Yusuf Ahmet Kulca spent his time on Istanbul’s streets as a young boy. He survived and has gone on to become a leading figure in the rescue and rehabilitation of kids who live on the street.
When the Daily News & Economic Review asked him about Children’s Day, he said: "There is a document concerning it from 1929. 4,000 children wrote a petition to Parliament, asking for the provision of equal food; the spread of the children’s assembly; a law to prevent children; a law to prevent children from working as porters; and the provision of shelters for children sleeping on the streets."
"On April 23, we celebrate a holiday that Atatürk gave as a gift to children. But we need to ask for an account of what we’ve done or not done for our children every year. We need to analyze these things whether we are the president or prime minister, a parliamentary member or an NGO or university, a [normal] citizen, artist or intellectual. If we had accounted for this, we would have carried out an important duty that would have benefited our children. If we had put children’s rights in place, we wouldn’t be speaking of children’s problems," Kulca said.
He firmly believes that children’s rights have to be brought to life because if they had been earlier, there wouldn’t be any need to speak of children’s problems. Although there are laws regarding children, problems remain in enforcing them.
There is a Children’s Rights Agreement, and in Article 15 of the agreement children have the right to establish an association. This was confirmed by Parliament two years ago, but Kulca said it was not widely publicized, so no association was ever opened.
Pointing to other countries such as Denmark, where the Danes generally belong to five associations or foundations, he noted that such a sense of social consciousness has never developed in Turkey.
"We’ve never gotten over this in order to use it for our children. Because we didn’t, these children pay the price. There’s no chance to seek rights for our children. É Some of our children are growing up without education in an unhealthy atmosphere. If the children of the street don’t have an education or don’t know enough about Atatürk or know what April 23 means, then we have children who don’t know about a children’s holiday."
Kulca emphasizes how children bond with each other and even compared it to the tale of the lion lying down with the lamb without injuring it in any way. "There’s no prejudice," Kulca said. "I’m attached to the children. They might play games with each other, but when it comes to times of trouble, they unite. We as adults may argue with each other, and we are to blame if it comes to terror and violence. But with children we must prevent conflict. We mustn’t plant the seeds of anger. Thus we can leave them such a beautiful future and world." When asked about young children who are sentenced to lengthy prison terms for minor offenses, Kulca stressed that they can be educated and rehabilitated if placed in a different atmosphere. "I don’t think we can make peace with a child who has served a long sentence. The behind-the-scenes people responsible for the actions of children who steal bread from stores in order to eat have to be found," he said.
Kulca and the children of the street
Kulca went against social norms of the 1980s and ’90s by taking an empty building in the central Istanbul district of Beyoğlu, renovating it slightly and turning it into a home for some of the boys on the street who lived by selling small items like matches or packages of tissue paper. At the time, the prevailing mentality was ignore it and it will go away. Having been a street child himself, Kulca was in a unique position to reach out to these children. He and his two brothers and their family had immigrated to Turkey. Because his family couldn’t afford to support him while he was in school, after a year he was given to the Social Services Children’s Protection Agency, but when he was 18 and not going to go on to further schooling, he was turned out.
The idea to set up a refuge for street children started during his university days, when he and friends he made there would collect money to see if they could help the children. In 1992 he rented the fifth floor of a building and set up his first refuge for children.