Activist Yashar Ismailoglu on meeting Nelson Mandela


Community leader, Yashar Ismailoglu has had varied career but since moving to London more than 30 years ago he has worked tirelessly for the Turkish and Kurdish community in Hackney.

Yashar Ismailoglu will never forget the time when Nelson Mandela offered him a tomato from his own garden. It was on a visit to Robben Island in 1976, more than 20 years before his release. “It is my favourite memory,” he says.

yasharAs a political activist and a writer he has written on subjects ranging from the South African apartheid to Turkish and Kurdish children’s education. Sitting down amongst the odd assortment of furniture and piles of paper in his office, he points proudly to his website and to the articles, poems and 26 books he has written.

In the picture on his website, Mr Ismailoglu looks like a Turkish Father Christmas. When meeting him, it is a little disappointing to discover that the beard has gone – but he is still a rotund, jolly looking man.

Having worked as a journalist, poet, political activist and community leader, Mr Ismailoglu has achieved many things for his community but this life has come at a price.

“What I have failed at is educating my children. I don’t know how much I should blame myself but I have spent so much time helping others.” As he says this, tears well up in his eyes.

Mr Ismailoglu’s second of four sons cannot read or write. In comparison, he says his youngest, aged 14, is the brightest and hopes he will go to university.

At 63, Mr Ismailoglu has worked as a war correspondent, teacher on equality issues to the Metropolitan Police and now part-time customer services advisor for Waltham Forest council.

He now works for harmony within the Turkish and Kurdish community living in Hackney: “My ambition is to build sustainable communities”.

Mr Ismailoglu believes that communication is the key to good relationships between communities. With this in mind he set up the first Turkish-English newspaper which began life being published from his home. Toplum Postasi is now the biggest Turkish language paper in London.

He became a coordinator at Halkevi Turkish and Kurdish Community Centre in 1999 and he moved to the Alevi centre in May last year. The centre has grown and they have bought a new building in Haringey to house the activities on offer, which include lessons in English, maths, science, art and drama and four football teams. The centre also provides advice, support and even funeral services for the community.

Mr Ismailoglu became interested in providing services for his community as soon as he arrived in England in 1972, to complete his postgraduate studies. He could not study in Turkey because of his Marxist-Leninist politics. He still holds these views but says: “Once you grow up and you have seen a lot of things you have to adapt. So I have adapted to capitalism.”

Mr Ismailoglu was born at the end of the Second World War in a small Cypriot village called Trahoni . When war broke out he joined the Turkish Cypriot Fighting Force.

After the war he studied International Relations in Turkey and there he met his first wife, the love of his life. She was married to a high ranking pilot but Mr Ismailoglu ran away with her.

She could not understand his community work and divorced him in 1979, something which still seems painful to him: “I loved her very much. That has left a very deep wound in my life.” He remarried later in life.

His career as a journalist started on local newspapers in Cyprus but he also worked for a Turkish TV station and travelled the world as a war correspondent.

One thing he remembers vividly from this time was a house in Turkey where the residents had been killed. An elderly woman had hidden under a bed, she died holding onto the springs and her hand was locked in the springs. “I will never forget her eyes and the smell. Sometimes it comes to me in my dreams.”

Having experienced war in his own country and in his work he has “seen a lot of cruelty” but this has driven him “work for peaceful purposes”.

His next mission is to do a PhD and he stills feels there is work to do at integrating the Turkish and Kurdish communities but “if I were to die now, I know I have not left anything half done”.