Fulya Pinar has spent a great deal of time observing passengers on a bus traveling between Istanbul’s center and its outskirts as part of her research.
In one instance, she watched a cross-cultural economic exchange between a Turkish bus driver and a non-native passenger. The passenger, whose linguistic differences indicated he was not Turkish, provided payment for the bus fare in the form of cash — a method forbidden under the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. Though the passenger did not present the required public transportation card, the bus driver just took the money, let him on the bus and kept driving.
According to Pinar, this situation right before her eyes exemplified the community support she had so extensively studied for years.
Pinar, a postdoctoral research associate at the Center for Middle East Studies, researches “displacement and social movement in Turkey and the Middle East,” focusing on migrant women and the alternative communities they form.
In a talk entitled “The Bus that Transports Undocumented Migrants: Experimental Solidarities across the Refugee vs. Citizen Divide in Istanbul,” Pinar analyzed “how migrants from the Middle East and West Africa experiment with everyday solidarities in Istanbul,” according to the event’s description. Pinar spoke to a crowd at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs on Thursday, Feb. 2.
Alex Winder, director of undergraduate studies and visiting assistant professor of Middle East Studies, views Pinar’s work as highlighting “pushback against the traditional systems.”
“One of the things I find most exciting about her work is that it links the ideas of displacement (with) social movements” rather than humanitarian responses, Winder said. This allows outsiders to understand that refugees are not merely “passive recipients of humanitarian aid” but rather “active social agents.”
Working to reshape views of the migrant experience
Pinar grew her career out of exploration. Even though studying management as an undergraduate at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Pinar decided to test the waters of social sciences. Quickly, those waters became her life.
“I chose management for my undergraduate studies because I come from a more lower-class family and identify as first-generation,” Pinar explained. “So for me, making a living was the priority. But when I started exploring sociology and anthropology courses, I became interested in women’s activist movements in Turkey.”
Pinar was quick to put her knowledge of management to use within her new interest areas when she began volunteering with “non-governmental activist organizations that were particularly doing work with impoverished women.”
Pinar earned her master’s degree from Istanbul’s Koç University after studying women’s organizations and the legal field in Turkey, specifically looking at feminist lawyers and their movements, campaigns and case law. She completed her degree in 2014, just three years after the Syrian civil war began. In the face of this conflict, Pinar shifted her academic focus to migrant women fleeing Syria for Turkey.
“So after 2011, with the war in Syria under (Bashar) al-Assad’s regime, there were horrible attacks on civilians so people, of course, started to move to Turkey,” she said. “And in 2014, it was very clear that these people were going to come and they were going to stay.”
Pinar continued studying migrant women while pursuing her PhD at Rutgers University, focusing specifically on how refugees were involved in various social movements across Turkey.
“While studying these refugees, I realized that they were actually building movements of their own,” Pinar said. “Although these were less visible than what you might call a feminist movement, they were certainly extensive.”
“Refugees were opening up their houses, opening their private enterprises, opening some underground community centers and clinics to provide knowledge and support to one another,” engaging in formative movements of their own, she added.
Pinar aims to change the lens through which the world views the Middle East, highlighting how migrants and refugees are “changing the system (by) creating alternatives rather than resisting. They’re essentially creating their own alternative, parallel lives.”
“When people from the Global North look at the Middle East, they often see a static thing that doesn’t change,” she said. “They are looking from the lens of the states and not from the lenses of the people. For me, it’s important to show that there are things these people do to continue living their lives and survive.”
Winder felt similarly. “These people are not only making lives for themselves but are also trying to put forward certain demands to ensure their rights and looking after each other,” he said. Pinar’s “research is really interesting in that it looks at displacement not as something that affects Western Europe or North America, but as something reshaping societies within the Middle East as well.”
Placing Pinar’s research in Providence
Through case studies, Pinar aims to highlight that “practices like this cash transaction on the bus — normally illegalized — constitute elements of alternative social contracts between citizens and microstructures,” she said.
Josephine Kovecses ’25, who attended Thursday’s event, was particularly struck by Pinar’s anecdote about bus fare payment.
“I thought it was remarkable that her entire thesis was based on an observation from something as simple as a bus ride,” she said. “The concept of a parallel economy and political sphere centering migrants in Turkey is so specific that I had little previous knowledge, so I was fascinated by (Pinar’s) use of a case study to prove a larger phenomenon.”
Atticus Henry ’25 also expressed fascination with Pinar’s firsthand knowledge, explaining that her time in Turkey “offers an accurate and more informed analysis” of her studies.
“Her presentation was fascinating because it describes the daily challenges and dynamic the refugee experience entails while also providing a unique overview of the forces behind them,” he said.
“I appreciated how she connected the lives of the people she interacted with to larger trends to better contextualize complex situations in an insightful and respectful way,” Henry added.
According to Winder, Pinar is unique in her ability to “think carefully about pedagogy” and “inspire students to become truly engaged in the learning process.” Winder says these skills of Pinar’s have the potential to motivate students to think about connections between the migrant communities in Turkey and the ones just down the hill in Providence.
“Providence is also home to a number of different refugee populations, migrant populations (and) populations of displaced people,” he said. “Thinking about how these people are engaged in different kinds of social movements and engaged in politics instead of just thinking of them only as recipients of aid or the object of politics is really important.”
“I know a lot of Brown students are engaged in work within different migrant communities around Providence, so I think (Pinar’s) way of approaching this can be really productive for students who are engaged in those questions,” Winder added. “That’s why I think we’re so lucky to have found someone like her.”
Sofia Barnett is a University News editor overseeing the faculty and higher education beat. She is a sophomore from Texas studying history, politics and nonfiction writing.