12-year-old Kurdish girl risks prison in Turkey to revive her people's
By Jenna Krajeski - The Atlantic
The Turkish government
recently lifted a decades-old ban on speaking
Kurdish in schools, but a young Kurdish girl
fighting for full rights says they still have a long
way to go.
Medya Ormek teaches Kurdish in her classroom, a
renovated chicken coop on the roof of her family's
home. Photo: Jenna Krajeski
June 22, 2012
DIYARBAKIR, The Kurdish
region of Turkey, — On a hot day in mid-June,
12-year-old Medya Ormek and her family gathered
together, sitting on pallets or plastic lawn chairs,
to watch Kurdish news and music videos on a small
television. To cope with the temperature, they have
moved the contents of their sitting room into the
shady entrance to their three-story Diyarbakir home,
where a breeze from the open door and the rickety
ceiling fan make the midday bearable. One of Medya's
sisters serves hot tea and the conversation turns,
as it always seems to in this urban heart of
Turkey's Kurdish southeast, to politics. That day,
they were discussing the recent announcement by
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that
schools in Turkey would now offer the once-banned
Kurdish language as an optional lesson. In the
media, it was heralded as an "historic step," but
Medya and her family disagreed.
"There are 20 million people in north Kurdistan. An
optional lesson is shameful," said Medya's father.
"And I don't trust Erdogan, I think that he is
lying." Only time will tell if his suspicions are
borne out, but this family has good reason to worry
about the government. Young Medya has been on the
front lines of the Kurdish struggle to revitalize
their language, long restricted in Turkey, teaching
classes in her home at great risk to both herself
and her family.
Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923,
Kurds who refuse to assimilate have been alienated
from Turkish society and politics. The existence of
the Kurdish minority, which makes up 20% of the
country's population, is not acknowledged in the
Turkish constitution. In the early 1980s, the
Kurdistan Worker's Party or PKK (which Turkey, the
EU, and the U.S. all classify as a terrorist
organization) took up arms in the mountains of
Turkey and Iraq. Though that violent struggle has
come to embody the Kurdish issue in Turkey, to most
Kurds language remains at the heart of the dispute.
Speaking Kurdish was illegal in Turkey until 1991
and, until Erdogan's announcement, was still illegal
in Turkish schools, part of a larger effort to
downplay Kurdish culture and discourage the Kurdish
separatist movement. Many Kurds, defying the ban,
have had to either flee to the mountains or languish
in prison. For them, the right to speak Kurdish is
about more than just language. Turkish Kurds draw
the borders of their long-sought Kurdish nation with
language. Every word of Kurdish is a protest.
Erdogan's announcement carried particular
significance for Medya and her family. Like many
residents of Diyarbakir, the Turkish government had
forced them to leave their village and move to the
city, where they speak primarily Kurdish. But Medya
-- a tall, dark-haired girl with a wry giggle -- is
decidedly uncommon. Before she turned 11, she had
become both a local media darling and the target of
a police investigation, all for teaching Kurdish.
"My first day of school was very scary," Medya said.
She didn't speak a work of Turkish and was forbidden
from communicating in Kurdish. "I would cry every
day." She didn't understand why she was being
punished for speaking the language she'd always
heard at home, and felt dismay at not being able to
communicate with friends who had forgotten, or never
been taught, their native Kurdish. She worried about
failing the Turkish-taught classes and about being
punished by her Turkish-speaking teachers.
Medya decided that she would rather be thought
defiant than stupid. So, one day, she invited some
friends over to play.
"I told them we would play with dolls and speak
Kurdish," she told me as we sat in her classroom, a
renovated chicken coop on the roof of her family
home, which she nicknamed "Cigerxwin classroom"
after the Kurdish poet. On the front wall is a white
board, where Medya writes Kurdish vocabulary, as
well as photographs of family and friends -- some,
like Medya's older brother, lost to the ranks of the
PKK and others, like Medya's namesake, former
political prisoners -- and local artwork, some sent
to her by admiring dissidents. In Medya's classroom,
Turkish was banned.
Four friends showed up for that first lesson, but as
word spread -- and some local reporters caught wind
-- Medya's class grew. At one time, she was cramming
27 regular students into the small room, showing
videos, critiquing their writing, and listing
vocabulary. She even got her certificate in a
teaching program because "I wanted to be on a more
academic level." In class she was, by far, the
youngest student. Locals were initially
discouraging. "At first they put me down, saying
that I should play instead of going to a classroom,"
she said. "Yeah, I wanted to play, but I had other
things on my mind. They got used to me."
Soon, playtime turned serious. "One day my friend
called me and said I had to come home because there
were reporters there. I went and there were no
cameras. A man asked me in Kurdish, 'How are you?' I
replied in Kurdish, and he said 'Shame on you.'" He
was a policeman, there to investigate Medya's class.
Authorities found report cards that Medya had made
to hand out to her students. They mimicked the
official Turkish report cards, which are emblazoned
with a portrait of Ataturk. Medya's parents were
accused of slandering the Turkish state, a crime
that could carry a six-year sentence. The case was
eventually dismissed, but the ordeal made Medya's
parents, for whom jail does not seem like a remote
possibility, fearful for their fate and for their
daughter's. Though she cannot be jailed as a minor
for speaking Turkish, she will be an adult in a few
Her mother especially worried for her daughter's
future. In early spring of 2012, before the ban was
lifted, we talked about the possibility of Medya's
arrest. "They can't take her now," she told me. "But
when she's old enough they could capture her and
take her to prison." For Medya, the lesson of her
parent's court case was less cautionary than
inspiring; it made her angry to see her mother
forbidden from voicing a defense in Kurdish, the
only language she knows. It is still the only
language Medya is willing to speak, even though she
learned fluent Turkish in school.
I wasn't surprised when Erdogan's announcement
failed to appease Medya and her family. Their
reaction -- "I do not accept it," said her older
brother -- reflects both the intensity of the
struggle for cultural rights in Kurdish Turkey and
the cynicism Kurds feel about state half-measures.
Erdogan's AKP administration is a vast improvement
over past governments, but the Kurdish issue remains
largely unresolved. Offering Kurdish as an elective
in school is significant progress, to be sure, but
it only intensified resentment among Diyarbakir's
teachers, a sign of just how deep the mistrust goes.
I went to visit the Diyarbakir's Teacher's Union,
where I found the region's educators drinking tea
and reading the newspaper in a sunny lounge. None
had any positive words for the news. "The optional
lesson is not a reaction to people's demands," said
a primary school teacher who, like all of the
teachers I spoke to, asked to remain anonymous for
fear of their safety. "There is no legal way of
enforcing this or plans to put it into the
constitution," another complained. A computer
teacher was more open-minded. "It's a positive
step," he said. "But Kurdish should be an official
language in all schools [in the Kurdish region]."
Another teacher said, angrily, "Kurdish is not a
foreign language. It lives here."
The teachers bitterly recalled Erdogan's speech to
Turks living Germany, in which he urged them to stay
culturally Turkish. Abdullah Demirbas, the mayor of
Diyarbakir's Sur district, also brought this up to
me. "Erdogan said that for the Turkish people,
assimilation is a humanitarian crime. This is a
double standard," Demirbas told me. It rankled him
that Erdogan would insist that Turks abroad resist
assimilation, while maintaining policies that many
Kurds feel are intended to force them to assimilate
into Turkish culture. "The mother tongue education
will divide this country," Demirbas said.
Kasim Birtek, the chairman of the local teacher's
union, fumed that he felt personally insulted for
not being involved in the government's
decision-making, about which he'd known nothing
until the announcement. It only cemented his belief
that the Turkish government still saw Kurds as a
problem to resolve,www.ekurd.net
rather than as citizens with a right to participate
in their own governance.
"It's a project to prevent Kurdish people from
getting rights," he said, worried that the effort
would defuse the larger Kurdish push for full
rights. "If this isn't covered under the
constitution it won't stand on its feet." If there
was to be a real opening for the Kurdish language in
the Turkish education system, the hundreds of
members of Birtek's union were ready. But none of
them have been told how to implement the new policy.
"Teachers cannot adapt to the changing system," he
Birtek was fed up with Turkish education. The lack
of Kurdish is the main problem, he said, but far
from the only one. "There are 60 kids in one
classroom. There is no consensus on curriculum. And
worst, the people only learn things by heart," he
said. "They are not taught to understand anything."
Jenna Krajeski is a journalist based in Istanbul.
Her previous work has appeared in Al-Masry Al-Youm,
The New Yorker, Slate, The World Policy Journal,
Bidoun, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.
This story was supported by a grant from the
Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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