World applauds Turkish schools abroad while gov’t seeks to close them

Turkish schools that are established by educational volunteers-affiliated with the faith-based Hizmet movement, inspired by teachings of Turkish scholar Fethullah Gülen, across the world receive great appreciations in each countries they are opened while the Turkish government has recently pledged to shut down those prestigious private educational institutions.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has been expending a significant amount of effort on shutting down Turkish schools abroad that are affiliated with the Hizmet movement. The faith-based movement administers a wide network of schools and more than 2,000 educational establishments in more than 140 countries around the world. These schools provide an education to thousands of students and are well known for their achievements in the International Science Olympiads. The attempt to close the schools comes at a time when the movement is being subjected to a smear campaign conducted by the government, whose prime minister and many high-level officials are implicated in a sweeping corruption scandal that became public on Dec. 17, 2013. The government’s desire to close to those schools has been met with strong reactions from parents and state officials around the world who praise the success of the schools.

Turkish schools are greatly appreciated in Europe as they are in other parts of the globe. Not only Turkish immigrants who send their children to those schools but top government officials as well admire these Turkish schools in European countries. This appreciation has naturally led to a drastic increase in the number of such schools established in Europe in the last 10 years. It is impossible to give an exact number of the Turkish schools operating across Europe, but it can certainly be stated that tens of thousands of children are receiving an education at these schools. In particular, these schools play a crucial role in resolving educational problems that Turkish immigrant families living in various countries face. It is thanks to the Turkish schools that Turkish immigrant children have the chance to learn both the national culture and their mother tongue.

Indeed, it is really difficult to establish a school in Europe compared to other parts of the world. Tiresome procedures and strict educational inspections are among the challenges that a person who wishes to open a school in Europe will face. It is also very difficult for a school once established to continue to provide education services, particularly in the Scandinavian states. There, the state makes significant investments in education. All expenses, from the salaries of the teachers to the building maintenance of both private and public schools are met from the state treasuries. That is one reason why educational quality and success are high in Scandinavian countries. Despite this, Turkish schools have been able to step to the front in terms of educational quality in those Scandinavian countries. The question is, what are the reasons behind this unprecedented success of the Turkish schools abroad?

Speaking with Sunday’s Zaman, parents who send their children to Turkish schools pointed to the respect that those schools show for students’ religious and cultural beliefs, and the high quality of the education provided.

One parent whose children attend a Turkish school in Copenhagen, Denmark, Mehmet Bayhan, says he initially decided to send his oldest daughter to a public school, but he adds that he encountered a surprise there, stating: “Female and male students were using the same changing room for their physical education class. Moreover, those female and male students were swimming together in the same pool. Such practices are against our faith.” After this surprise, Bayhan decided to take his daughter from that public school and register her with the private Hay College, a Turkish school based in Copenhagen.

Bayhan goes on to say: “Apart from its educational successes, what was important for me was that I would no longer need to be worried every day about whether my child has learned anything at the school that is at odds with her culture and religion. Bayhan says he has also sent his three other children to the Hay College, as well.

Turkish schools have great educational prestige

The high prestige that Turkish schools abroad have is another thing that draws the attention of parents who are considering sending their children to these schools. Speaking with Sunday’s Zaman, Kazım Kılıç — a successful businessman of Turkish origin in Denmark — says that he chose Hay College because of its high quality education. “It is impossible to compare the education provided at this school with the other schools in the country. This school outpaces the others in terms of educational quality. You can easily understand this difference in quality just by looking at the graduates of this school. Students from public schools often drop out after they complete their primary school education, while almost all of the students who graduate from Hay College continue their education in high school and university,” Kılıç says, adding that the graduates of this school don’t become involved in crime as much as other students. “Hay College is even attracting the admiration of top Danish state officials,” Kılıç commented. Kılıç’s three children are currently attending Hay College.

A parent who sent his four children to the Hay College, İbrahim Korkmaz, says that Turkish immigrants living in Europe have started to become aware of the importance of education thanks to the Turkish schools in their countries. The main priority of first-generation immigrants in various countries of Europe as guest workers was to earn money. This approach was unfortunately passed down to the following generations. That is why Turkish immigrant families perceived education as an obstacle standing in the way of one’s career and the struggle to earn money over long years. The children of most Turkish immigrant families did not continue their educations after they completed compulsory primary school. Those students who left the schools started to work at their families’ businesses or other jobs to earn money.

Korkmaz says that he decided to send his oldest son to the Turkish school thanks to suggestions from the teachers at the Hay College, adding: “When my son, Mahmut, started school, I had to recruit another worker to take his place. The expense of the school was also a problem for me. However, I am very happy to have decided to send my son to that school, when looking back on it. Both his life and his siblings’ lives were saved.”

Nowadays, Mahmut Korkmaz is a teacher. He has been giving math courses at the Hay College where he was once a student. According to Mahmut, who also spoke to Sunday’s Zaman, the main reason why parents choose to send their children to Turkish schools is their trustworthiness and the high-quality education they offer. Mahmut says he plans to send his own child to a Turkish school when the time comes.

Thanks from Norwegian mother

It is possible to hear parents from other European countries express the same sentiments. Ayşe Karagül, whose child is studying at the Drammen Montessori School in Norway, told Sunday’s Zaman that she noticed that the Turkish school was different soon after she registered her child there. “The school has a good system in terms of its education and the close interest showed by the teachers in each student at the school. Of course, the role of teachers at these schools is also very crucial to the success of the school,” Karagül said. Noting that she also recommends Norwegian parents to send their children to the school, Karagül said that a Norwegian mother who is very satisfied with the difference that the school has made for her child recently came to the school to express her gratitude in person.

Aydın Tekin, another parent whose child is a Drammen Montessori School student, told Sunday’s Zaman that while other schools in Norway have an average class size of 20, in the Turkish school, several teachers are allocated to personally work with groups of eight to 10 students, adding: “I am really content with the education provided at this school. My child will continue to study at this school until the end.”

‘They are doing excellent work’

Turkish schools are also winning praise from parents in the US, who have to compete to register their children at the Turkish schools in the country. Among them is at least one high-ranking diplomat: Yerlan Kubashev, the consul of Kazakhstan in New York. Kubashev told Sunday’s Zaman that he decided to send his child to a Turkish school in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Amity School, after he removed his child from public school. When asked why, Kubashev said: “Students become very successful at those schools. The schools have been teaching students a good level of the English, Turkish, Kazakh and Russian languages. The school helps students learn more about other cultures around the world. This makes the students both competitive and successful.”

Kubashev said that he really doesn’t understand why the Turkish government is trying to get Turkish schools around the world closed down, adding that if the government manages to shutter these schools, the country will lose centers promoting Turkish language and culture across the world.

Monica Bayraktarevich, whose two children are enrolled at the Brooklyn Amity School, told Sunday’s Zaman that the school’s teachers and administrators are highly motivated and patient. “They are doing excellent work. I can notice positive changes in my children and this makes me very happy,” Bayraktarevich said, adding that the school encourages physical development with sports programs in addition to intellectual growth. Bayraktarevich said that her daughter, who has been at the Amity School for seven years, recently came second in a karate competition held in the US.

Hope of Afghan girls: Turkish schools

The Turkish schools the Turkish government is wanting to get rid of have a crucial role in many countries, in addition to their influence in establishing bridges between cultures.

Security problems, lack of educational opportunities and teachers, and the traditional beliefs that imprison women in their homes are all elements behind why girls cannot go to school in Afghanistan. Despite the difficulties, Turkish volunteers went to civil-war-torn Afghanistan to set up schools there. In a short time, they established good relations with Afghani locals. During the Taliban era (1996-2001) in Afghanistan, the Taliban closed down Turkish schools in the country, but students and parents supported those schools and even patrolled them to prevent equipment in the school buildings from being stolen. After the Taliban period, new Turkish schools were established in various parts of the country.

An assistant professor of sociology at Fatih University, Semiha Topal, has carried out research on education of girls in Afghanistan where most of the girls are not allowed to attend school due to very conservative religious society in the country. The research, which was also supported by the Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV), has tried to reveal the effects of Turkish schools based in Afghanistan on girls’ education and the country in general. As part of her research, Topal handed out a total of 669 questionnaires at three Turkish female high schools in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat cities of Afghanistan and also spoke with parents, teachers, school administrators and state officials during the personal interviews — totaling 37 — she conducted in Turkish schools at Kabul, Gazne and Kandahar.

Topal presented the results of her study during a panel titled “Education of Female Children in Afghanistan: Achievements and Obstacles,” which was also supported by the Peace Islands Institute based in New York and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. The panel was held in March in New York. During her presentation, Topal stated that 38 percent of school-age children are not able to attend schools, with girls constituting the majority of those children.

According to the results of Topal’s study, almost all of the Afghan students believe their social status will improve due to the education provided at the Turkish schools. During her presentation, Topal points to the importance of Turkish schools in Afghani girls’ lives by sharing details of her interview with an imam (the man who leads prayers in a mosque) in Gazne as part of her research. Topal says this imam hired a tutor to educate his daughter secretly at their home until the seventh grade. His daughter was later granted a full scholarship to attend a girls’ high school in Kabul. A radical group that was influential in Gazne became suspicious that this imam’s daughter might have been attending a school and started to put pressure on the imam. Then, this radical group kidnapped this imam and kept him in a well, but the imam refused to admit that his daughter was attending a school. He just said that his daughter was receiving treatment as a hospital in Kabul.

What this imam told Topal shows how Turkish schools are important in the country. He told Topal: “I am not saying which school my daughter has been attending. I only say, ‘There is a school here. This school is bringing people to a level of the most honorable of creatures.’ If it is necessary, I will sell my house, but I will never remove my daughter from that school.”

Afghan state officials also praise Turkish schools. Speaking with Topal as part of her research, Afghan Education Minister Farooq Wardak said he wishes there would be at least one Turkish school in each city of Afghanistan, adding: “If Turkish schools become widespread in the country, the other local schools will start to adopt the education system of those Turkish schools… I want to point that those Turkish schools not only give a good education but also help students develop a good character. When you educate a girl, this means you also educate a family, reinforce the society and then the economy.”

Fatimah Aziz, an Afghan deputy, told Topal that her two daughters also attend a Turkish girls’ high school in Kabul, adding that those schools have the opportunities and facilities needed to give a good quality education to girls. “Unfortunately, public schools are unable to provide such opportunities to students. Those schools are serving in a war-torn country. I really appreciate this. I attribute the positive change in the girls to their teachers and principals at the schools. I have a dream of women who are respectful of universal values, independent and powerful in Afghanistan in the future,” Aziz noted.