ISTANBUL - Perhaps you wouldn’t have associated the woman talking with people below from her window of her wooden house in Arnavutköy with the Türkan Saylan known for her extensive work as a doctor and the leader of a number of philanthropic organizations such as the Leprosy Relief Association and Foundation, or CSDV, and the Association for Supporting Contemporary Life, or ÇYDD.
Saylan was wearing a scarf wrapped around her head like a turban, but not for political reasons. She has been receiving treatment for cancer, and it is a common means of hiding hair loss. She looked tired and frail.
She was talking with people out of her window because the police had arrived to search her house, confiscate documents and question her about her possible involvement in the Ergenekon case. She was one of a number of people to be taken into custody in the latest wave of arrests that included university rectors and professors.
Since then Saylan has undergone a further chemotherapy session, gone home and again had to be hospitalized for exhaustion. She is still in the hospital and chaffing at having to stay there so long. She is expected to go home Tuesday.
Born in 1935, Saylan was educated in schools in Kandilli. Somewhere during the time that she was in middle school, she decided she wanted to be a village doctor, having already concluded that she wanted to study medicine when she was 12. She completed Istanbul Medical School in 1963; it takes 10 years. Following that, she specialized in skin and venereal diseases at the SSK Nışantaşı Hospital, a specialty that few women would want to pursue. She also spent time studying in Britain and in France. Saylan married at 22 even while still studying medicine and gave birth to two children. She has had two husbands, both of whom she divorced, preferring as she says to not have a man next to her side every minute of the day.
She is also a grandmother. She became a professor in 1977, and she headed the Istanbul Medical Faculty’s Dermatology Department and the Leprosy Research and Application Center that she and colleagues established in 1978 until December 2002, when she retired. But she was much more a practicing doctor than an academic and she was not afraid to take a hands-on approach to her patients. Although she may have officially retired, she has not stopped working.
Throughout her career, Saylan specialized in the study of leprosy and is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on this disease, which afflicted more than 200,000 people worldwide in 2008. Everyone knows that there has been leprosy here in Turkey; for many years a man with leprosy used to beg in Taksim Square. Thanks to Saylan’s work, it is a much better understood disease now Ğ for example, it doesn’t spread easily, and effective treatment has been made available for anyone requiring it.
She has been involved in the development of the Leprosy and Skin Diseases Hospital that was originally established in 1958 at Bakırköy Mental Hospital. At the time, there were an estimated 10,000 lepers in Turkey. She also was a founder of the Leprosy Relief Association and Foundation in 1976 following her return from Britain.
She has won 31 awards and prizes, and at the beginning of 2005 she had a total of 440 publications to her credit. These included 50 medical studies published in foreign publications; 204 medical, social and political newspaper articles; and 186 in Turkish language journals and congressional books with research, anthologies and medical cases.
In answer to a question about her activities with children, Saylan pointed out that she has taken great interest in children, as befits someone who has principally been a teacher all of her adult life. Perhaps it was an effect of being the eldest of several siblings. Asked what advice she gives children when she speaks with them, she said: "Trust in yourself. Constantly develop yourself and don’t forget that all humans are equal." Somewhere in her busy schedule, Saylan traveled around the country, where she understood the need for education. So she and friends founded an association.
ÇYDD and the trouble it brought
It was Saylan’s founding of the ÇYDD that brought trouble for her. Established in 1989, the members of the association try to reach out to modern man and modern society through protecting Atatürk’s principles and revolutions and developing them through modern education. The goal is to take the lead in increasing the sensitivity of civil society and in developing Turkish society.
The organization has 93 chapters and 17,000 members. The association gives out some 16,000 scholarships to primary and middle school students and provides 5,000 scholarships to poor girls who live in rural areas so that they can have a chance to learn to read. Within its project for supporting girls, it has overall given out some 36,000 scholarships and 22,000 scholarships for high school and university students.
A lawsuit was opened in 2001 against the ÇYDD, charging that it was only paying lip service to Atatürk’s principles while it collected money in Turkey and abroad. The organization was accused of collecting money without obtaining permission and investing it in the stock market and funds. Finally the charge was expanded to include separatism. There was some talk of a scholarship being given to the daughter of a member of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
As time went by, rumors and unsubstantiated charges continued against Saylan, and the ÇYDD continued to grow. Questions were asked why so many foreign companies had contributed to the ÇYDD rather than Turkish companies.
Saylan’s name began to surface in the press in connection with groups that were considered to be Christian missionaries, regardless of whether they were or not. One of these was the Social and Education Foundation, or SEV, which took over the work that the American Board had been doing in running a number of schools around Turkey. Another was the Modern Education Foundation, or CEV.
Somehow, because her mother had been a Catholic who converted to Islam, Saylan was supposed to have sympathy for Christianity and the ÇYDD was somehow involved in supporting missionary work and receiving donations from church organizations overseas. Although Saylan expresses her commitment to secularism and to strengthening it, it is dismissed in some quarters as hypocrisy.
The result was that the leaders of the ÇYDD were taken into custody for questioning, though Saylan was not. All of the organization’s papers and records were confiscated as part of the ongoing investigation into the so-called Ergenekon plot to destabilize Turkey and overthrow the government. The children who would have received scholarships from ÇYDD now will not get them.
Support for Saylan
As if the accusations against Saylan as chairman of the ÇYDD weren’t bad enough, she is having chemotherapy treatments for a recurrence of cancer. This is a horrendous and exhausting experience under the best of times that leaves one sick and exhausted. She is 74 years old but has shown her spunk when she said that she thought she would have to keep on living in order to fight the calumnies that were aimed at her. Gone is the beautiful young woman who shook hands with Pope John Paul II at a meeting in Rome in the 1980s. She looks drawn, but the eyes tell you she’s not going out without a fight.
Saylan has a very pointed sense of humor, and it is easy to see that people who aren’t as sharp as she is would find it difficult if not impossible to understand her whimsy. She thoroughly enjoys pointing out life’s ironies.
The current situation has drawn an outcry of support for her. Many students, especially women, who have been given a chance to obtain an education through Saylan’s efforts are appreciative of her.
’We are all Saylan’
The Turkish Doctors Association has now come out in support of Saylan, who is a member of the organization. Its president, Gencay Gürsöy, has described Saylan as follows: "If Türkan Saylan has a sacred value for the 100,000 doctors of the medical community of the Turkish Doctors Association, Türkan Saylan is sacred for us. The identity that Türkan Saylan represented is the sacredness of our identity. We are all Türkan Saylan."
Gürsöy added that everyone should remember that Saylan’s basic identity was that of a doctor and that she would never have taken any action that could be understood as being anti-democratic. But whatever was done to her, Turkey’s medical community would consider it done to them. As for Saylan’s physical condition, Gürsöy pointed out that the slightest mishap could affect her health.
Industrialist Güler Sabancı has added her name to the growing list of public figures who have spoken out on her behalf. Prominent faculty members from Bosphorus University have also expressed their concern at how events have unfolded, as have school children. Saylan has also been receiving a stream of visitors at the hospital.
Where all this will lead is unclear. One cannot be highly successful without making enemies and that holds true all over the world.