‘A campus should not be a trade zone’

(This blog post was written by my intern Zehra Kaya, who studies at the Journalism Academy in the Netherlands. She is currently studying for one semester at Yeditepe University in Istanbul.)

Thanks to banners saying ‘Occupied area’ it’s hard to miss the Starbucks on the huge campus. The branch of the coffee giant has been occupied by students since last week. After stepping inside, I soon find out the occupation is not aimed at American companies, but against commercialisation of the university. Student Uğur: ‘A university is not a trade zone.’

The occupation of Starbucks is taking place at the campus of one of the most famous and respected universities in Turkey, the Bosporus University. The students want their affordable cafeteria back, and also several other commercial developments have to be cancelled, they say. When I visit the campus, there are about fifty occupiers present. They tell me on week days their group is much bigger.

Tea kettle

In the newspapers I read that the students have turned Starbucks into their home, and indeed: when I come in, I smell food. In the kitchen not only a lentil dish is being prepared for the evening, but also helva, a sweet dish of flour and sugar. At the end of the hall there are blankets and pillows on the floor. And yes, at the kitchen door is the famous tea kettle with which the students make their own tea! In Turkish papers some jokes were made about the kettle. Right across from the kitchen you can enter Starbucks. All chairs are occupied by students with books and laptops. Even the floor!

Students occupy Starbucks - and even took their own carpet. (Photo: Zehra Kaya)

While we enjoy a cup of tea, the students explain to me that they sometimes go home for a shower and a change of clothes, and that they have a meeting every day about the progress of the occupation. There is even a daily schedule on the window. Everything is tightly planned. For example, not too many students may take a break from the occupation at the same time. Skipping class is being tolerated by most of the teachers, but still the protestors try to attend as many lessons as possible. Sometimes that’s not necessary because teachers come to Starbucks to give their class.

The rumours that the protest is aimed at Starbucks because it is an American company, are not true. The opening of a Starbucks on campus was just the last drop that makes the cup run over. There are several American outlets on the campus. Why they were not occupied, is because there the prices are set by the university and are thus still affordable.

Starbucks on the campus has the same prices as the branches outside. ‘A cup of tea costs 3,25tl here. Before we had a cafeteria at this location where you could get tea for 0,50tl’, says Uğur (20). ‘We could also sit in that cafeteria without ordering anything, or we could eat our own food. That’s not allowed here. That is a bad development, because a university campus should not be a trade zone.’

Petition

Other topics for the students are the fees for student certificates, the shuttle buses on campus that are no longer for free and the expensive dinners on campus. Uğur: ‘That’s why we protest commercialisation and globalisation. Some journalists attack us because we wear Converse shoes and Levi’s jeans, but we have no choice. They rule the market.’

Uğur says they had no idea a Starbucks would be opened, until it was suddenly there. ‘That’s also a problem: nothing is shared with the students. Recently the deputy rector told us that filing a petition would have been better. Actually, we did that a month ago, but got no reaction. That is why this occupation is necessary now.’

Student Esra (21) says only deputy rector Tereza Varnali passed by, without coming in to talk to the occupying students. Esra: ‘She considered it not appropriate to enter the occupied area because she thinks such a protest doesn’t suit the culture of Bosporus University. We spoke to her outside, but without any result. She was totally not interested in what we had to say. She just came to take a look, not to listen to us.’
I would have liked to add a reaction from Tereza Varnali, but after trying for two days, I gave up. She just doesn’t answer her phone.

Free

Despite this lack of interest on the part of the university the students say they have achieved a lot in five days. They got a lot of media coverage, and they say the number of protestors increases every day. They want to see the Starbucks closed down, and the old cafeteria re-opened. Also, they want the student certificates and shuttle buses to be free of charge again. The students want to stay until they get a result. Esra: ‘These capitalist companies have occupied our area. Now we occupy it back.’

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