Thanks goes to Graeme Disney for introducing me to John (Vecihi) Basarin. What a pleasure it was to sit down with John over a cup of tea served in a Turkish glass (sorry about not loving Turkish Delight, John!) John has done so much in his life and I hope you enjoy reading all about it. Meet John…
I was born in Istanbul, one of the loveliest cities in the world. My father was an officer in the Turkish Army and six months after my birth he was posted to the eastern part of Turkey so I didn’t get to live in Istanbul for long but I can claim that I was born there. My family kept moving from one part of the country to another with my father, so my childhood was one of different experiences in different places. I have a younger brother and a younger sister. My father was a very authoritarian man – that was normal in those days and when I was growing up it felt rather difficult. He was very strict. However, mum was a gentle, loving, caring person so there was balance in our lives.
I was academically a very good student. I was number one in my class at primary school, number one in high school. In 1964 when I was 17, I won an AFS exchange scholarship to America and lived with an American family (the Hills) for a year, finishing high school there.
Economically, although my father’s position and salary could have been classified as middle class, if you like, we still didn’t have a washing machine, television, fridge, telephone or a car so it was a childhood of my family making do with whatever we had. Of course it is much different in today’s Turkey, most have all the mod-cons like we do here.
Living in America was a totally different experience because they had everything and multiples of it. My family in America, for example, had four cars. I did not know much about America in those days but I went to Birmingham, Alabama which is the Deep South. Of course people were and are lovely but they had different views about the world and while it was the height of the black movement I learned very little about it then. Our neighbourhood was all white, our school was all white. Only when I returned back to Turkey did I realise that I was in the thick of an amazing movement of which I had no idea about.
But of course it helped with my English and my social skills – I was a very shy person and as an exchange student I had to give talks at various places. I probably gave 50/60 talks in a year and so returned back to Turkey a changed person. I can say that my year in America was a life changing experience. It made me a much more confident person.
Being a top grade student throughout my schooling, I won entry to one of the best and difficult universities in Turkey (METU in capital Ankara). I had to do a lot of studying. I remember even studying on a New Year’s Eve one year.
I had a suitcase, $50 in my pocket and an engineering degree.
I had to live in a dormitory with another 20 people in one room in double bunks and that’s all we could afford I guess. I became a chemical engineer and I thought then the world would be all opened up for me. But economically, the early 70s was very difficult for me. I would get my salary working as an engineer and by the end of the month the salary would be finished. To buy a pair of shoes for example, I had to save for three months. So I said to myself “bugger this, there is a better life outside Turkey”. I applied to go to Canada and Australia. I decided not to go to Canada because it was too cold and I arrived in Australia at Tullamarine in February 1973. I was about 25 or 26 by this time. I had a suitcase, $50 in my pocket and an engineering degree. I had a university friend who had come before me and he met me at the airport and we went to his house in Brunswick, had breakfast and then he said “I’ll show you the town”. On the way home he said “this is Melbourne University” and I said “why don’t we just go in and have a look”. So we went in and I found the chemical engineering department. Being February there were no students and I met this elderly gentleman and we started talking. After a few minutes he said “how long have you been in Australia?” I said “about two and a half hours”. He was very taken by that. He said “we’re looking for somebody like you to do some research and do a course and a bit of tutoring, would you like to do that?” And he said “if your grades are good enough you can start tomorrow”.
That was a golden opportunity for me. I started researching, studying and tutoring at Melbourne University. Some things happen for a reason. He turned out to be the Dean of Engineering, Professor Siemon, he had a son about my age as well and I became good friends with his son later on.
That’s how I started. I lived around the University for some years and then one day the research finished – I was researching brown coal. In those days we were trying to see if it could be make a bit more efficient in burning because it has 67% water as it is very difficult to burn and not very good for the environment but in those days nobody worried about that. I was trying to make it more efficient by some chemical process. It wasn’t earth shattering research in any way.
Then I got a job with Altona Petrochemical Company which no longer has the same name but is still there in Altona. I worked there for two years but I always wanted to travel the world, that was one of my great dreams. By that time I had enough money and I said “okay this is the right time to do it”. I was about 29; I got my rucksack, my ticket and I travelled all around Asia for nine months. I started in China, followed by Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and I ended up in Norway and I ran out of money. Looked for a job and again straight away I found one, this time with the offshore oil and gas industry in the North Sea. That was the best job in my career as an engineer. It was cutting edge technology and Norwegians were very supportive and I learned a lot and I travelled around the world chasing projects. But it was too cold and too dark most of the year, nine months of miserable weather. I remember one May it was still cold and rainy and I said “I can’t take this anymore” so I bought a ticket and flew to Crete for a holiday and as I landed it was spring, warm, poppies everywhere and I said “I have to go back to Australia, I miss warm weather so much, this is no good”.
My wife hadn’t been here before. She must have had a lot of faith in me to come to the other side of the world with her new husband.
That same summer in Oslo I also met my wife, Hatice, who had come from Turkey on a University of Oslo scholarship for a post graduate summer course. We were graduates of the same university, our parents lived ten minutes away from each other in Izmir and even had some mutual friends, however, we had never heard of or met each other until then! We were married the next summer in Turkey in 1979 and we moved to Australia in November of that year. My wife hadn’t been here before. She must have had a lot of faith in me to come to the other side of the world with her new husband.
We came and Australia was everything we had dreamed of. I already had a job in Melbourne as the company that employed me in Norway kept me as a consultant to research if it would be viable for them to set up an office in Australia. My wife had a recognised degree in town planning and she knew English. She started to work in a few months. I had brought my savings from Norway so we could buy our first house in Coburg a few months after arriving in Melbourne. Soon, my Norwegian employers decided against opening a branch in Australia, so then I moved into the EPA working on projects to control air pollution. I was in charge of air quality in Geelong which at the time needed a lot of attention. I feel that Geelong ended up having cleaner air due to the work we did with the cement works, the refinery and the abattoirs. After three years I moved to the Department of Minerals and Energy, looking after the Bass Strait operations.
When my wife became pregnant, we needed a larger house and we also said “we have to go to a place where there are better schools for children”. We were looking around the Balwyn area because we had some friends who moved there with a similar objective. It was August 1986 and one Saturday morning my wife, who had grown up by the sea said “I really need some time off house hunting to spend a day at the beach”. So we drove from Coburg down south and just by sheer chance we happened to pick a spot near the jetty next to the Sandringham Yacht Club. Savouring the sea breeze in her banana chair (remember those?) she said “Wouldn’t it be great to live by the beach? I wonder if we can afford a place around here?” As usual, I had The Age’s real estate supplement with me so I immediately began looking and I said “look these prices are kind of similar to Balwyn, let’s check out some houses for sale”. That was it, we never went back to Balwyn for house hunting.
For two months we relentlessly scoured the area and estate agents who kept seeing my wife’s growing belly began saying things like “you’re going to give birth at one of the auctions”. By that time I got rather good at ‘reading the mood’ of auctions; I knew when to bid, how much to bid for and we got this house in Hampton at the end of 1986. We renovated and moved in mid 1987 with our, by then, six month old baby girl, Zeynep. It was quite a different suburb to Coburg over here. We were the first in this street with a young child. We made our home here. We knew one person, the late Mrs Rita Packer, who was well known around here and she introduced us to everybody that she knew, including the Disneys, Reynolds, Everinghams and Mrs Leslie Falloon. So it became a life of work, kindergarten, getting to know the area and the locals. Then a couple of years down the line we were blessed with another daughter, Alev. Later, life took its course with school enrolments, after school activities and community involvement. We have enjoyed our life here very much. I guess we bought at the right time when Hampton was a little village with great charisma and identity. To a great extent it still is.
Our daughters went to Sandringham Primary School and we travelled a lot with the kids even when they were tiny tots. We went with them once to America for two months, to Europe and Asia twice and back to Turkey many times as we still have our extended family there. Before the kids my wife and I used to be great bush walkers. We walked most of the Victorian Alps; we would camp out in the bush somewhere.
As Turkish Australians we felt really welcome in this country and this bond which derives from the Gallipoli campaign is our common heritage of course and Australians visiting Turkey come back saying that they’ve never felt so much warmth and welcome visiting a place.
When I came to Australia I found out soon enough that Gallipoli was very important. It was a nation building story similar to the one in Turkey. That common heritage became something that we focused on and after The Age published an article where we had helped with the interview of a Turkish Gallipoli veteran in Melbourne, it became very much of an interest, then hobby and now a passion – the latter particularly for me. This culminated in a publisher approaching us in 1983 who said “there is a topic here, how about if we publish a book about Gallipoli from the Turkish perspective”. We (my wife Hatice and our co-author Dr Kevin Fewster whom we had collaborated with on many of our books) all thought that was a great idea and we worked on it for two years and our first book was published in 1985. It took Australia by surprise I think. The interest was so great that we had all forms of media contacting us for interviews – TV channels, radio stations and lots of newspapers.
That interest wetted our appetite to do more I guess. For most countries, history is the story of their nation that they tell themselves and they don’t accept anybody else’s version. Australian society, being a mature society, was ready by then to look at the Gallipoli campaign from both perspectives which was amazing to us. Our book was obviously telling the story from the other side of the trenches and we approached it from a factual and respectful platform properly acknowledging the losses of both sides and highlighting the enduring impact of the war for both countries.
Our research mostly involved looking at existing documents in Turkish, Australian, British and even German sources. The fact that my wife and I are bi-lingual helped a lot. When we found a lot of documents from the War Memorial in Canberra which were written in old Turkish (before the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 and the Latin script was officially adopted soon after, Turks were using the Arabic script which was very hard to teach and learn leaving most of the population illiterate and uneducated), we had to send them to my father who found people who transcribed them using the Latin alphabet. As the pre-Republic official language was riddled with terms borrowed from Arabic, Persian and French, those texts had to be re-written expressed in today’s Turkish and we translated all of that into English. It was information on how Turks lived on the other side of the trenches, what was life like and what they thought of the war and the battles and the pain and suffering.
We put all of that together and we sort of turned the tables around a bit if you like, allowing Australians a glimpse of the conditions under which the other side had fought. The three of us wrote what we think was pretty revolutionary at the time and the acceptance of it was quite gratifying. That spurred us on and in 1993 we wrote the story of Turkish migration to Australia which started in 1968. We found the people who were on the first two chartered flights that came to Australia from Turkey bringing migrant workers to settle here under a migration agreement signed in 1967. We interviewed them after 25 years. Most people we interviewed told us that it was an economic decision; they wanted a better chance for their children. And most of the stories tell us that they were very happy with their decision to come here. We had interviewed 35 families, including those eventually featured in the book and only two families out of the total were not happy they’d come. We then went onto writing and publishing two new editions of our original book on Gallipoli (the centenary edition was published last year) as well as the story of the Australian submarine AE2 based on the memoirs of the two captains from two opposing sides. We also published the two main Gallipoli Campaign related books in Turkish in Turkey for Turkish readers.
So we started writing books, as well as working in our professional jobs, the kids started growing up, school and after school activities continued. We drove our daughters to netball, to dance, to music and art classes cheering them on and it was a great pleasure to see them grow. They went to Brighton Secondary College attending the SEAL program. We were both progressing in our careers. Hatice worked with the Ministry of Housing, afterwards with the Office of Local Government and then she went onto the Department of Infrastructure, mostly working on planning related policy development and research projects. After the Department of Minerals and Energy I worked at Business Victoria which was great. However, I always wanted to stop work early so I retired in 2002, when I was 55. That was one of the best decisions of my life. I had a list of things to do and I started going through them – writing books was one of them, of course, and I became involved in a lot of charity or not-for-profit work. I was the inaugural Chairman of Bayside Business Network for two years beginning in 2002 which is still going strong. I was the Chairman of Bayside Sister Cities Association for a while and then I joined Rotary. I joined the Brighton Rotary Club first and did a lot of work with them in Turkey, we contributed quite a bit of equipment to a blind school at Gallipoli and then I moved to the Hampton Rotary Club where we do a lot of good work both locally and internationally. I’m still a Rotarian.
My wife and I travelled a lot, before and after having children. There’s hardly any place in the world that we haven’t seen and I started taking tours to Turkey as well, mainly walking tours; and, last year, with a travel agent associate, we took a ship to Gallipoli for the 100th anniversary. This year, my wife and I decided we weren’t going to do anything; no big projects, no tours, no books, we’re going to take it easy this year. I was tired, it was hard work and we want to spend some time here so we’re not travelling anywhere this year. Winter is difficult as we usually skipped the winter for the last five or so years. I started growing vegetables in the backyard and the house needed a bit of maintenance. I’m not feeling restless, I’m feeling good.
The girls have grown; one of them is still with us and our older daughter is living with her boyfriend. The one who is living with us has her own business as a personal trainer and the older one is working for Climate for Change – she’s trying to change the world. I guess the next phase hopefully will be, say weddings and grandchildren. We think that we found the right place, right environment, right community to live. We love Hampton; the village atmosphere is fantastic, people are just fabulous. The beach is just great; we walk along the beach often, followed by a good cup of coffee.
Being away from Turkey when our parents passed away was difficult. Some years ago, I knew that my mother was very ill so I flew over but about an hour before I arrived she had passed away and that was one of the saddest moments in my life. Other than that we don’t have many regrets really.
I try to give back to the community as much as I can. This year, together with Hampton RSL and Rotary, I helped organise a special Anzac Day ceremony for the Bayside school children. We had 300 children from 8 schools and we wanted to give them something special to make them understand what Anzac and Gallipoli was all about and it was very successful and the RSL wants us to do it again so that it will be a yearly feature.
Last year the latest edition of our book was published which is titled ‘Gallipoli – The Invasion’. In the meantime I completed a PhD on Gallipoli with Prof John Hall at Deakin University. So I started studying again at the age of 60. Some might say it is amazing, but it comes naturally to me, I’m the first child and always trying to achieve things and hopefully that never stops.
I’m Chairman of an organisation called Friends of Gallipoli Inc (FOGI) where we have projects to do with both Turkey and Australia. We take mainly high school students and teachers to Turkey. FOGI facilitates the projects and we have been lucky always to find people who want to sponsor or help pay for the students. Usually the local Councils as well as governments provided funds.
I’m now 69 years old. Physically I’m quite active; I play tennis with my friend Terry once a week, table tennis with Jon, another friend, and bicycle every Sunday with Alan for the last 15-20 years. I started golf this year with Maurice, Robert and Martin, playing at the Brighton Public Course. I’m very bad at it but I love it, you’re out in the open, talking to people, walking.
I’m a member of half a dozen organisations. Last year I was awarded an Order of Australia medal for all the work I’ve been doing on Gallipoli, the books, etc. And I’m now on the Committee of the Victorian Order of Australia Association. I’m also a member of the Hampton Sailing Club and the Bayside Bushwalking Club. And hopefully Hatice and I will start our travels again next year. We haven’t been to Latin America together so I’d like to have a bit of a look around South America.
I think mainly it’s been a beautiful life. We’re blessed in many ways.
John has co-authored the following books:
With Hatice and Dr Kevin Fewster:
- A Turkish View of Gallipoli, Hodja Publications, Melbourne, 1985
- Gallipoli – The Turkish Story, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2003
- Gelibolu 1915, Sistem Publishing, Istanbul, 2005
- Gallipoli – The Invasion, Turquoise Publications, Istanbul, 2015
- The Turks in Australia, Turquoise Publications, Melbourne, 1993
- Beneath the Dardanelles; The Australian submarine at Gallipoli, Allen & Unwin, 2008
- Canakkale Bogazinin Derinliklerinde, Sistem Publishing, Istanbul, 2009.
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