Her Flemish so fluent, her Turkish so clumsy

Visit a secondary school in Turkey and you will meet Turkish students from various European backgrounds. Turks from Denmark, Holland, France and also from Belgium decide to return to their homeland and put their children in a Turkish school. Sometimes because they don’t like the relatively loose Western lifestyle, but also because they think Turkey offers their children better opportunities for the future.

 Yasemin Teker

“Quite definitely” Yasemin Teker (14) will return to Belgium as soon as she is old enough to decide for herself. Recently her father took the decision to move back to Turkey, and even though the plan made nobody else in the family really happy, they packed their bags and waved Belgium goodbye. “It is so boring here”, says Yasemin. “School is boring, and quite often I don’t understand a thing because it turns out my Turkish is not as good as I thought. I have friends, but I hardly see them after school hours.”
Yasemin, her sister Fatma (16) and their two younger brothers grew up in Zele, close to Dendermonde. The Teker children went to school in Antwerp, until last year in the middle of summer they moved to Kayseri, a city of about a million inhabitants in the middle of Turkey. “My father wanted that because we could get a better upbringing here”, explains Yasemin. “He felt we were discriminated against in Belgium.” Was she discriminated against at school? “No, not really. But we went to a Turkish school, and my parents chose that because they wanted us to be among our own people.”
And that’s where they are now: among their own people. And Yasemin misses Belgium so much. That will change over time, she thinks, of course she has only been here for three months now. She has to improve her Turkish and get a better grip on her social life. “In Belgium I would go out to eat with my friends, or we went shopping. Here we only walk through the park a bit. For shopping, they take their mother.”

Girls in grey check skirts and red sweaters

Yasemin and Fatma attend the Yelkenoğlu High School. The school is on the outskirts of the city, is painted bright pink on the outside and is light and spacious on the inside, with an echoing acoustic. A song played through the speakers in the hall announces the break. Girls in grey check skirts and red sweaters come down the stairs, their arms around each others’ shoulders or playing with each others’ hair. They sit – or more precisely recline – on comfortable chairs in the hall, or walk around the schoolyard. Some play volleyball, others sit together on the school lawn. Leaving the premises is pointless. Outside there is a main road, a bus stop, a bit further away a few apartment blocks, and that’s it. No possibility of getting something to eat or doing a bit of window-shopping.
The school is small and well organized: 450 students, girls only. Everybody knows each other. Fatma and Yasemin are not the only ‘foreign’ Turks here. There’s a girl from France, a few from Holland and a few from Germany. That this central Anatolian region in particular should draw so many European Turks is not so strange: this is where the ‘guest workers’ came from in the sixties and seventies to work in western European factories. So this is also where they return to.

Turks who don’t know Europe are often surprised that their fellow Turks decide to move away from Europe again. A fair share of them would still choose to leave for Europe and give their children a future there if they had the chance. Just as the first guest workers after some time decided not to return to their homeland but to bring their wives and children to Europe as well, and settle in Belgium, France, Holland, Germany. But Europe’s reality is tough, and over the decades there have always been reasons to return to Turkey, or to send only the children back.
Fear was one of the reasons for returning. Fear of the modern Western lifestyle, of lawlessness, fear of severing links with the original culture. These reasons still count, but a more positive reason has been added: some parents, and also some children themselves, believe that Turkey offers future opportunities, more so than Europe.

Enes Çelik

Like Enes Çelik (16), who just flew in from Rotterdam. It was his own idea to move to Turkey. He comes out of the sports hall all sweaty and sits down on the lawn to explain his choice. He tells about the first time it came to mind to move to Turkey: “I heard about another Turk who took the step and he was happy with it. I couldn’t get that out of my mind, maybe it would be an option for me as well. But it was hard to say it out loud. But my mother guessed what was on my mind. She said: ‘You think you could consider going to Turkey too, right?’ Then we started discussing the possibility.”
Enes wants to go to university in Turkey. And it didn’t seem to make sense to do that coming straight from a Dutch high school. Wise, but of course, a 16 year old boy also has other things on his mind: “I’ve been very much in doubt”, he says. “Would I fit in in Turkey, would I be able to make friends? And I have a girlfriend in Rotterdam, Ayşe. All these things made it a hard decision.” But his future dreams weighed more heavily than friendships and love. “In the Netherlands, I might have been able to go to university, but it’s a long road to get there. I was doing middle level secondary school, and after that you can’t go straight to university. First you have to go to higher education, to middle vocational training, then to higher vocational training and from there you can get to university. The high school that I go to now enables me to go to university straight afterwards. That is, if I work hard. Don’t think it’s easy to get into university in Turkey. There are entrance exams and they are very difficult.”
So Enes works hard. Harder than he ever did in Rotterdam. But he likes it. “It’s made very clear here that there is no room for being lazy. The atmosphere is very much focused on the future. I am more motivated to go to school already.”

‘I wanted to return to Germany’

The focus on the future – or, more precisely, the focus on achieving – is also what Abdullah Hunkaroglu likes. He is a friend of Enes and grew up in the northern Germany city of Hanover. “In Germany, I went to school about 5 hours a day, here it is eight, nine hours.” Does that make a 17 year old boy happy then? Abdullah laughs and says: “Well, you see, it’s not something that I was used to in Germany, of course. But here, it is just how it is, and I think it’s actually okay. It’s all a bit stricter here, and because of that you take your school and future more seriously. For example you are not allowed to wear an earring here, or have long hair, and if you come to school unshaved, you have to shave before you enter class. And you have to be properly dressed, wear a uniform and so on. It was not like that in Germany. There girls can come to school half naked. At the time, I didn’t think that was strange, but now I’ve lived in Turkey for two years and when I look back, I think it’s actually really weird.”

When his father Hunkaroglu first came up with the idea of returning to Turkey, Abdullah didn’t object. “My father explained his reasoning. He had worked for Volkswagen for years, and had worked hard to save some money and now we had enough saved up to move back to Turkey and buy a house there. I knew Turkey from holidays and liked the idea of living there.” But once he was there and had to really start his life, he looked at his motherland and his fellow Turks through different eyes. “I wanted nothing more than to return to Germany”, he admits. “I thought things were so alien here. Maybe it’s a strange example, but do you know the prayer beads that many Turkish men carry around all day and play with? They irritated me so much, it became a symbol of how old fashioned things were here.”
His parents said he could go back, he could just move in with relatives who still lived in Hanover. But he didn’t go back, and stayed in Turkey. “If you come back after a year, you have to catch up and repeat a class, and that seemed like a waste of time.” By now, he is used to Turkey and is okay about living in Kayseri. Largely, he admits, because in two years he plans to move back to Germany. “Then I’ll be finished High School and will continue my education in Germany. That’s where I was born, that’s where I have my friends whom I have known all my life. My parents always remained Turks however long they lived in Germany, but I am a German. Well, sixty percent German, forty percent Turkish.”

Helin Akdeniz

 Helin Akdeniz (12) doesn’t want to go back to Holland. She was born and raised in the provincial town of Zwolle, and three years ago she was devastated by having to leave there. She remembers packing their things and says with a soft voice that that was exciting, but that it also made her sad. Leaving behind her friends, her neighbourhood, her own room at home. But by now, she is rather settled in Turkey’s capital. Still, she doesn’t give a very happy impression. “My school is nice and I have friends there, but they can hardly visit me at home. After school hours, we are brought home immediately in school buses and we live too far away from each other to easily drop in.” And she’s too young to travel through the city alone to visit a friend. Sometimes a friend spends the night, and of course she has her computer, on which she still sometimes chats with her friends in Zwolle.
Helin’s mother Arzu had a bad experience in the Dutch school system. As the daughter of a guest worker, after primary school she was advised to attend the School of Home Economics. “But I was much too clever for that. The teacher only wanted to give me a chance to try a higher level of education after my father threatened that he would send me to school in Turkey. In the end, I was advised to go to Grammar School and I could even go to university.” Arzu learned that as a foreigner, you always have to prove yourself more. “And it’s still like that, nothing has changed. I don’t want that for Helin and her brother Deran.”

‘You have to take care of yourself’

In a way, says Helin’s mother, fear is also partly behind her decision to move to Turkey. Fear of the, in her eyes, liberal Dutch upbringing, in which children can start making their own choices once they are eighteen. “Then, for example, if they don’t feel like going to school anymore, they say: I’ll find myself a job. And parents are okay with that. I don’t want Helin to be infected by that. In Turkey, people are more aware of the fact that you have to work hard to earn an income. There is hardly any social security you can fall back on, you have to take care of yourself. I want that to get through to Helin and Deran.”
Helin wants to be a paediatrician and is pretty confident of reaching her goal. Arzu: “I like that. In Holland, children don’t seem to care so much about their future.” Helin smiles a bit shyly and declares that she doesn’t want to go back to Holland anymore. Why not? Well, just because… But after talking some more, it becomes clear: now she is sort of settled here, and to make such a big change again, she really doesn’t want that.

Maybe also Yasemin from Zeele will reach that state of mind one day. Now that she has just landed in Turkey, she feels so much more Belgian than Turk, her Flemish so beautiful, her Turkish so clumsy. “I thought my Turkish was fine, but it turns out it’s not. We had two test papers today. English was okay but maths was disastrous. The level of maths is really much higher here, and as well I don’t understand the teacher’s explanation. My friends help me, but I hardly see any improvement in my language skills. I don’t get extra help from the teachers, I have to manage on my own.” Will she have to do this year twice? “No, please, no! I will manage, I hope.” Just as she manages to get through the long, boring school days. Suddenly she says: “Did you see my uniform? Also boring! Grey with red. In Belgium, really, my uniform was much nicer.”

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