ISTANBUL (World Bulletin)—Mesut Ozdemir, chair of the Surp Asdvazsazin Church Foundation, tours a construction site which will be home to a groundbreaking new Armenian school in Istanbul.
In terms of architecture, it is not much different from other schools. Yet it is still unique: it is the first school that Istanbul’s Armenian community is building in Republican Turkey within a legal framework.
“After decades of legal hurdles, we began the construction a year ago. It takes time and money to complete it, but the fact that we were able to build it makes us happy,” Ozdemir tells Anadolu Agency.
In Istanbul, there are 22 minority schools; five of them belong to the Greek community, while one is Jewish.
These schools are regulated by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the founding document of the Turkish Republic. According to that treaty, Greek, Armenian and Jewish minorities have a right to open their own schools. The state should allocate money for those schools and although the curriculum is determined by the state, the schools can offer education in Turkish and their own languages.
Over 3,000 students currently attend Istanbul’s 16 Armenian schools. The Bakirkoy neighborhood on Istanbul’s European side houses one small school that was constructed 170 years ago by an Ottoman official, Hovahannes Dadyan.
Across the decades, 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 enough for the old building.
Luckily, right in front of the school, the park belongs to Ozdemir’s church foundation. The foundation needed rezoning of the land to build a school and, with the help of municipality and state officials, they achieved that. Moreover, Bakirkoy municipality exempted the foundation from legal fees for rezoning and building. “Members of local council unanimously voted in favor of that exemption. Bakirkoy and our Armenian community embraced the school,” Ozdemir stated.
The help provided to the foundation is an example of the broader official shift towards accommodating Armenians.
“I know cases of persecution of people just because they painted a minority school or pounded a nail on its wall,” Ozdemir recalls.
The major change happened in 2008 when the law about foundations was revised. The changes allowed minorities to acquire and renovate properties. The Turkish government also began returning some minority properties that had previously been confiscated.
London-based Minority Rights Group International’s Turkey Coordinator Nurcan Kaya acknowledges that the revision has made it easier for minorities to renovate their buildings. “Any renovation was a big headache for minority communities. But that has changed in recent years,” Kaya told AA.
She claims that Turkish officials never visited minority schools for years, except for inspections with the goal of punishing the school but this has changed too. In 2010, then-education minister Nimet Bas visited an Istanbul-based Armenian school to participate in its graduation ceremony.
Minorities and experts agree that the government can do more to improve the status of minority schools. For example, Kaya says the government can stop selecting the head deputy teacher for minority schools.
The Ministry of Education began assigning these deputy heads in 1937 in order to tighten control over such schools. The practice is still in place but Kaya believes that those officials have changed their attitude against minorities.
Another problem for those schools is that the ministry has a final say over who can attend. Although non-citizen minorities can attend schools under a guest program, people raised as Muslim Turks but who have Armenian or Jewish heritage cannot attend minority schools.
“School principals should decide that. If a person declares that he or she is Armenian, that should be enough,” Kaya says.
Minority schools still face financial problems although the state has a duty to allocate money to these institutions.
Ozdemir stressed that his foundation is running short of money and teachers’ salaries are paid with great difficulty.
“We collect donations in our community to pay the salaries. But our financial circumstance remains challenging. Some Armenian families send their children but they are unable to pay tuition and rely on financial help,” Ozdemir said. He hopes the government’s returning of Armenian properties may help to fill the financial hole in the foundation’s budget.
Despite the problems Ozdemir is hopeful for a better future, insisting on equal citizenship rather than positive discrimination for the Armenian community. “We were born and raised here. We will die here. We want the same rights as Turkish people, nothing more,” he says.
Markar Esayan, columnist for the Yeni Safak daily, says that rights should not be perceived as “tolerance” of minorities. “They should be perceived as a natural part of the whole,” Esayan states.
Esayan says the school means “respect, security and attention” for the community, adding that it also represents the only chance for the Armenian minority to maintain their cultural existence.
After a brief tour at the school, Ozdemir steps outside and examines the building’s exterior. He hopes to see students in its classroom in the coming academic year. “The old one has served for 170 years. I hope this new one will also serve for another 170 years,” he says.