In Turkey, Kurdish educators take their classrooms underground amid repression

In Turkey, Kurdish educators take their classrooms underground amid repression
Turkey's crackdown on Kurdish language schools has forced students and educators to take their courses underground.
12 min read
20 December, 2019
The students are taught an alternative anti-nationalist school curriculum
"When you open the Turkish school books, you learn about one nation, one language, and one history," said Rana, a Kurdish educator in Diyarbakir who in fear of reprisal asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity.

"When I was growing up, I never saw myself in my education. It created identity conflicts and confusions about who I am," the 32-year-old told The New Arab in Diyarbakir city – said to be the socio-political centre of Turkey's eastern Kurdish region.           

"I don't want future generations to experience this. I want the children to learn about themselves, their cultures and about various societies around the world," she added.

Rana is one of a few educators who are teaching Kurdish children in an underground, informal school system which shifts between the homes of students in Diyarbakir – keeping away from the eyes of Turkish authorities.

The students are taught an alternative anti-nationalist school curriculum and all of the schooling is taught in the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish.

"If the Turkish government discovers us, they can do whatever they want," Rana said. "They could label us as terrorists and throw us in jail for years if they want to."

Despite Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan loosening restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language over the past decade, since the attempted coup in 2016 and the declaration of a state of emergency, the relationship between Turkey's Kurds and the government has severely deteriorated, forcing Kurdish medium schools to go underground to avoid repression.

Zim Zim, the school only accepts students who come from families that "we know and trust" or referenced by trusted community members

'Dream time for the Kurds'

Ferzad Kemanger, considered to be the first Kurdish language school in Turkey, opened its doors to almost 300 Kurdish children, ages four to seven, in 2014 in Diyarbakir – or Amed in Kurdish.

It was a hopeful time. After years of the Kurdish movement demanding the right to use Kurdish in educational institutions, in 2013 Erdogan introduced a package of reforms to attract Kurdish votes for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and in an attempt to revive stalled peace talks with the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) – a militant group that has fought for autonomy in the Kurdish region for decades and which Turkey considers a terrorist organisation.

The reforms included allowing Kurdish to be taught as a language of instruction in private preschools and kindergartens and as an elective in universities. In secondary schools, a two-hour elective Kurdish language course was also permitted if enough students requested it.

"In Turkey, where up until 1991 it was illegal to even speak in Kurdish, these reforms represented a 'dream time' for the Kurds," said Murat Bayram, a Kurdish journalist in Turkey who worked in Diyarbakir for almost a decade – setting off a wave of Kurdish language schools, associations, and broadcasting stations, while the printing of Kurdish language books more than doubled.

In Turkey, where up until 1991 it was illegal to even speak in Kurdish, these reforms represented a 'dream time' for the Kurds

While many Kurdish leaders criticised the reforms for failing to adequately address the decades of persecution experienced by Kurds in Turkey, "we went from nothing to something," Bayram conceded.

Farzad Kamanger – named after a 32-year-old Kurdish teacher and activist who was executed in Iran in 2010 – was one of several "Freedom Schools" developed in the Kurdish region.

These schools were not officially recognised by Turkey's ministry of education, which all public and private educational institutions must register with. Instead, they were developed as "supporting houses" – designed to provide educational support for students attending official schools. But in reality were acting as de facto Kurdish medium schools.

"We were open for just one day before Turkish officials came and closed it down," Rana, who was a former teacher at the school, told The New Arab. Hundreds of teachers, families and community members protested the decision, leading to intense clashes with Turkish riot police.

The families and teachers attempted to break the police seal around the school numerous times, as the police shot the demonstrators with rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons. The protests continued for two weeks, before the police finally stepped back and allowed the school to open.

At the time, there were about 15 Freedom Schools in the Kurdish region, according to the Kurdish academic Mehmet Serif Derince, that provided first grade education with plans to open a new grade each year as the children progressed.

Derince, who was involved in the Kurdish medium schools popping up at this time, tells The New Arab that the main idea behind the Freedom Schools was to "put pressure on the Turkish state so that they recognise formal education in Kurdish," while the teachers worked on a voluntary basis and school materials were developed by the Kurdish Language Association.

In 2015, the Diyarbakir Metropolitan Municipality also launched Zarokistan a Xalxalok, a free-of-charge preschool and kindergarten project that was based on a "mother tongue-based multilingual" educational approach, which included Kurmanji, Zazaki (another dialect of Kurdish) and English, according to Derince, who was the coordinator of the project and designed the school's curriculum.

About 1,000 children between the ages of two and six, many of whom were from a low socioeconomic background, were attending the schooling at Zarokistan, Derince says. About 20 other Kurdish language kindergartens were also opened by Kurdish municipalities across the southeast.

However, this so-called golden age for Kurds in Turkey was short-lived.

While on paper Zim Zim looks like any other kindergarten in Turkey, in reality the teachers are educating the students entirely in Kurmanji Kurdish – and hiding this fact from the Turkish authorities.

'They call us terrorists'

"Erdogan is just playing for the TV," said Gulistan, a local teacher in Diyarbakir who requested The New Arab not use her last name. "They say it's legal for us to have Kurdish language schools, but if they hear us teaching in Kurdish they will very likely shut us down and call us terrorists."

Gulistan's frustrated voice is punctuated by the giggling and excited chatter of several children battling over the use of two swings outside the Zim Zim school, a private kindergarten in Diyarbakir.

While on paper Zim Zim looks like any other kindergarten in Turkey, in reality the teachers are educating the students entirely in Kurmanji Kurdish – and hiding this fact from the Turkish authorities.

Following the collapse of a ceasefire between the government and the PKK in 2015, the Turkish government launched a bloody military campaign in the country's eastern region that caused hundreds of civilian deaths, mass displacement and arrests of local Kurdish leaders, and enforced disappearances.

In a little more than a year, the Turkish military drove up to half a million people from their homes, according to the UN. In a 2017 report, the UN accused Turkey of committing war crimes, which included summary killings, torture, rape, widespread destruction of property, and other human rights abuses.

The coup attempt on July 15, 2016 in Turkey prompted Erdogan to declare a state of emergency, enabling him and the AKP government to bypass parliament and rule by decree. Erdogan now had free range to come down on the Kurdish community with an unchecked iron fist.

Erdogan swiftly fired thousands of Kurdish teachers from their academic posts and shut down dozens of Kurdish TV channels, newspapers and associations – all under the allegations of "supporting a terrorist organisation," referring to the PKK.

Erdogan swiftly fired thousands of Kurdish teachers from their academic posts and shut down dozens of Kurdish TV channels, newspapers and associations

Thousands of members of the Kurdish-led Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) have been arrested and dozens of elected HDP co-mayors have been dismissed and replaced with state-appointed trustees.

One of the first objectives of the new trustees in 2016 was to shut down the Kurdish medium schools. Just like that, all the gains made through the peace process were jettisoned. But the teachers and families were determined to continue educating their children in their mother tongue – so they headed underground.

Teachers, students and families from Farzad Kamanger took their pens and papers to the homes of the families, rotating from house to house every few days to avoid detection from Turkish authorities.

When they started off, about 80 students continued their education from the safety of their families' homes. But Rana, who continued to teach in the informal school, says that owing to the heightened oppression of the Kurdish community "families became scared of harassment and arrests by Turkish authorities" and pulled their children out of the school.

Only about 35 students remain – children of families who are more politically inclined and determined to control their children's education. The school now has students up until the sixth grade.

Meanwhile, the new trustees fired the teachers at Zarokistan and repurposed the school to provide religious studies for children, prompting parents to pull their children out. They regrouped and formed Zim Zim.

In Zim Zim, teachers say there is no proof they are teaching in Kurdish. All of their school materials displayed on bookshelves and tucked into cabinets are in Turkish, but their classes, which consist of story time where the children learn about historical figures and lessons in upcycling and nature preservation, are taught in Kurdish.

"We are trying in any way we can to keep our language alive," Gulistan told The New Arab, as children piled onto a seesaw on the school's small playground behind her.

According to Cegerxwin Polat, the 41-year-old co-founder of Zim Zim, the school only accepts students who come from families that "we know and trust" or referenced by trusted community members.

"If a student has a family member affiliated with the police, they won't be allowed at the school," Polat, who works full-time as a doctor at a private hospital in the city, told The New Arab. "A lot of students have been rejected because their families were suspected of being involved with the police."

"Turkish people have done everything they can to assimilate Kurdish children," Polat said. "So as Kurdish people we have to overcome this. We must do everything we can to safeguard our culture and defend it."

Despite hiding their use of the Kurdish language, Polat and the teachers say they believe the Turkish officials suspect they are using their mother tongue because the school is frequently targeted with random searches and fines. But the state officials have not found any proof.

When asked by The New Arab why he was comfortable using the school's actual name for this story, Polat replied: "Turkish oppression for us is normal. If they were to call us terrorists and shutter the school, it wouldn't be different than any other day in Turkey."

'We are scared for our future'

According to Polat, there is one other school in Diyarbakir that is being run similar to Zim Zim, but all other Kurdish language education projects launched in the Kurdish region to resist the shutdowns have been shuttered. Derince tells The New Arab that there are also some locally organised courses and literary campaigns being organised by several language institutes; however, these are all small-scale projects.

But even Kurdish language initiatives that have been allowed to continue must tread carefully and avoid referencing any topic that could be viewed as political. For instance, Zarok TV – the first Kurdish-language children's television channel – was fined last year for "promoting terrorism" after including a song in its programme that referenced Kurdistan – the historical region of the Kurdish people that includes parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

The use of the Kurdish language is not illegal anymore in Turkey, but 'it's dangerous'

According to Bayram, the use of the Kurdish language is not illegal anymore in Turkey, but "it's dangerous."

"For instance, I have Kurdish books and writings in my house. If the police came and saw these Kurdish books they will think I'm a potential terrorist," he explained.

According to Kurdish teachers and parents, Kurdish education is not just about the language; it is also about having control over the curriculum – and by extension the ideas and values their children are learning.

Rana tells The New Arab that the curriculum of Farzad Kamanger, which has now been extended into the informal school, adheres to an "alternative democratic approach" to education. In their history classes, the children learn about an equal amount of women historical figures as male.

"It's not like we teach children only about Kurdistan," Rana explained. "We teach the children about the history of humankind. They learn about different cultures, histories and languages. We build a connection between the students and nature so there's a strong ecological factor in the curriculum."

Kurds in Turkey – and throughout the rest of Kurdistan – have faced decades of repression owing to nationalist values, and therefore anti-nationalism is a central component in their education programme.

"We make sure they are not being raised with any nationalist, religious, or patriarchal ideologies that could make them blind or intolerant to others," Rana said.

The teachers and parents include the students in decision-making and curriculum development in order to build their confidence and democratic values. Educators at Zim Zim also follow these same philosophies.

In 2014, a similar education programme was implemented in Rojava, the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Syria that was invaded by Turkey in October after the United States withdrew its troops from the region.

Parts of northeastern Syria have now come under Syrian government and Turkish control, as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were forced to withdraw from the Turkey-Syria border area.

The "Rojava revolution" was an attempt to implement democratic confederalism in the Kurdish-controlled region based on concepts of decentralised democracy, feminism, secularism, ethnic pluralism, and eco-socialism.

The socialist experiment was inspired by the philosophies of Turkish-born Kurdish leader and one of the founders of the PKK Abdullah Ocalan, who has been detained on a remote island prison in Turkey for two decades.

One of the most important aspects of this "revolution" was in the Rojava classrooms, in which students are taught strong principles of democracy and co-existence – all within an anti-nationalist framework. However, the viability of this system has come under question following Turkey's military invasion.

But "these ideas have always been with the Kurdish people," Rana added. "We have always held strong ideas of freedom. Kurdish people don't have a government. We don't have a nation. So we have always been open to other cultures and ideas. These beliefs are in our roots as a people.

"We are scared for our future," she continued. "For 100 years the Turkish government has tried to exile or assimilate us as people. They have tried to force us to forget our language, culture, identity and history.

"But ensuring our children continue to speak in Kurdish can at least give us some hope for the future." 

Jaclynn Ashly is a multimedia journalist formerly based in the occupied West Bank