The children of Istanbul’s ‘illegal’ Armenians; lost in the educational shuffle up until now by Alin Ozinian*

 


The children of Istanbul’s ‘illegal’ Armenians; lost in the educational shuffle up until now
by Alin Ozinian*

News that minority schools in Turkey will be able to enroll Armenian children currently residing “unofficially” in Turkey with their parents who have come to find employment, has made these youngsters and their families very happy.
At the same time this has reminded people of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s comments last year concerning unofficial Armenian residents when he said: “There are 170,000 Armenians in our country; 70,000 are our citizens. But 100,000 are simply here, and we are accepting them for now, but if necessary tomorrow we may tell them, ‘Alright, time to go back to your country.’” Erdoğan’s words on this issue helped bring the situation involving illegal Armenian workers into the spotlight and onto the agenda. Ankara long ago began tackling the issue of illegal Armenian workers living in Turkey when dealing with Turkish-Armenian relations.

Unofficial Armenian workers

Up until today, the matter of illegal Armenian workers in Turkey really only came up when foreign parliaments debated genocide bills. When this happened the issue was used as some sort of trump card by Turkey. The truth is that the issue of illegal Armenian workers has really never been dealt with in the larger framework of Turkey’s general illegal immigrant problem. Comments on the subject by the prime minister and president have been used as references not only by the press but those providing statistics on the issue. Over the course of my own research into the phenomena of illegal Armenian workers, a topic which I have followed since 2006, personal meetings with government officials have revealed an absence of reports that included factual numbers that could be produced as evidence. In addition, no one has been able to state with certainty that any such research even exists. To the contrary, high level officials with whom I have spoken to about formal numbers of Armenians illegal workers living in Turkey, have said, “We don’t have any definite information on that matter, what do you suppose the numbers are?” Of course, at the same time, there are some who believe that there is a “well-written secret report” on this matter. Perhaps the most crucial aspect to this whole topic relates to the children of these illegal Armenian workers. Those born in Turkey are unable to adopt either Turkish or Armenian citizenship and thus remain illegal, much as their parents are. Because they lack residency permits, up until now they have not been able to attend either state schools or Armenian schools overseen by the Ministry of National Education.

According to recent developments, the ministry has opened the way for these children of illegal Armenian workers to attend Armenian schools in Turkey. The press is reporting that Education Minister Ömer Dinçer, who obtained authorization from the prime minister, has opened the doors so these children can attend Armenian minority schools as “guest students” during the 2011-2012 education year. Reports say the struggle put up by Turkey Armenian Patriarchate General Agent Aram Ateshian on this topic has reached a happy ending. Interestingly, the Armenian Patriarchate repeats over and over that the issue concerns 1,000 children, though they fail to base this on any firm sources. All of which underscores that it is not only Turkish authorities but also minority associations who feel no need to provide any references for statistics on this issue.

Even though Ateshian’s official attempts to firm up education plans for these children took place two years ago, those looking carefully at the big picture will discern evidence of the practical struggle that started years ago to gather these youngsters under one roof. There are 70 students and seven teachers present at the educational crèche that we could call “school” which has been in existence since 2003 under the direction of Heriknaz Avagyan in the basement of the Gedikpasha Armenian Protestant Church. The children here are so happy and so innocent that when you see them you forget that this school is in an airless basement, or that the future of these youngsters is really unknown. There is a pre-school class, and lessons are provided to cover the first five years of elementary school here with a curriculum that is as close as possible to that which is offered in Armenia. As for Avagyan, she is truly a hero. Listening to her talk about her work, one realizes all the efforts and risks that have gone into seeing these 70 children educated and just what a great triumph it is.The first requests for such a school to be opened were made by Armenian women to the Bezciyan Armenian school, in a predominantly Armenian district in İstanbul. When the school made it clear it had no space for the children of illegal workers, the women approached one of the directors of the Gedikpasha Armenian Protestant Church, Krikor Ağabaloğlu. That year, 2003, the church said it would accept the children and ever since then, Avagyan has been doing her best for the children in the basement of the church.

“I used to be a primary school teacher in Yerevan and I was happy to know I could return to my old profession. I thought what I would find an organized school, classrooms, students and blackboards. Instead, I arrived here to find seven students, here in the basement, with nothing really. At that moment I realized that if this place was to become a school, it would be up to me. At the time the children were speaking to each other in Turkish; their language at playtime was Turkish; their street friends were Turkish and Kurdish children. When they first arrived at the school they were little and we would all play together. We would line up chairs and make a train and the child sitting at the front would say, ‘This train is heading for Armenia!’ The passengers were Armenian, the train was heading for Armenia, but we were all speaking in Turkish,” she said.

Most Armenians living in Istanbul are actually members of the Orthodox church. This church had asked a group of illegal Armenian immigrants whether they needed any assistance and the group had asked for space for a school. In the end, the church foundation decided that there were too many potential problems that could occur with having a school on their premises, so they gave up on the idea. The Gedikpasha Armenian Protestant Church gathered these Armenian children to provide them with an education without waiting for assistance from the state or other institutions. However, the current school, while trying to help secure a future for these children, is unable to issue diplomas to them. The parents of students who complete the fifth grade here are encouraged to send their children back to Armenia to continue their education. For many, if not most of these students, the idea of university is but a dream, and no one really asks these children what they want to be when they grow up.

The inadequacy of the right to an education without a diploma

The recent decision by the Ministry of National Education to allow children and families in this situation to take advantage of educational services offered by minority Armenian schools is one which has been applauded and appreciated by many people; however, it is unfortunately an insufficient victory. The inadequacy stems from the fact that these children will not be receiving diplomas. The Private Educational Institutions Law Number 625 was passed in 1965, banning foreign students from being accepted into minority schools. The passage of this law was influenced by political events at the time. Later changes allowed members of the same ethnic minority group to be accepted to these schools but prevented other Christian groups from studying at Armenian schools.

A short time later, this regulation was included in Law 5580. This practice by Turkey was an anathema to the Treaty of Lausanne and other international agreements and it will continue to prevent these children from receiving diplomas even if they do attend the minority schools.

News about the educational status of the children of illegal Armenian residents has created an ambiguous reaction among other members of the Armenian community in Turkey. The source of the ambiguity is that even legal Armenian students studying at minority schools in Turkey face a shortage of not just materials, but teachers. There are currently 14 primary schools and five high schools for Armenian students, but complaints about the state of these schools included allegations that some of the teachers speak in “uneducated Armenian,” that books and CDs are rarely if ever renewed and that Armenian language books have sentences like, “Ali throws the ball to Ahmet,” rather than, say, “Garo throws the ball to Kirkor.”

Minority schools struggle to stay on feet

As minority schools in Turkey are foundation schools, these schools depend on the actions of ethnic communities to stay on their feet. Although parents are asked for sizeable donations, schools are still unable to meet budgetary needs and it is really only thanks to special community dinners and the hard work of dedicated community members that the schools are able to keep going. The fact that the schools receive no help from the state makes it understandable that complaints by community members about not being able to meet their own students’ needs.

I recall Avagyan’s words that “it doesn’t matter whether it is a Turkish school or an Armenian school, all that is important is for these children to go to a real school. We will offer Sunday schools so they don’t forget their native language. It doesn’t matter whether it’s western or eastern Armenian; after all, Armenian is Armenian.”

These words make me think that in order to really complete the gesture of good will on the part of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), as far as these children’s futures and educations are concerned, it should be ensured that these youngsters also receive diplomas. If they can only receive diplomas, university doors will open for them upon their return to Armenia, or if they decide to stay in Turkey, their diplomas will help the future of their mothers and fathers, too. After all, as much as Turkey has made an effort to open Turkish schools all over the world and has strived to have the Turkish language taught and has even held Turkish Language Olympiads, conferring diplomas to the children of a neighboring country, children who have on their own learned Turkish and who, with further education, will speak even better Turkish, should not be seen as asking for too much


*Alin Ozinian is an independent analyst. 

2011-09-21

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