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When language teaching fails
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 Nalci, who has been head
of the Tarmancas 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 Ortakoy, near the Bosphorus Bridge that links
Istanbul's two halves. Ortakoy 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

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
Ortakoy, 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 Ortakoy 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.

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