MBA Students Caught in Cross Fire of Taksim Square

Students witness the showdown between police and protestors that launched the unrest in Turkey onto the global stage.

Riots at Taksim Square 2013
Environmental protestors on Istakal Avenue just minutes before riot police unleashed tear gas on the crowds.
June 17, 2013

By Brittney Dunkins

A cohort of George Washington School of Business MBA students was among the crowd of peaceful demonstrators hit by tear gas and water cannons in Taksim Square in Istanbul on Friday, May 31.

The clash between riot police and environmentalists protesting the planned rebuilding of Ottoman-era military barracks in Gezi Park at the center of the square has sparked more than two weeks of violence across Turkey, spotlighting the unrest of citizens who oppose the leadership of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

The 29 students in George Washington University’s World Executive MBA and World Executive MBA in Cyber Security programs arrived three days prior to the protest for a 10-day joint residency called “Assessing the Global Risk Landscape for International Management in Emerging Markets” and led by Faculty Director Scheherazade Rehman, professor of international business, finance and international affairs.

“The students and I had discussed in class the growing noticeable presence of the riot police. We concluded that Turkey’s future was nearing a tipping point, but none of us anticipated that it would arrive within 72 hours,” Dr. Rehman said.

Dr. Rehman and several students were walking along the famed promenade Istiklal Avenue, toward Taksim Square, when they heard the sudden “pop, pop, pop” of the tear-gas canisters wielded by riot police.

“All day young demonstrators had been steadily streaming into Taksim, chanting as they made their way toward the main square, all moving in harmony with the shoppers and in a peaceful mood,” Dr. Rehman said.

“Suddenly we heard a series of very loud bangs and then momentary silence. Everyone stopped. Then screams and shouts echoed off the cobblestones of the square and pedestrian wall,” she said. “We were being shoved and pushed as mobs of people started running away from the square in every direction,” she said. Though no GW students were hurt, a few were hit by the water cannon.

GW’s Senior Associate Vice President for Safety and Security Darrell Darnell, a student in the program, immediately began texting classmates to warn them, checking websites for updated information and notifying the emergency management staff at GW.

“I wanted to let everyone know that we were safe and taking the necessary precautions to remain safe,” he said. “I was very impressed by how everyone remained calm and looked out for each other.”

Another student, Maria Lourdes Tiglao, was separated from the group and shopping for last-minute souvenirs when she saw the frenzied crowd of people, many with their faces covered, running away from Taksim Square and toward her.

Ms. Tiglao said her concentrated studies in disaster response tactics and her military experience as a veteran of the U.S. Air Force quickly came into play. She began filming with her cell phone to capture the moment on video.

“I was thinking that this is probably the closest I will ever be to being part of these historic times,” she said. “I knew I needed to figure out an escape plan.”

After checking the street, she was able to find a safe place to wait out the tear gas raid with a Kurdish sound engineer who beckoned her from his flat. She decided to take a chance on the stranger’s kindness.

“Fortunately, I did pick the best option,” she said. “What started as a semi-tumultuous evening became a fascinating evening of local history and politics over coffee like two old friends.”

Similarly, Brian Fricke, a former U.S. Marine, found value in the experience.

“I believe any cultural immersion into an emerging market that allows you to feel out of your comfort zone will help you grow as an individual and as a leader,” he said.

Rena Jabbour said the first-hand experience she gained in the region allowed her to think critically about the many ways a market can be analyzed.

“An experience like this shows how some emerging and developing countries are limited in their growth capabilities as a result of some of the unrest in the region,” she said.

As tensions escalated in the region, taxi services were limited, road blocks were installed, electricity was sometimes cut and tear gas permeated the air.

 Many of the students were able to fly home the first day of the riots, while others left in the following two days.

Dr. Rehman said the cooperation and resolve of the group were invaluable to securing their safety.

“This student group kept their head and their hearts in the right place,” Dr. Rehman said. “Everyone was assisting each other in any way they could and every student’s skill set came into use…This group is truly unique.”