The granddaughter of Tom and Virginia Walworth came here at the suggestion of her mother in Southern California, who thought DeMasters could use some quiet time. Soon enough she’ll be heading home, and then back to King University in Bristol, Tenn., where she’ll begin her senior year this fall as a political science and history major.
It was through the college that she got the chance to study abroad. She chose Turkey, arriving in January and staying until about a month ago.
“I wanted to experience a culture that was different than my own. It seemed like a fascinating place. Not a lot of people want to go there, and it’s not where parents would want to see their kids go to.”
She attended classes in Istanbul at Bahcesehir University and lived with a host family. A Turkish woman, Lara, became her “Turkish mother.” Lara’s mother was American and her father was Turkish, so she could speak English as well as Turkish.
“It was an amazing opportunity for me to learn” more about the culture. Lara would take her to the homes of friends who wore burqas (full body cover), hijabs (veils) and/or scarves.
Turkey straddles two continents, and Istanbul is a transcontinental city divided by a shipping strait. “It goes from big cities to villages with maybe a couple of cars, people living the way they did a couple hundred years ago. It’s such a dichotomy.
“From my apartment window I could literally see Asia.
“I had the chance to interact with a huge range of people. So many people in this one little area. Anything you can imagine people wearing, they were wearing it.”
She got the chance to visit ruins from the Roman Empire and Pamukkale, an ancient city in southwestern Turkey atop travertines — terraces of carbonate minerals left by flowing water.
“It’s incredible. It looks like the surface of the moon or something. It gives me the chills just thinking about it.”
Staving off the tear gas
Then the trouble began in Istanbul.
Sit-in protests started May 31, triggered by the city’s plan to remove a unique green area, Gezi Park, next to the iconic Taksim Square to build a replica of Ottoman artillery barracks and mall. The police cracked down.
“From there this grew and grew. Police used tear gas and water cannons on people who weren’t even involved in the protests.”
Riots spread to other neighborhoods, including her own in Besiktas. “At first my Turkish mom called me and said to stay in tonight. She said she’d bring something home for dinner.”
Normally there was always noise outside, horns honking, people talking.
“When we woke up the next morning, there was dead silence.” Soon after they could hear people chanting and could smell tear gas. They tried to keep the tear gas out of their third-story apartment by sealing around the doors and windows with tape, and then used rolled-up towels and more tape when that wasn’t working.
“We had no place to go. By Friday evening they were shutting down all roads in and out of the neighborhood. We would have gotten out but they were arresting anybody they found on the street.”
They could hear people outside heaving, sick from the tear gas. It made their “eyes burn and throats hurt. And it lingers with you for a couple of days.”
“By midday things started to quiet down. We planned to go to the market in our neighborhood.” People shop every couple of days for food. It’s not like in the U.S. where a trip to the grocery store is a once-a-week thing, she said.
When they went out, “the streets were filled with people. We were passing hundreds of people wearing masks and there were big Turkish flags everywhere.”
She got a call from her program coordinator, who said to “be careful and to go home because things were starting to heat up again.” The coordinator told DeMasters that she heard they were calling for strikes all next week, and bringing in military-grade tear gas.
“I went home and packed everything I owned. We knew that once it got dark the police would show up again.”
From the balcony of the coordinator’s home, DeMasters was able to look out over the city. By Sunday at 9 p.m., “people starting yelling, banging pans together, flipping lights on and off to show support. It was an incredible noise, kind of beautiful, but sad.”
By 2 a.m. on Monday morning, Mary was in a taxi on her way to the airport. She had to leave “before you couldn’t leave.”
“It turned out to be a good choice. Early Tuesday they tear-gassed the university that I attended ’cause protestors were taking refuge there.”
There have been mass protests across the country, with nearly 2 million people in 79 of the 81 Turkish cities attending, according to Interior Ministry estimates. Four people, including a police officer and three protesters, have been killed and more than 7,000 people injured, according to the Turkish Medical Association.
Back in the United States, DeMasters still thinks of her “Turkish mother,” Lara: “She’s more proud of her people than scared of what’s going to happen to them. Out of all this chaos and pain, there’s this beautiful movement growing.”
The Turkish people are starting to meet in the parks, whereas before they didn’t want to get together because “if you’re in groups then you’re a target.” People are coming together and talking about “what they want for their future and what they want the future of their country to look like.”
“The Turkish government still has a lot of power over the media. They’ve cracked down on getting information out, but they can’t control Facebook or Twitter. People are posting pictures and art and stories of what’s going on.”
Even though DeMasters is still plagued by nightmares, she “absolutely will go back.”
“I love Turkish people, they are amazingly wonderful and nice, so different and fascinating. There’s life and a vibrancy that I would miss if I never went back.”