Children of Armenian Immigrants in Turkey Forced to Study in the Dark


By Vercihan Ziflioğlu

ISTANBUL (Hürriyet Daily News) — Children from Armenia are attending classes and reading smuggled textbooks at an illegal school in the basement of a building in Istanbul. Forbidden to attend Armenian minority schools under the Lausanne Treaty and the Special Education Law, these children could not go to school even if the Turkish-Armenian border is opened, unless the law is changed.

Tzsonivar is 8 years old and she misses her father and siblings who live in another country. Six-year-old Serge hopes to be president of that country some day. But for now, they are stuck in a legal twilight zone, unable to attend Turkish schools, studying in illegal elementary classes with smuggled textbooks and volunteer teachers.

Serge and Tzsonivar are Armenian. Unlike Turkish Armenians who can attend community schools established under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, these children are citizens of Armenia. Unlike expatriates who often send their children to private foreign schools, Serge and Tzsonivar are poor. The tuition for a private school would be more than their undocumented parents can afford. Most parents would prefer their children to be educated in the Armenian language, even if they could afford to send them to private foreign schools in Turkey.

Even if all the problems between Turkey and Armenia are resolved, Armenian-born children currently studying in an Istanbul basement would still not be able to attend the country’s Armenian minority schools.
A change in Special Education Law would be required for those children to reclaim their right to an education. Only children with Turkish citizenship who are from the country’s Greek or Armenian minority are allowed to attend the minority schools in Istanbul, under the terms of the Lausanne Treaty.

The Hürriyet Daily News visited an illegal school several times over two weeks with the promise of keeping the students’ names and the neighborhood a secret. There were almost 20 children ranging in age from 5 to 14 at the school. Their greatest fear is that their location will be exposed; every knock on the door makes them afraid that the authorities are raiding the school. There are other illegal schools like this in Istanbul.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

The children here are not only deprived of their right to an education, but they miss their families, too. Lusine, a teacher at the school said: “Our aim is to teach the children at least how to read and write and provide a social environment. For many, their family is in Armenia or other countries. They do not have the chance to see their mothers during the daytime either, which affects the children negatively.”

The 1989 earthquake in Gumri, Armenia’s second-biggest city, and the Nagorno-Karabakh war with Azerbaijan have pushed the country into economic distress. The Turkish border being shut down due to the war has made the situation even worse. Many citizens of Armenia went abroad to find jobs due to the financial difficulties, and Turkey was one of the choices. Today, economic problems continue and, even though their children do not have a proper education here, their parents are reluctant to return to Armenia because of the economic situation.

According to Turkish authorities, there are 60,000 illegal Armenian workers in the country, while data from Armenia’s Foreign Ministry puts the number at 20,000. Although most of the illegal Armenian workers in Turkey are college graduates, many do menial jobs such as housecleaning or working at bazaars. Those with better economic positions engage in the “suitcase” trade, the practice of buying products at low cost in Istanbul’s bazaars and selling them for a higher price in their home country.

Most adults can cope with this struggle one way or another, but school-aged children often experience great difficulties.

“The politicians are after their own gains; it is us, the ordinary people, who suffer,” said Aghavni, a graduate of the Yerevan University faculty of economics who earns a living in Istanbul by cleaning houses. Criticizing the rich people of Armenia, Aghavni said: “They are your children, too. You know how to show off in the streets of Yerevan in luxury jeeps, but you do not even think of claiming those children, your future. We had to leave our country because of financial difficulties. We did not even have bread to eat.”

Armineh, another teacher at the school, came to Turkey 10 years ago from Gumri, where her family still lives. “I came here unwillingly, to earn a living and send money to my family. I have been a housecleaner and I have worked at bazaars. Now I clean houses two days a week and have a stand at the bazaar,” she said. Like her other friends, Armineh has devoted herself to the children at the illegal school. She studied psychology in Armenia and is very concerned about the future of the children.

“They suffer great damage both psychologically and in a social sense; most of them are withdrawn,” she said. “It bears thought and is very sad that children are deprived of their educational rights in this century.”

The children’s textbooks are brought from Armenia. The biggest wish of 12-year-old Garoush is to go back to his school in Yerevan. “I miss my school and friends very much. We came to Turkey five years ago,” said Garoush. “I want to go back, but my mother says it is not possible now.”
Tzovinar is 8 and her father and siblings live in the village of Gavar, near Sevan Lake in Armenia. Her eyes were filled with tears. “I miss my father and siblings so much. I cannot see my mother either because she has to work a lot to earn money.”

Serge is 6 and his favorite person is Armenian President Serge Sargisian, for whom he was named. “I want to be president, too, like Serge Sargisian, when I grow up,” he said. “The child at the house my mother cleans wears very nice clothes. He has a very nice school bag, but I do not. I will let everybody go to school when I become president.”

The Daily News asked for the opinion of Archbishop Aram Ateshyan, the spiritual leader of the Patriarchate of Armenians of Turkey, but received no comment. The Patriarchate Secretariat said it was due to Ateshyan’s busy schedule.

The archbishop met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently and mentioned the subject.

The Turkish branch of UNICEF also preferred to remain silent on the matter. “This is a very political subject. It would not be our place to voice an opinion,” said Sebnem Balkan, a UNICEF spokeswoman, and said she was just assigned to the job.

Setrak Davuthan, a lawyer for the foundations of the Armenian community of Istanbul, explained the matter as follows: “There is a law banning children from Armenia from attending the schools of the Armenian minority foundations. The law on private education institutions states that only citizens of the Republic of Turkey can study at minority schools. If that clause does not change, the problem will not go away even if the borders between Turkey and Armenia open.”

According to Davuthan, the roots of the problem date back to the Lausanne Treaty. He said such difficulties were because the articles of the Lausanne Treaty on minorities are interpreted as the government sees fit. “In the time of the Ottomans, not only Armenians, but also Turks studied in the minority schools because the level of education was good,” he said.

There are currently 18 Armenian minority schools in Istanbul.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: