ISTANBUL (Anadolu Agency)—Mesut Ozdemir has one month left to achieve his life-long dream: to open a new school for the Armenian community in Istanbul, Anadolu Agency reports.
“I am very delighted to see the school is almost done. Moving to a new building after 171 years makes us all happy,” Ozdemir, who is chairman of the Surp Asdvadzadzin Church Foundation, tells Anadolu Agency.
Construction on the project began three years ago. From the outside, it is not very different from any other school. Yet, it is still unique: it is the first school that Istanbul’s Armenian community is building in Republican Turkey within a legal framework.
The community has opened schools in previous decades, but those were dependent upon special permissions granted by prime ministers.
There are 22 minority schools In Istanbul; five of them are Greek, one is Jewish, and the remaining 16 are Armenian.
What made this latest project possible was a 2008 reform bill brought forward by the government and pushed through parliament.
The changes allowed minorities to acquire and renovate properties. The Turkish government also began returning previously confiscated properties to minority communities.
Such changes were welcomed and supported at the local level. Bakirkoy Municipality exempted the Armenian school from certain fees to ease the construction process. “Members of the local council unanimously voted for the exemption,” Ozdemir recalls.
Despite such help from the municipality, Ozdemir says that financing the school was a challenge for the community. The foundation depended on several fund-raising efforts to finish the job.
To relieve some of the financial burden, the government added minority schools to a list of institutions eligible for state aid.
In Turkey, the state partially aids students with financial difficulties so that they can enroll in private institutions. Minority schools are not categorized as ‘private’ institutions, but the government included them in the list, Ozdemir says.
“We thank everyone who helped us to have this joyous moment: ministers, mayors and the Armenian community,” Ozdemir says, adding that the first day of the school year, September 28, will be its official inauguration day.
Over 3,000 students currently attend Istanbul’s 16 Armenian schools. The Bakirkoy neighborhood on Istanbul’s European side housed one small school which was constructed 170 years ago by an Ottoman official, Hovhannes Dadyan.
Over the years, the Armenians of Bakirkoy depended on that one school, but as their numbers increased, capacity became a problem. Now the school has to accommodate 400 children—more than the old building can handle.
The new school now has more space to accommodate more than 400 students. Ozdemir says the school now is able to offer a kindergarten service to the Armenian community, which will increase the number of students to 500.
“We now have a bigger sports and conference hall,” Ozdemir says, adding that parents and students toured the construction site to see what the school would be like, and were excited for the upcoming school term.
New schools, bigger halls, and new services not only pleased Armenian students and parents but also broadened the community’s expectation for the new generation. “We expect more qualified people from this environment,” Ozdemir says.