Immigrant, Fabulous, and Proud of It

While this space is usually a place for my personal thoughts and reflections, it is important to use the spaces and platforms you have access to in order to promote important stories. Seyda and Seda display a passion, courage, and perseverance that is an example to all, and their story should be heard. It was my honor to speak with them, and to bring their story to this blog.

 

Immigrant, Fabulous, and Proud of It

Seyda and Seda Özçetin want to redefine what it means to be an immigrant. The two sisters from Turkey, and their design company Hamide, have found success in Copenhagen despite prejudice and challenges at every turn. The Özçetin sisters see immigrants as strong, creative, resilient, educated people who seek a better life—not people who come to Scandinavia solely for the welfare. Their designs with Hamide reflect that, and they have become accepted and valued members of the local creative community.

However, despite their successes, their standing in Denmark is threatened. After many months of legal negotiations, the two sisters had their re-application for a work permit denied on the grounds that their business does not offer enough to promote Danish commercial interests. But they are continuing to fight for their right to remain in the country that they have made their home, while simultaneously running Hamide with ardor, conviction, and experience rooted in a deep belief that through their work, they can help make things a little better.

Seyda and Seda at their popup shop at Mirins, in Østerbro. Photo by Megan Kessler.
Seyda and Seda at their popup shop at Mirins, in Østerbro. Photo by Megan Kessler.

Seyda and Seda’s journey to Denmark was a roundabout one. Raised in Ankara, Turkey, the pair never really felt like they fit in. Life in Turkey was chaotic, and Seyda and Seda felt alienated and uncomfortable much of the time, but they were kept motivated by their belief in the power of education.

“Our parents encouraged us to be educated,” said Seyda. “You can build your future, you can go abroad, if you’re really educated. You can create your own opportunities. We became obsessed with this idea.”

Seyda went to Sweden as an exchange student in 2005 and studied art history while Seda studied industrial design at the Middle East Technical University. Seyda’s experience in Sweden helped them realize that Scandinavia was where they wanted to settle down.

“[Sweden] was so safe, green, it was like a fairy tale. And my interactions with the people… I liked it so much. I liked that all of a sudden I could kind of restart,” said Seyda.

Seda eventually joined her sister in Sweden and the pair remained there from 2008 to 2010 to do their masters studies, before their residence permit expired and they returned to Turkey. Their mother, Hamide Özçetin, who had been diagnosed with CBGD, (a form of Parkinson’s disease) in 2007, was with them. It was from her that the idea for Hamide was born.

“We definitely wanted to keep [our mother’s] legacy and her light alive. So we were sure that we were going to do a project with her following all these developments.”

It smells spring. Photo courtesy of Hamide design studio.
It smells spring. Photo courtesy of Hamide design studio.

Hamide was a local fashion designer in Ankara, and the sisters had grown up around her work, and with Seda and Seyda’s background, design was an obvious choice for this project. They spent a year in Turkey working together before they heard about a visa program that supported highly educated immigrants relocating to Denmark. They applied for the program, and upon their acceptance, packed up and moved to Copenhagen. It was here that they worked to launch Hamide. Though their mother’s health was deteriorating, and she was losing many of her abilities very quickly, Seyda and Seda observed the positive effect that Scandinavia, and their project, had on their mother.

“Her eyes were so strong,” said Seyda. “I think she understood what we were doing and she was happy.”

Despite their love for Scandinavia, the transition to Denmark was not an easy one. Seyda and Seda were not supported in taking care of their ailing mother by their kommune. Even hospitals were less likely to help her when they realized that the family was Turkish, and the sisters struggled to find their mother adequate care.

Despite their higher education, both sisters were underemployed. Both worked in cleaning for a while, and Seyda spent some time as a bartender.

“I was being abused in all sorts of ways,” she said. “You really sharpen your edges. It was very humbling.”

Seyda and Seda quickly found that their Turkish backgrounds brought out prejudices in people. It often felt like they were expected to be poorly educated, if educated at all, and people did not assume they would be good designers.

“It felt like there were certain boxes for different countries, and the moment I said I am from Turkey I was put into the Turkish box,” said Seda. “I was constantly evaluated on their expectations of Turkey.”

Prejudices against immigrants and Turkish people made it very difficult for Seyda and Seda to start a new business. Retailers said they would only work with Danish designers and rejected many Hamide designs without even looking at a portfolio. It was these difficult experiences that gave birth to Immigrant and Fabulous and I Feel From, two product lines that were part of a social movement that would, in many ways, define the studio.

Hamide_photos-50-600x399
Immigrant and Fabulous. Photo courtesy of Hamide design studio.

“When we observe a problem we don’t just try to avoid it,” said Seyda. “We want that problem to be acknowledged and solved on a comprehensive level. We want to do that through design and art.”

Immigrant and Fabulous is a product line created by Hamide that emphasizes the positive aspects of immigrants, and fights against stereotypes perpetuated in Western cultures. It shows immigrants as people who are strong, resilient, creative, and hard working—people who are committed to improving not only themselves, but their communities as well. The line also exhibits a sense of pride in being an immigrant in a society that often tries to assimilate any successes, and distance itself from difference.

“[Even] once we were accepted, people didn’t want to acknowledge that we were Turkish,” said Seyda. “They tried to brush off or hide the fact that we were not Danish. In promoting our product…they would never say anything about us being Turkish. When you’re successful they want to make you Danish, and when you’re not successful, you’re an immigrant.”

Being an immigrant, an entrepreneur, and a creative all present their own difficulties, and Seyda and Seda had to face them all. The pair had to secure funds for projects and sell their products to survive, all while fighting for recognition and equality in the Danish design industry. Despite it all, the founders of Hamide took heart in their own successes, and in an honest belief that they were capable and special—they would not quit.

“When you see that you succeed it is a very special feeling,” said Seda. “You become more curious and interested in your environment. You want to learn it, and adapt to it, so you can make the most of it. When everything is presented on a plate you get a bit lazy.”

After years of hard work, Hamide, was up and running. Seyda and Seda had found success. Their designs were selling, they had work in the Danish Design Museum Shop (where their products were selling out often), and they had begun to establish themselves in their local community. That’s not to say things were always easy, but it seemed as though things were looking up.

DSC_1013
Seda (left) and Seyda, arranging items in their popup shop. Photo by Megan Kessler.

But these positive developments took a hit when, in June 2014, their application for a work permit extension was denied. Now that they were self-employed, they had to re-apply. So they did. They submitted pages of financial documents, contracts, reference letters from retailers and project partners, Danish language certificates, and evidence of volunteer work to prove their legitimacy as productive citizens and prove that Hamide was a stable and successful business.

“Sorry for not being humble, but I think it is an amazing success,” said Seyda. “Going through all this discrimination, and doing so many other jobs, and still establishing the brand and getting a great reference from the Danish Design Museum Shop.”

But despite their excellent references, Danish Immigration Services continued to request more documents. They had to submit financial documents multiple times when Danish authorities claimed that they had not received them. This went on for over a year until July of 2015, when they received a letter stating that their application had been denied. Their business was not deemed to be in the economic interests of Denmark. They had eight weeks to appeal. The letter also mentioned an agreement between Turkey and the E.U. that might give them a chance of staying. They hired a lawyer from Immigration Law, a firm purported to be the best in Denmark. They said their lawyer seemed capable enough, and there was a renewed chance that things might be leaning in their favor. But it was not long before everything went south again.

Play! Photo courtesy of Hamide.
Play! Photo courtesy of Hamide design studio.

Their lawyer became difficult to get in touch with. There were calls and emails left unanswered, until he finally responded and said everything was fine—he had submitted the appeal. But as it turned out, their lawyer had missed the deadline, and Immigration Law had filed for bankruptcy, so Immigration Services was not in touch with them anymore. Seyda and Seda wrote a letter explaining the situation, but have not heard anything in over a month.

“The only chance we have right now is this special agreement between Turkey and the E.U.” said Seda. “But everyone is keeping it a secret.”

This agreement is called the Ankara agreement, a 1963 agreement between Turkey and the E.U. that offers Turkish immigrants who have been employed for a certain amount of time rights to remain in that employment. It aims to protect the rights of economically active Turkish immigrants. Though the exact application of this agreement to Seyda and Seda’s case remains to be seen, it seems that it offers them another chance.

“The Danish authorities don’t like this agreement,” said Seyda. “They’ve been putting pressure on Turkey not to use it, so Turkish citizens are not informed.”

In retrospect, Seyda and Seda’s initial application should have been based on the Ankara agreement, which would have essentially guaranteed its success, but its use now that their first application was denied and they missed their appeal chance is in question. The Özçetin sisters are currently waiting for a response to the letter they sent immigration services, and are trying to figure out how to use the Ankara agreement to their advantage. If these efforts are unsuccessful, they will be given period of time to get their affairs in order, then deported.

"Super woman," a tribute to Hamide . Photo courtesy of Hamide design studio.
“Super woman,” a tribute to Hamide Özçetin. Photo courtesy of Hamide design studio.

In many respects, the Özçetin sisters’ case is a landmark one. They are the first Turkish citizens to apply for residence and work permits in Denmark as self-standing small business owners using the Ankara agreement to bolster their case. In general, it is very hard for small business owners to get work permits, as the Danish government prioritizes very profitable, high power industries. The Turkish embassy has written to Danish immigration officials, and the Özçetin case is being watched. One way or another, this could be a case that sets a precedent.

“I was amazed by the embassy’s calmness,” said Seyda. “What the hell have you been doing here? [They said] ‘ah you will be the first one.’ I was like ‘what!’ If this happens, we will be writing history.”

With everything that has happened, it would be understandable if Seyda and Seda’s love for Denmark had diminished, but it remains strong.

“[Denmark] became even more valuable for me,” said Seyda. “I realize more and more that this is my home and I am freaking out. This doesn’t make me get cold feet—it’s the opposite. You get obsessed with proving that this is your home and you cannot ignore me.”

“I don’t take it personally,” said Seda. “Of course you feel heartbroken, and you can’t ignore that, but what I love about Denmark isn’t the immigration office.”

Hamide continues to grow, and both sisters are fully committed to its mission. They have seen their ability to spark social change, both through Hamide and through their personal story, and it provides motivation for them. But even with their relentlessly positive outlook, and their drive to succeed, the fight to remain in Denmark is wearing on the Özçetin sisters.

“I’m not fine,” said Seyda. “I’m completely fucked up actually. I can kill myself but then I don’t, because this project is so important to me. I am a true humanist, if I die and stop what I do, I will prevent future change. I can change like twenty people, I’m not aiming to change a million, but it could happen.”

“You don’t know anything about your future,” said Seda, “And it’s a weird thing.”

The case of Seyda and Seda, and that of Hamide, is one that illustrates the value, or lack thereof, placed by Denmark not only on immigrants, but also on creative industries. The Özçetin sisters were told that their business does not match Danish commercial interests—Denmark is looking for big, cutting edge industry and job creation. If the Özçetin sisters had been running a tech company, their struggle may have played out very differently. The types of people and businesses that governments determine to be valuable influences the economic and social atmosphere of a place, but it also has a very real impact on the lives of people like Seda and Seyda Özçetin.

Seda and Şeyda with their mother Hamide Yanç Özçetin. Photo courtesy of Hamide design studio.
Seda and Seyda with their mother, Hamide Yanç Özçetin. Photo courtesy of Hamide design studio.

For now, there is nothing for the Özçetins to do other than to continue their art, continue their advocacy, and hope that the powers at be understand and value their contributions.

“I’m an extraordinary person, it sounds so stupid, I know how to be humble but I also know what I’ve done,” said Seyda. “But at the end of the day it feels like it doesn’t matter. You will be deported and this is normalized, and you’re a package. Even some of the people who look like they’re supporting your cause, deep down they accept, ‘this is not your home, and you should be fine with being sent back to Turkey,’ and that’s horrible.”

 

Please check out Şeyda and Seda’s website, hamide.co, to read more and to support their work. You can find them on Facebook, and Twitter @hamidedesign. Special thanks to Megan Kessler for her wonderful photographs and interview assistance, and to Kate Puglia, Laura McLaughlin, and Daisy Bowes Williamson for their editing support.

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