By Tuncay Kayaoglu
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. “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 , said.
Construction on the project began three years ago. From the outside, 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. The community opened schools in previous decades but these were dependent upon special permission 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 legal reform 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 smooth construction. “Members of the local council unanimously voted for the exemption,” Ozdemir recalls. Despite such help from the municipality, Ozdemir says that financing was challenging 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 first day of the school year, September 28, will be its official inauguration day.
Minority 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 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 housed one small school which was constructed 170 years ago by an Ottoman official, Hovhannes 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 – too many for the old building.
The new school has now more space to accommodate even more than 400. Ozdemir says the school now is able to offer a kindergarten service to the Armenian community; that will increase 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 education 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.