The movement that started out a quarter-century ago to support education for children abroad starting with the autonomous Azerbaijani republic of Nakhchivan has now reached 160 foreign countries, with the founders of the movement and its volunteers welcomed with open arms around the world.
The Hizmet movement, also known as the Gülen movement -- inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen -- has recently been targeted by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in the wake of revelations about the worst corruption scandal in the country's history that hit then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his inner circle on Dec. 17, 2013. The embattled ruling party was caught in the act and sought a scapegoat to hush up the scandal.
As part of the efforts to damage and finally destroy all Hizmet movement-affiliated institutions, the government launched a witch-hunt that included Turkish schools that have been operating around the world for more than a decade, in some cases for more than 20 years. In his recent visit to several African countries, President Erdoğan asked the leaders of the countries to shut down these schools, promising them the Turkish Ministry of Education will open newer and higher-quality schools. The defamation campaign against the schools has no repercussions abroad, but Turkey's image in the international landscape is negatively affected by the government's initiative, as there is a perception that a Turkish President is lobbying for the closure of Turkish schools abroad.
Erdoğan and other political figures within the government try to justify their smear campaigns against the schools by claiming that these schools are an extension of the "parallel state"-- a term coined by Erdoğan to label any individual, civil society group or even state agency that refuses to participate in government wrongdoings.
Do archives lie? No, they don't. The official websites of the president's office, the Prime Ministry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refute the accusations leveled by the current government at these schools. The websites include evidence of the schools' achievements and document the devoted teachers who left their country to serve in African countries that many people would not even dare travel to.
More striking is that these archives indicate that the same politicians who defame the schools today had enthused about the schools and their mission -- which promotes Turkey's interests -- no more than a couple of years ago.
In addition, the archives of the countries that host the Turkish schools also reveal that none of these schools were engaged in any acts that would prompt a negative reaction from these countries' administrations. That's why requests from the Turkish government for the closure of these schools were declined by these countries. Far from acting in line with the requests to shut down the schools, many foreign countries publicly declared their support for the schools.
For instance, Romanian Minister of Education Remus Pricopie said last week that he will also enroll his children in the schools established by Turkish entrepreneurs in Romania. In a March 2014 speech he praised the Lumina educational institutions, saying the schools have been successfully operating in his country for the past 20 years, bringing Romania the most medals in the Science Olympiad competitions. Congratulating the administrators and teachers at the schools, Pricopie said the government supports education in multiple languages.
Afghan Education Minister Asif Nang also hailed Turkish schools in his country for their efforts to bring up a bright, new generation, calling on Turkish entrepreneurs to open more schools in the country's provinces during a speech he delivered last December.
There are multiple instances of foreign countries' politicians and their educators articulating their support for the schools' diligent efforts to help students and to improve educational quality, but the stories of the education volunteers who have altruistically served in the schools deserve to be focused on in detail.
A book titled “Barış Okulları” (Schools of Peace) written by Mesut Çevikalp focuses on the little-known stories of Turkish schools that have opened in 160 countries across the world, including the moving and hardship-laden stories of education volunteers working at these schools, most of whom left a better life in Turkey with the hope of promoting universal values of peace, dialogue and peaceful coexistence with others.
An example from the book illustrates the difficulties that education volunteers faced during the attempts to establish the schools funded by generous Anatolians. The story focuses on Niger, which was among the poorest countries of the world 10 years ago. With the help of a group of Turkish entrepreneurs, a school called Bedir Turkish School was opened in thecountry's capital of Niamey, representing a glimmer of hope for local people faced with many problems such asstarvation and lack of clean drinking water.
First an elementary, then a high school were consecutively constructed in the city. Within 11 years, the number of schools reached five. But the vast landlocked country's main problems, such as lack of food and health care, prompted a group of education volunteers to undertake a new mission to resolve the region's water supply problem by digging wells. However, the cost of digging each well was nearly $6,000! They did not lose heart despite these difficulties, asking Anatolian tradesmen for their help. With their contribution, 10 wells were dug by 2006. Still, these wells did not meet the demand for clean water.
At this point, Turkey's leading charity, Kimse Yok Mu (Is Anybody There), stepped in and 300 additional wells were put into service for locals. The aid was combined with the distribution of the meat of sacrificed animals to needy families, efforts that gradually tempered the effects of poverty in the country. Many businesspeople from the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON) also took initiative and launched projects in the country to decrease the heavy burden of poverty on its people. So, here is the question: Do the people of Niger, who on every occasion express their gratefulness to generosity of the Anatolian people, break off relations with them?
Turkish government's demand not accepted
The Turkish government's attempts to persuade the leaders of the countries where these schools are located to close down the educational institutions have no effect. Moreover, most of them consider such a call a diplomatic attempt to intervene in their internal affairs, since the request has no legal grounds.
Not long ago, a statesman from a country where several Turkish schools operate called a Turkish statesman and praised Turkey, asking the statesman to motivate education volunteers to open a girls' high school in addition to the existing ones in his country. During the phone conversation, his Turkish counterpart also hailed the schools, calling the principal of one of these schools school to express his pleasure with the educational institutions abroad and mention the need for a girls' high school.
A year after the phone conversation, the same Turkish state official called his foreign counterpart and began to defame the Turkish schools he praised a year ago, asking for their closure. Shocked, the statesman did not respond to the request and hung up. After this conversation, he sent one of his aides to the school principal to find out the what is really ongoing. Soon after the meeting the statesman sent an invitation to all education volunteers, welcoming them to thepalace to present an order of merit to them and encouraging them to continue their contribution to the country's education system.
African leaders do not allow closure of schools
Many students who receive their education in Turkish schools consider these educational institutions a great opportunity for African children, and they are unable to understand the motivation behind the Turkish government's requests for the closure of the schools.
Abdullah Yakubu and Malili Kassim Daoura Diara graduated from one of the Turkish schools in Nigeria. After graduation, they went to Turkey to enroll in a Turkish university. Both have expressed their difficulty understanding Erdoğan's motivation for asking many African leaders to shut down the schools.
Twenty-three years old, Yakubu is from a middle-class family and though he had an opportunity to go to the US or Europe for his university education, he preferred a Turkish university. His family initially decided to send his elder brother to a Turkish school, and after they were satisfied with its quality, they decided to enroll Yakubu. After graduating, he arrived in Turkey for his university education. Regarding the Turkish school that he attended, Yakubu says that it is one of top five schools in his country, adding, "Our president will never allow for the closure of the school, because he is really pleased with the school."
Eighteen-year-old Diara's story is similar to Yakubu's. He graduated from Horizon Turkish School last year. Now he is attending a Turkish university. In his case, after his father, an engineer, became aware of the school's success, he decided enroll his son in the school. Diara stresses that he was very impressed by the teachers, who were always ready to help resolve any type of problem.
"Even on the weekends, they were with us to deal with any problem that we had. The content of the education was not limited to certain courses. They alsotaught us about moral values. Before my school, I was not even aware of the existence of a country called Turkey. Now I am a university student at a Turkish university. These schools are the best in my country. If they are closed down, then the next generation of my country will be deprived of a quality education, " Diara said.
Turkish education institutions remedy for identity crisis
The Turks who immigrated to European countries have long been considered a source of remittances and votes, as they have the right to vote during general elections. The Turkish educational institutions that were opened in some European countries in the 2000s have ameliorated the identity crisis that these immigrants have experienced for decades.
When then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2008, Erdoğan expressed his intention to open a Turkish school in Germany. In response, Merkel voiced the concern that such a school would prevent students from properly learning the German language.
Merkel and Erdoğan met again in Turkey in 2010. Right before the visit, Erdoğan made a statement to the German Die Zeit daily, saying, "While there are a handful of [German] people in İstanbul, a German high school was opened in the city and there is not a single Turkish school in Germany despite the three million Turks living there."
Carrying his proposal a step further, Erdoğan expressed his wish to open a Turkish university in Germany during the interview. As a result of their meeting, the two leaders agreed on the opening of a Turkish high school in Germany and a German university in Turkey. While the Turkish high school has failed to open five years after the promise, a German university was established in İstanbul.
In Europe, where nearly five million Turks are living, there is not a single state-operated Turkish school. Let's leave aside the existence of a state school in Europe: no assignments been made to positions related to at Turkish embassies in Vienna, London and Copenhagen, where the Turkish population is large.
The number of Turkish language teachers decreased from 1,500 to 600 in recent years, in accordance with agreements with German state institutions. There are 750,000 Turkish students receiving education in German schools, and if all them ask for the Turkish language courses, there will be only one teacher per 1250 students. That is why 70 percent of Turkish students fail to get Turkish lessons and thus do not learn Turkish properly.
There are some Turkish schools in these European countries that opened in accordance to the countries' laws, and they mean lot for Turks across the Europe. These prevent Turkish language and culture from being lost in the process of assimilation to the dominant foreign culture.
The problem of learning Turkish properly is one of the most serious problems that Turks abroad face. Since they fail to learn their native language, they are alienated from Turkish culture. In these schools, Islamic studies are also taught in religion lessons.
These schools are also a means of integration into the dominant culture. These schools teach students how and why they should act in line with the laws of the country they live in. Good citizenship and the importance of education are among the values that are taught in the schools, helping both Turks and foreign countries trying to deal with the issues brought about by Turkish immigration.
Published on Today's Zaman, 07 February 2015, Saturday