Turkey’s last Armenian schools

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Turkey’s last Armenian schools

Turkey has never banned the Armenian schools that teach the community’s language and culture. But its support is marginal and the schools, like the language, are losing their place
by Aziz Oguz

“Don’t close the door,” Mari Nalcı, who has been head of the Tarmanças school for 25 years, told me as I went into her office; she seemed not to trust me. Armenians in Turkey are cautious, especially when you ask questions about education.

“The problem of security for schools has become very important, especially since Hrant Dink was assassinated,” Garo Paylan, an Armenian schools representative, had told me. The murder of this well-known Armenian journalist by a Turkish nationalist in 2007 revived old fears (1). Mari Nalcı’s school bristles with CCTV cameras; there are bars on the windows and a security man, Attila Sen, at the door. Sen is friendly, but as intransigent as a prison guard: nobody gets in without an appointment. “We’ve never had a problem,” he said, “but some local people are suspicious of the school. Fortunately, prejudices disappear when they get to know us.”

The school is in Ortaköy, near the Bosphorus Bridge that links Istanbul’s two halves. Ortaköy used to be one of the most cosmopolitan districts of the Ottoman Empire’s capital, and was home to many Jews, Greeks and Armenians. There are two mosques, four Christian churches and two synagogues. Today Kurds have replaced the Armenians, and only a few Armenian families remain. The school’s 500 pupils are ferried here by minibus from all over the city.

There are 16 Armenian schools in Turkey, five of them secondary schools, with around 3,000 pupils in all. They are all in Istanbul, where most of Turkey’s 60,000 Armenians live. The only admission requirement is that pupils must have at least one parent of Armenian origin.

These schools date back to the Ottoman Empire, when every community was responsible for organising its own education system and there were thousands of Armenian schools. After the Armenian genocide of 1915-16, in which one to 1 to 1.5 million people perished (nearly two-thirds of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population), and later massacres and exoduses, there are relatively few Armenians in Turkey, and just these 16 schools.

A hybrid system

The Turkish republic created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 did not challenge the existence of community schools but set up a hybrid system: the Armenian schools were placed under state control without being made public institutions. The ministry of education appointed a Turkish deputy principal for each school. Teachers employed by the state gave lessons in Turkish language, history and geography, while other subjects where taught in Armenian by teachers paid by the schools’ foundations.

In 1974, when Turkey intervened militarily in Cyprus, the state took measures against its Christian communities. “Until then, the state funded schools, even if very modestly, under the terms of the Lausanne treaty [signed in 1923 with the European powers]. But after 1974 that aid ceased. The state doesn’t trust us,” said Paylan. All the schools are therefore linked to foundations. If they have endowments, the interest can be used to fund education; otherwise they rely on charity from their community. Parents don’t pay regular fees for education; if financial contributions are required, they vary according to family income.

The mission of these schools is to keep language and culture alive. But there are two major obstacles: the Turkish state and time. Armenian is not taught anywhere else in Turkey. There are no university courses in Armenian language or culture. Turkey doesn’t train any teachers of Armenian. Teachers are chosen by the school foundation and must be approved by the ministry of education. They learn Armenian at home and perfect their knowledge of the language through personal study outside of any academic framework.

Mari Kalayacı became a teacher by chance. She had a business management degree, but couldn’t find a job, and was advised to change careers. She has taught Armenian for seven years, two of them in Ortaköy, and admits that without this job she would not know her mother tongue so well: “I learned a huge amount when I began teaching. And I’m still learning.” Her pupils’ receptiveness varies. “Armenian is a difficult language. Some of them have no trouble with it, but others really struggle.” Pupils at the Ortaköy school speak Turkish among themselves most of the time. “They live in Turkey. It’s natural that they should speak Turkish,” said Nalcı. The Turkish education system does not make learning Armenian easy: “In high school, some of my friends didn’t go to Armenian classes. There was no penalty,” said Murat Gozoglu, who was educated in Armenian schools. The important entrance exams for high school and university are all taken in Turkish.

Not all Armenian parents send their children to a community school. And those who do attend may not stay the course — most switch after primary school or junior high. “Armenian schools, especially the secondary schools, don’t have the highest reputation. Sometimes they are seen as a fallback. Parents would rather send their children to an English, French or German school,” said Nora Mildanoglu. She went to an Armenian primary school before the English-speaking Robert College, one of Istanbul’s most prestigious high schools.

Attitudes have changed in Turkey, which has opened up to minorities, who now find it easier to assert their identities. “Now I’m not afraid to speak Armenian in public,” said Kalayacı. “When I was little I would never call my mother mama. I’d say anne [in Turkish] so that no one knew we were Christians.” Yet the Armenian language and culture are gradually disappearing in Turkey. “Armenian is spoken very little in family homes today. There is no longer a popular Armenian culture,” said Paylan. “Children are just taught the basics so that they can get by in everyday situations.”

Sarkis Seropyan, cofounder of Agos, the Armenian community’s main newspaper, is not surprised. “Few Armenians in Turkey speak the language. The proof is that most articles in Agos are in Turkish.” Only four pages out of 24 are in Armenian. “Otherwise no one would buy the paper.”

The Armenian community has realised that the schools alone cannot revive the language. But under the last major education reform, this spring, the teaching of Armenian was ruled out in state schools. The Armenians will have to make do with the current system.

Source : https://mondediplo.com/2012/12/16armenia

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