A Tree Grows in Trout Lake

Eight years ago early in June, news and images of hundreds of thousands of people crossing the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul between Asia and Europe went viral. A simple environmental sit-in, also dubbed as #OccupyGezi, in reaction to the demolition of trees in Gezi Park, transformed into nationwide and worldwide rallies after the police used excessive force on the initial demonstrators. The government wanted to build a shopping mall and a mosque in place of this rare green space in the heart of Istanbul. The protests extended to big capitals of the world from Melbourne to Berlin, from L.A. to Vancouver, where I live. 

When I heard the news of Gezi Park, my child was blissfully playing away with other children in East Vancouver hugging trees and picking on petals of blooming peonies. She was safe, my family back home was safe, but I felt fraught with the images, confined, away from Turkey, unable to surpass oceans and borders. I felt the need to reach out and do something. For years, busy with my Canadian family and college students, I was unaware of the existence of a community from Turkey in Vancouver. I called the only Turkish person I knew in town, Güler Aylar, a former president of the Turkish-Canadian Society in Vancouver, and found out that they were staging protests at the Vancouver Art Gallery and in Grandview Park. The rest of that summer and for another year, I met hundreds of people from the Turkish-speaking community in Vancouver in several gatherings. 

Nural Sumbultepe and her daughter during the protest in Vancouver in 2013 | Paul McDonald

When we were not rallying in Vancouver, we were glued to the screens following the people in Turkey. What stirred me the most about protesters back home was not only how people nursed each other’s wounds after tear gas attacks, but also the creative and humorous nature of their demonstrations: singing, dancing, flash mobs, standing at attention, a piano concert in a square, painting rainbow colours on stairs. The crowds encompassed the most unlikely people from all segments of the society. The older generation congregated with the generation born in the 80s and 90s that used to be deemed “apolitical”.  The seculars, non-seculars, the environmentalists, Kurdish activists and LGBTQ and women’s rights advocates united and marched in the same space.  

The word çapulcu was re-coined during the protests when President Erdogan called the protesters çapulcu, meaning  ‘looters” in a demeaning way. People took the insult, embraced the word, owned it and changed its negative connotation. It became synonymous with the word ‘comrade’. We formed a Facebook group called Vancouver Çapulcus.  We were elated when we heard Noam Chomsky utter the words. “I am also a Çapulcu.  

The Turkish-speakingÇapulcu community here was a microcosm of Turkey. Our protests were similarly creative with forums, discussions, concerts and folk-dances. We didn’t hesitate to include children since there was no fear of police, tear gas or  water cannons.  But it wasn’t always rosy. The Vancouver Çapulcu Community occasionally had friction and discord. Some members wanted to lead the events in the direction they deemed important. There were inflamed wounds that we wanted to gash open and a range of unresolved issues from Turkish past to tackle with. Some urged for nationalism, back to the principles of the Republic while others raised the topic of elitism, discrimination, and ethnic conflicts. Some steered us towards debates on Marxism and Neoliberalism while others insisted Gezi was purely an environmental protest. 

Güler Aylar, former president of Turkish Canadian Society hugs the beech tree planted in November 2013 | Photo Courtesy of Guler Aylar

Gezi Park Vancouver instigated new friendships, even marriages, but it also caused break-ups and disappointments. Despite some bitterness, I was glad that we had all those outlets to think critically and express perspectives, opinions and thoughts. We examined marginalized communities in Turkey and argued over the “real” victims and the villains. The verb “to other someone” cemented its place in our common dictionary.

Canadian-born Turkish children might have planted life-long connections with each other trailing after their Vancouver Çapulcu parents joining in the folk-dancing, carrying banners. I overheard my confused five-year-old say to other children once emulating our passion and worry,

Erdogan and Stephen Harper are going to take away Queen Elizabeth Park and Trout Lake and build a shopping mall. We will no longer have green space.”  

In November 2013, under the leadership of Güler Aylar, and with support from the city, we raised money and planted a beech tree in Trout Lake Park in tribute to Gezi. Beech trees are believed to heighten creativity, and to refer to wisdom, knowledge and written word.

 A remaining staunch group from the Çapulcus walked into the Pacific Ocean in wetsuits near the harbour and floated a loaf of bread to commemorate a teenager killed by the police on his way back from a bakery in Istanbul. On the first anniversary of Gezi Park in 2014, we organized a ceremony and invited elders from a local indigenous nation in Vancouver to bless the beech tree. We sang and performed folk dances that we had worked on for months. 

Now, I long for those days of solidarity, joint expressions of love and care towards humanity and the environment.  I am easily impressed by community power and peaceful movements. What I loved about the 2010 Games in Vancouver, for example, wasn’t the sports so much; it was the big, diverse party downtown, the poetry read to multitudes of people and being moved by Neil Young. More recently, when Greta Thunberg came to town, I felt the same type of bond with the millennials. 

What remains from Gezi, now, is a tree in Trout Lake growing strong and branching out just like the immigrant community from Turkey.

Nural is a Turkish-Canadian who works as a teacher in the public school system. She holds an MA in Applied Linguistics and an MEd in Social Studies. She lived in 9 countries as an English, Social Studies and Drama teacher in IB schools before she moved to Vancouver. Nural also worked as an instructor at UBC and SFU. Nural has been the Assistant Director and Panel Discussion Coordinator for the Vancouver Turkish Film Festival from its very beginning. She has worked with the SFU Cultural Programs, Doxa and Women in Film and Television, in addition to her current role on the Short Film Selection Committee at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF).

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