her morning job at a cafe and accompanied the frail man to the train station to arrange his ticket. A dancer friend would meet him in Geneva and take him to the treatment center.
When they got to the station, Şafak left Mira on a bench and went to buy his ticket. When she returned, she found Mira trying to board the train. She ran to him, taking him in her arms to help him up the stairs and into the coach. Şafak was reaching the ticket up to him when suddenly the train began to move, its doors still open. Mira leaned forward to grab the ticket and Şafak, afraid he would fall out, pushed him inside. When she tried to step back onto the platform, a baby carriage blocked her way and she fell into the gap between the platform and the moving train.
In those early photos, Şafak is charismatic, insouciant, her eyes a brilliant blue, hair bouncing about her face in blonde curls. In the accident, she lost her left arm and leg, a particularly serious amputation because with both limbs missing on the same side, as she once pointed out to me, you have no stability at all. Her mother, Ayşe Önal, a journalist famous for her courageous reporting of taboo topics like corruption and government violence, took her young son Mehmet to live first in Switzerland and then to England to care for Şafak through a series of grueling operations and experiments with ill-fitting prostheses. Turkey was out of the question – it does not have a basic prosthetic sector at all, except in military hospitals. Handicapped people are considered a source of shame for the family and kept out of sight. Marriage within the extended family is a common cause of genetic disability, and people fear being stigmatized. No accommodations are made for the disabled, and government policies are a work in progress. A young woman like Şafak would have had no independent life at all in Turkey. She tried for a time to resume her studies in Istanbul, but found the city entirely inaccessible. Instead, she pursued her education in England. It is all the more remarkable that last Sunday, after fifteen years of living abroad, she was elected to the Turkish parliament and returned to her country as Istanbul representative for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Right after the accident, Şafak and her mother wrote a book about their experiences. Track Number Thirteen became enormously popular in Turkey. I watched Şafak at a book signing in Istanbul the following summer. The line of young women, some in jeans and others in headscarves, clutching her book and waiting for her signature stretched out the door. By the late 1990s, Şafak Pavey had her own political interview show on Turkish television. Driving slowly through Istanbul’s crowded lanes with her mother at the wheel, people would sometimes poke their heads in the car window and ask either, “Are you Ayşe Önal?” or “Are you Şafak Pavey’s mother?” In a radical move for Turkish society, Şafak posed as a model on the cover of one of Turkey’s major fashion magazines. She attended the London School of Economics first in a wheelchair, then with a newly fitted prosthesis. She studied nationalism, ethnicity and minority rights, topics that had animated her long before Zurich, when she was one of a handful of non-Armenians writing for the Armenian-Turkish newspaper, Agos. The editor was a family friend, Hrant Dink, who was assassinated in 2007, shot in the head by Turkish nationalists on the sidewalk in front of his office.
Şafak struggled with her vulnerability and restrictions; it was not always easy to be upbeat and to keep going. I remember that her infectious laugh was sometimes forced and desperation lurked about her eyes, especially when yet another prosthesis began to chafe and she had to move about in a wheelchair or be carried like a child. But her iron will (and that of her mother) and a fundamentally irrepressible sense of fun kept her tethered to the world. A finely honed understanding of injustice propelled her into a career promoting human rights, particularly of refugees and disabled people, in which she has been both daring and spectacularly successful. She became coordinator of public relations and strategic communications in the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR, where she was responsible for policies on child rights and education. She worked with UN goodwill ambassadors and supporters like Mick Jagger, Ben Affleck and Angelina Jolie to promote minority and social rights around the world. Occasionally I received emailed photos of Şafak arm-in-arm with Nobel Prize winners or the pop idol Tarkan. Discovering that the UN hired very few people with disabilities and had no policies regarding disabled peoples, she and her team developed employment policies for UNHCR to recruit disabled staff around the world. She visited me in Boston a couple of years ago, the first stop in her campaign to push the UN to pay heed to people with disabilities that included buttonholing influential people at Harvard University, in Washington, DC, and at a gathering of Nobel Laureates in California. On that visit, she insisted on being dropped off in Harvard Square and returned with mission accomplished as well as a chic dress and handbag from a local boutique. The UN General Assembly adopted a new human rights convention in 2006 that supports the rights of people with disabilities and Şafak led the establishment of a UN-wide group that oversaw its implementation. She has written three books and edited a volume on law with Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebady.
Her work required extensive travel. On UN missions, she lived in Jordan and Algeria and worked with Sahrawi refugees. One of her most difficult periods were the two years that she spent in Iran as external relations officer covering the Afghan and Iraqi refugee situations and repatriation programs. In a country with so many handicapped people from the Iran-Iraq war, she said, it was remarkable how invisible they were. She was often harassed as a woman and because of her disability, especially at the airport where security would sometimes demand that she remove her prostheses and, in one case, tore open her prosthetic leg with a knife to “see what was inside”. In Bushehr Airport in southwestern Iran, “they took away my passport and said they wouldn’t let me on the flight unless I took off my leg.” The UN removed her from that post early because they couldn’t guarantee her safety. Şafak also had a frightening experience at Kennedy airport when a security guard shouted at her and then pulled out her gun and pointed it at Şafak because she refused to raise her arms. The guard didn’t understand Şafak's repeated explanation, shaken and finally weeping, that she couldn’t raise her arm because it was a prosthesis.
She experienced harassment in many countries, including Turkey. She was invited to Turkey in 2003, the European Year for Disabled People, to receive the Presidential Award for outstanding person with disabilities. But Turkish Airlines agents denied her request for disability assistance and a wheelchair, arguing that she wasn’t disabled enough. Puzzled, she explained that she was on her way to receive an award for being a successful disabled journalist. In a line straight out of Kafka, the airline explained that the Turkish government had a new definition of disabled: you must have a disability on both sides of the body, that is, to have lost two of the same appendages, in order to be considered disabled. Şafak started a rights campaign against the airline and sought a report from a Turkish doctor only to find that it too stated that she wasn’t disabled enough to benefit from any disability assistance. She and her mother pursued this issue to the highest levels in Turkey (even speaking to Prime Minister Erdoğan about it), but found no one interested in the subject or willing to consider changing it. They concluded that this might have been a cost-saving measure on the part of the government, or that it allowed the government to claim a lower “handicapped rate” (and thus a higher rate of full benefits) for EU accounting purposes. They accumulated an extensive paper trail of the history of these regulations and their effects, as well as political denials, but no Turkish newspaper or columnist they approached was interested in taking up the issue.
Turkish regulations were adjusted in 2006 to take account of this bizarre new definition with the effect of kicking many people off the disabled rolls altogether. A person classified as more than forty percent disabled is entitled to benefits. Before 2006, a person with one eye was considered 41 percent disabled and thus eligible for a certain level of assistance. Under the new regulations, one eye is classified as 25 percent disabled. In Turkey, there are about 900,000 people with one eye.
In January 2007, the wildly popular singer and musician Sezen Aksu, who has been called Turkey’s Edith Piaf, became guest editor-in-chief of a major newspaper for a day. She published Şafak’s campaign letter against Turkish Airlines as one of her “Five Shames in Turkey” that included violations of child rights, women’s rights, and nature and animal rights. This brought the issue to public attention, but only briefly, as Hrant Dink was assassinated a few days later and, as Şafak put it, “life stopped for us all.”
It is in this context that Şafak Pavey’s election to parliament last Sunday is a remarkable step for Turkey and a great achievement for Şafak who will at last have a voice in protecting the rights of the disabled in Turkey. She plans to do so as part of a human rights campaign, rather than the present model based on social rights and charity or, as she put it, “not just distributing Pampers and creating isolated disability centers”. The human rights concept in Turkey, she observed, has been narrowed down to just a few political topics. She hopes to shift the thinking to a rights model that encompasses all of the UN Rights Conventions, including the rights of children, women, and migrants, the rights of those subjected to enforced disappearances, torture, and so on. But she will start with disability rights. Her first goal is to get non-disabled MPs to claim ownership of the issue. In the meantime, she will continue to model in the public eye a new unapologetic vision of life as a disabled person who is a full participant in society. Her campaign poster shows a self-confident young woman with a wide smile, her hand outstretched as if ready to grapple with the next issue. The logo states, “I know the value of my vote. Because I'm an active citizen.”
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