The attraction of a Turkish school

Dutch-Turkish teenagers still move to Turkey to attend secondary school, to let them get acquainted with Turkish culture more thoroughly, to prevent them from going astray, but mostly because over there they have a better chance of getting a good education. Sema (16): “I came here to concentrate on my studies.”

The first bars of Für Elise shriek and echo through the school corridors. It’s lunch time! Groups of girls come down the stairs, arms entwined, hand in hand or picking at each other’s hair. They all wear grey check skirts, dark tights, and a red shirt. This morning at eight o’clock they entered school one by one, inspected by a teacher ensuring the uniform was in order and the skirt not too short, no gel in the hair, no make up, solid shoes.
Sema Kaya (16) doesn’t mind wearing a uniform or that make-up is strictly forbidden in school. That is, she doesn’t mind any more. A little over two years ago, when she and her sister Selamet had just arrived in Turkey from the Dutch city of Arnhem, she was not amused by the rule: “We were used to critically planning our wardrobe in the morning: what to wear today? You had to look good to fit in.” The shock on learning that even taking make-up to school is forbidden in Turkey, so you can’t even quickly do your eyes before you leave school in the afternoon, is over now. Sema sticks to wearing a skirt on which she drew a smiley with a ballpoint – her mother looks at it with disapproval: she has washed it time and time again, but the ink remains.

“In Holland, I was a weak student”

A lot of Turks who came to the Netherlands to work in the sixties and seventies had their roots in the middle of Turkey. So anyone looking for their adolescent offspring who grew up in Holland, but attend secondary school in Turkey, quickly ends up in a central Turkish city like Kayseri. About one million inhabitants, conservative but economically one of the most prosperous cities of Anatolia. The Yelkenoglu High School, where Sema Kaya attends classes daily from 8am to 4pm, is situated on the outskirts of town, is painted bright pink on the outside, and is a light, air-conditioned echo chamber on the inside. Four hundred and fifty girls aged between about 13 and 17 go to school here. Everybody knows each other, the classes are small, the teachers strict.
“We came here to concentrate on our studies”, say Sema and Selamet (who attends another school) in unison. It sounds a bit weird to hear that from two lively girls aged 16 and 18. But they are not saying it with a nudge and a wink. “In Holland, you just attend class and take care not to miss any. Here in Turkey you get more of a feeling that you are working towards a goal.” For both Sema and Selamet that goal is university. Selamet: “In Holland, I had no goal. I attended vmbo (a middle level secondary school), was a weak student and didn’t make any effort.” Sema: “I was at havo, a high level school. Here in Turkey it’s nice that everybody takes their education seriously.”

Sema Kaya (middle)

For the ‘guest workers’ from the sixties and seventies it was never unusual to send their children back to Turkey to live with family and attend secondary school. Fear of the freer lifestyle in Holland was a reason to do that, as was the wish to get children better acquainted with Turkish culture. The latter still counts, the first less, as can be gathered from talking with teenagers who go to school in Turkey now, and with their parents. And there is no question of ‘being sent back to Turkey’: the decision is always conferred about and sometimes the children even take the initiative.

Enes Çelik (16) came up with the idea to move to Turkey himself. He also attends school in Kayseri, at the Kiliçaslan High School, with the same echoing acoustics. Enes comes out of the gym covered in sweat. “Look”, says Abdullah, who came from Hannover in north Germany a few years ago, “this is my friend Enes. Until a few weeks ago he lived in Rotterdam.”
Enes sits down on the grass and tells how at the beginning of this year it first occurred to him to leave the Netherlands behind. He heard of another Turk who took the step and ever since he couldn’t let go of the thought of doing the same. “But I have had so many doubts. Would I be able to make new friends, would I fit in?” Also love made the choice harder: on the day of the interview, he and Ayşe have been together for exactly one year. “She still lives in Rotterdam. We will only see each other again after nine months.”

His dreams for the future settled the matter in the end: Enes wants to go to university in Turkey and it seemed to him that step would be easier to make from the Turkish education system. Would he not have been able to attend university in Holland? “Maybe I could have, but it’s a long road. I was at the highest level of vmbo, after that I could have gone to middle vocational training, then to higher vocational training and after that maybe to university. Here I can go directly from high school to university. Not that it is so easy to get into university, by the way. There are not enough places and the selection is tough. I will have to work very hard to get there. And teachers make that very clear here too. The whole atmosphere is aimed at the future. I already go to school much more motivated than ever in Holland.”

“When you turn fifteen, the drinking starts”

That’s obviously so for Özgan Şahin (17). He’s at the same school as Enes, and lives, along with his two sisters, with his grandparents. He came to Holland years ago, right after he finished elementary school in Amsterdam. He was advised to go to vmbo. “I could do better than that”, says Özgan, “but I didn’t give of my best when I was tested because I already knew I was going to Turkey anyway.” Özgan’s (divorced) father Ümit explains on the phone from Amsterdam why he thought it would be better for his son and two daughters to attend secondary school in Turkey: “Well, you know how things go in Amsterdam. You end up in a school with many kids from a non-Dutch background, and when you turn fifteen, sixteen, the drinking starts, you go to a bar, or to a coffee shop to smoke a joint. In Holland, there was a bigger chance he would not keep his mind on school, or would start working at nineteen instead of getting more education.” Religion also played a role: “I brought my children up to respect Islam. In Turkey religion is taken more seriously than in Holland.”

Özgan Sahin, (middle)

Better educational opportunities. Or too few opportunities in the Netherlands. That is nowadays the most important reason why Turkish-Dutch children move to a school in Turkey as adolescents, or even right after elementary school. For non native-speaking children it is still more difficult to attain higher education, and that’s not because they lack capability. That is very clearly stated in research done by Maurice Crul, education sociologist at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). “Of the non native-speaking young people at higher vocational schools, half of them ended up at vmbo after elementary school”, he says. “That’s twice as many as children from a purely Dutch background.”
There’s always a group that blooms later, but that can’t totally explain the big difference. Crul: “Non native-speaking children who are tested for tertiary education or even high school at the end of elementary school are, more often than Dutch children, advised to go to lower level vmbo anyway. The teachers explain themselves by saying: ‘We don’t expect this child to live up to expectations because of the situation at home’. The parents, or one of the parents, doesn’t speak good Dutch, for example, or they don’t seem to be so involved in their child’s education. I prefer to turn this way of thinking around. If a child doesn’t have such a stimulating environment at home but still manages to get test results good enough for for tertiary education or high school, then such a student has even more going for him! I would suggest sending these children to higher level secondary school immediately.”

A lack of teachers and professors

According to Crul, all sorts of reforms in the Dutch education system didn’t make things easier for children with a foreign background. Lower level secondary education nowadays has a totally different teaching method than higher level secondary education. At the higher levels, children are expected to work very independently and even decide their tasks and goals themselves, so it connects better to higher vocational education and university. At lower levels, like vmbo, children are, on the contrary, guided very strictly. Crul: “That makes it more difficult to make the step to a higher level once you pass the lower level. It’s a totally different way of learning, and it’s not easy to adapt to. And then you are also expected to take one more subject.” Going to middle level vocational school after vmbo, and after that to higher vocational school, is difficult for the same reason: after vmbo, adolescents get to middle level vocational school at sixteen, and at those schools, the guidance is much less strict than at vmbo. “Whereas these kids especially need guidance at this age”, says Crul.
In general, the level of education is lower in Turkey than in the Netherlands, but there is much variation: there are very good high schools that are definitely as good as the best schools in Holland, but there are also high schools that Dutch vmbo students could easily graduate from. At university level, the disparity is also wide: there are a few fine universities, but a university degree is so sought after in Turkey, that one after another university is opened with enough students but a total lack of teachers and professors.

Helin Akdeniz

Helin Akdeniz (12) sits with her mother Arzu (38) in the kitchen of a shiny, squeaky clean apartment in Turkey’s capital Ankara. Helin had lots of friends at primary school in the Dutch town of Zwolle, but in Ankara her social life is limited to school. Classmates live in different parts of the city, she’s too young to travel there alone and her mother runs her own business so she can’t accompany her daughter for visits. At school the breaks are short, and after school everybody takes the school bus home. Helin would like to enrol in the school volleyball team, but after practice the school buses have gone, and how would she get home without them?

“I remember how we packed our things”, Helin says softly. “That was exciting, but I was also sad. I liked going on a holiday to Turkey, but I never wanted to live there.” Why not is hard to for her to explain. She recalls the first year in Ankara, when they lived with family and she didn’t have her own room. “I really didn’t like it here in those days.” Or, as Arzu’s mother says: “Yes, she shed quite a lot of tears at that time.” But now, three years later, things have improved. The school is strict but nice, she has made friends, and, as they live in their own apartment, she has her own room where now and then a friend stays for a sleepover. “And, via MSN, I am still in touch with my friends in Holland.”
Helin’s story actually starts with that of her mother. As the daughter of a guest worker, she was advised to go to a school of home economics. Her parents didn’t know the Dutch education system too well, but knew that their daughter could do better than that. “They said they would send me to school in Turkey if I was not allowed to at least have a try at a higher level. The teacher gave in. I was allowed to try a higher level school for three months, after which I would still be welcome at home economics school.” Arzu worked hard and never went to home economics school: after three months, she was advised to go to grammar school. Arzu: “From then on, I knew that as a foreigner you have to prove yourself more than the rest. It is still like that and I don’t want that for Helin.”

Helin wants to become a paediatrician

Also, says Helin’s mother, fear is partly why she chose to take her children to Turkey. Fear of the non-committal Dutch way of raising children, in which children can start making their own choices as soon as they are eighteen. “Then they don’t feel like going to school any longer and say: I’m going to get a job. And parents are okay with that! I was afraid Helin would be influenced by that. In Turkey, people are more aware of the fact that you have to work hard to have a proper income. There is hardly any social security you can rely on. I think it’s important that Helin and her younger brother Deran learn that.”
Helin wants to become a paediatrician and is very sure about that choice. Arzu: “I like that. In the Netherlands, children don’t really focus on their future.” Helin smiles shyly, and declares she would not want to return to Holland. Why not? Well, just because. After some discussion, the answer is found: she is settled here now, and making such a big move again is something she really doesn’t want.

In Maurice Crul’s research, 4 % of Turks had at least three months of education in Turkey. That figure only covers the young people who returned to the Netherlands – the number of adolescents who stay in Turkey after secondary school, is unknown. Maurice Crul expects the percentage of Turks going to secondary school in Turkey will decline further in the coming years: “Many of the parents”, he says, “try to find a solution in Holland for the education problems of their children. In bigger cities, there are home work coaching projects and mentor projects, often founded by Turkish university students who sometimes followed the long route to university starting at vmbo themselves. They are a good link between school and home.”
Solutions like that are not enough for Turks who want their children to get to know the culture of their parents and grandparents better. That was an important reason for the sisters Sema and Selamet to come to Turkey, and they were very happy about moving. The first year, they stayed in a boarding school, after that their mother came to Turkey too and their father will join them as soon as he is retired. Sema: “Holland is fine, but we really love Turkey. Here we want to kiss the ground.”

“I don’t miss Holland all the time”

Özgan Şahin especially misses Holland during his three months summer holidays, which he spends with his father in Amsterdam. “I went to get some groceries with him. We talked a bit, we laughed a bit. All at once, I realized I miss that so much in Turkey. We talked about it. He said it would be better to finish high school in Turkey anyway, because if I returned to Holland, I would have to start a few classes lower to catch up. I don’t miss Holland all the time. I have my sisters, and my grandparents, who lived in Holland for almost forty years and know the country too. I have friends and play a lot of sport.” But in a few years time, he will be walking around in Amsterdam again, of maybe Utrecht or Leiden. “I want to go to a Dutch university and that’s possible in certain circumstances. Dutch universities are of higher quality then those in Turkey. After that, I think I will stay in Holland. In Turkey there’s a good chance of being unemployed after university, or of just getting a job at a much lower level than your qualifications demand. Economically, Holland is just better.”

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