Hüseyin Yılmaz, who went to Pakistan as a university student years ago, continued to work in the PakTurk Schools after his graduation. He got so used to the country where he stayed for 13 years that he would not even think of leaving one day. He witnessed and contributed to the steady growth of the PakTurk Schools and the services. We talked with Yılmaz, who is currently busy founding a new life with his family in Germany, about his years in Pakistan. Saying he was most influenced by the kindness and love of people in Pakistan, Yılmaz stated he missed the ‘elder brothers’ who altruistically supported the educational activities there the most.
-May you tell us about your life before going to Pakistan?
I am from Bunyan, a district of Kayseri province in Turkey. I graduated from the Health Vocational High School. In those years, a marks coefficient issue affected the vocational high school students. If the graduates chose a university degree program not related to their discipline in the high school, their graduation grades were reduced. I took admission in a health staff degree program in Muğla. I attended there for two years. That year, news came out that the examination system would change and the coefficient injustice would be removed. I dropped out of the university and started to prepare for the university selection and placement exam once again to study teaching. Unfortunately, since the exam system was not changed as promised, I could not enter the department I wanted. Back then, I was more idealistic. I thought teachers were more helpful to people and that they could serve their entire lives. I wanted to be a teacher. I started my search and thought of going abroad to study.
-Why did you choose Pakistan?
Actually, at first, I was planning to study mathematics in the Qafqaz University in Azerbaijan. However, my family would face difficulty in paying the annual tuition fees there. One day I went to my tutoring centre to discuss the ways to solve the economic problems affecting my education. That must have been an occasion of serendipity, because an elder brother had arrived from Pakistan and he was interviewing high school students for studying there. It would not coincide if I did not go to the tutoring centre that day. I liked numeracy and I was not so proficient in English. I had no idea of studying in Pakistan. Still, I sat in that interview. Some universities in Pakistan had “equivalence” issues with the Turkish Higher Education Commission, but the advantage of learning English was there. In material terms, it was also half inexpensive than studying in Azerbaijan.
-How was your parents’ reaction?
My mother did not accept it at first because it meant I was going to go far away, and my father thought about its economic aspects. What we had discussed during the interview made sense to me. While it never crossed my mind, the needle of the compass had turned to Pakistan. My mother wanted me to finish my current degree program and she even felt offended. I told my father about Pakistan; when he heard that the tuition fees were more affordable, he said “Okay, you may go”. My mother kept on saying, “What has this boy got to do there?” That’s how we reached a decision. I applied for a passport. I travelled to Pakistan with 11 fellow students. Having gone there without knowing anything about the country, we reached Pakistan in September 2004.
I SAID ‘WHERE AM I? WHAT AM I GOING TO DO HERE?’
-Did you search anything about the country to know ‘what kind of a place it was?
After our decision, we searched a bit on the Internet and located the country on the map. My late grandfather used to say, ‘Pakistanis love us so much’. He had worked in Saudi Arabia and made friends with Pakistanis. Other than that, I did not know anything about the country.
-How were your impressions and emotions?
We flew to Islamabad from Istanbul via Doha. When we landed in Qatar, a heatwave welcomed us. We thought it was the airflow from the aircraft engines, but it was pure and genuine desert heat. We went to the WC to wash our faces and cool down a bit, but even the water flowing from the taps there was hot. When we landed in Pakistan, we experienced a similar heatwave.
People in Pakistan wear ‘shalwar kameez’; shalwar kameezzes worn by men look similar with one another. I was shocked when I first saw a driver had installed a cardboard number plate on his car. We were welcomed by our seniors at the airport. While they were taking us to the dormitory, my mind was flooded with thoughts like, “I quit university to be here and I cannot return now. I am also unable to say anything to my parents as explanation. Where have I come? What am I going to do here?” I knew there was no likelihood for me to return.
-Was it difficult to study in a country with a completely different culture and language? Where and in which department did you start studying?
We had first landed in Islamabad. After staying there for a week, I moved to Lahore with two friends. Our first year was busy in the struggle for learning English. We visited different universities for admission, but they said to us, “Without any proficiency in English, you will not be able to take admission anywhere.” In my second year there, I took admission in a computer science degree program. A couple of friends who had been in our 12-student group went to Turkey during that summer break and did not return to Pakistan again. I later heard one of them had become a police officer and, as I learnt in a news bulletin after 2013, he was martyred during a terrorist raid. That broke my heart beyond words. It was nothing but fate!
When there were no Turkish friends around, I was left alone and so I attended to the university all by myself. It was exceptionally hard for me. Moreover, the computer science degree program was not a bed of roses. While seeking to find the best for myself, I had also chosen the hardest one. I had to improve my English and I also did not know the local language Urdu. Lecturers used to start teaching in English and would switch to Urdu shortly later. They kept on code-switching this way. For example, we had a Philosophy course and I did not understand anything of that. In short, my student life was tough. All the while, I also had very nice friends and lecturers who used to spare time to teach me in person after the school. During my student years, I completely plunged into the life in Pakistan. Hiring a rickshaw was a luxury, so I used to travel between home and school on public buses and vans. The buses were so crowded. I had to stand up for a long time, and at times when I had a short respite and lifted a foot to rest it for a while, soon it would become difficult to place it on the floor once again.
A STUDENT WITH A BROKEN ARM CONSOLED HIS TEACHER!
What were you doing outside the school?
Initially we used to live in the same bachelor pad with teachers. In the second half of my first year in Pakistan, a dormitory opened in the upper floor of a two-storey bungalow. I and a friend started working there as student mentors. It was a small place and there were a few students. We did not have any bedding for the students. We collected donations of this kind from some philanthropic businessmen whom we knew. There were 12 or 13 students in total. We used to spend our time after school by taking care of those students’ academic and social development. Some of them were more adaptable; they easily learned Turkish and they were successful in their studies. Some of them were mischievous and difficult. I have seen during the recent troubles that these students with whom we had difficulties in the past supported us more and stood by us more than some others. Later, some of those students became teachers and even migrated to different countries to work in the Turkish schools there. This must be a twist of fate.
During my university education, I stayed in student houses and dormitories in Lahore. I did not have a house of my own, because I was simply a mentor. Sometimes half of the school building was under construction; with half of the dormitory built, it was like a construction site. We also stayed in those under-construction school buildings. I always took care of the students. Different subject teachers used to visit in turns and stay in the dormitory overnight to teach additional exam and remedial classes to the boarding students. One day, when one of the teachers entered a dorm room, one of the boarding students who wanted to play a prank on the teacher fell from the bunk bed and broke his arm. The teacher was so upset that he could not help but started weeping. The student forgot his own agony and consoled his teacher, saying, “Sir, I’m fine. There’s nothing to worry about.” Now that very student is teaching in a country in Africa.
-Did you too notice the love your grandparent had mentioned about the people of Pakistan?
You notice that a lot. Not only in those who know you, but even in the people you meet for the first time, you sense how their eyes beam with smiles when they learn you are Turkish. Here’s an example to illustrate: Once, while washing my clothes, I had forgotten some money in a trouser pocket. When I removed the banknotes, I saw that they had been dyed in blue, the colour of the fabric. It was Pak rupees equivalent to nearly fifty dollars, a substantial amount for me. I went to a bank branch and they directed me to their central office. When the officers there first saw the banknotes, they thought they were fake. When I told them my story, they re-examined the banknotes and it was soon realized they were not counterfeit. One of the officers asked me where I was coming from. When I told him that I was from Turkey, he said, “Why didn’t you tell me that in the beginning?” He took all the banknotes, put them in his wallet, gave me the same amount from his own money. He did not take any official action. People of Pakistan really love the people of Turkey. They have an unrequited love.
WE WERE RATIONED TO SEVEN OLIVES A DAY
– What do you think was the reason for this love?
I think the first reason is that we never had borders with the people of today’s Pakistan during the Ottoman history. We have always loved each other from afar. There were no issues of conflict. No such relationship was established. People of Pakistan are indeed the people whom we have historically known as the Muslims of the Subcontinent. Both nations are predominantly Hanafi Sunni Muslims. They also feel close to each other in terms of religious affiliation. In addition, Allama Muhammed Iqbal has a lot of influence on this love. Because he always loved the people of Turkey. A saying attributed to Iqbal expresses, “I am a brother to the Turk; alas, I do not know the language of my brother …” He also gave a renowned speech in the Lahore Square. Zia ul Haq, one of the former presidents of Pakistan, loved Turkey very much as well. He is one of those who heartened people towards this love for Turkey.
– Have you had any culturally difficult things to get used to in your life there?
Pakistan was the place where we actually discovered the blessings. It was difficult to find the products we were used to. Sometimes, for example, a candy from an unknown Turkish brand would appear in the market and that would make us happy like little children. Feta cheese and olives were not found in the market. A Turkish brother had visited Pakistan for the first time. When we stood up to prepare the breakfast, he said, “Don’t prepare so many things, cheese and olives will suffice.” His ordinary was something extraordinary for us, something which we could never find there. Nowadays, we frequently have both olives and cheese on our table; they do not matter much to us anymore. This shows they bore their value in the good old days. When I was a student, everyone in the dormitory was rationed to eat only seven olives daily. Those olives tasted so delicious; they found their meaning in times of need.
In our time, apart from the staff of the PakTurk Schools and the Embassy staff, not many people from Turkey lived in Pakistan. In later years, some Turkish companies also brought employees to work in Pakistan. From then on, there was no commercial need to bring food products from Turkey. There is no culinary awareness for cheese and olives among the people of Pakistan. In addition, the prices of the products coming from Turkey were high for the local people. There was no bulgur or kidney beans and even if they arrived, they would not find buyers. In later years, we rarely found some here and there. We would let friends know what we had found and we would try to buy those in large quantities. It was not clear when those cherished products would come again.
Friends working in cities such as Khairpur Mirs and Kuetta were more deprived of basic necessities. If anyone travelled there from big cities such as Lahore or Islamabad, they would deliver diapers, detergents and other commodities as ordered by our friends. Such things were not found there. Life was much more difficult for those friends.
PRESIDENT GÜL HAD SAID ‘I VOUCH FOR THEM’
Since I was staying in the dormitory, I had no choice other than getting used to the Pakistani food. Whatever was cooked, I was eating that with the boarding students. Although excessively spicy and greasy to our taste the meals were at first, I got used to them over time. Initially, I would not even want to smell the aroma of guava. I had not tasted it for six or seven years. I liked it when I first tasted it. Many years passed while I had not eaten it in vain! I was used to everything of Pakistan. There are still flavours we miss right now. There is a chicken dish called Karahi. Oh, I wish we had some biryani to eat now! Especially the mango from Multan is very delicious.
-What did you do when you graduated from the university?
I was appointed to work in Islamabad in 2009. The top floor of the school building was allotted to the dormitory. The main dormitory building opposite the school was under construction. I worked as the dormitory manager and a teacher there for three years. The dormitory building and its interior furnishing were completed with the efforts of local Pakistani philanthropic brothers. No support was received from Turkey and no goods were brought from there. After three years, I started working as one of the public relations officers of the school. I met my wife in 2011 and we got married in the same year. Like me, she had come from Turkey to study at a university in Islamabad.
At that time, there was no problem about our schools and our educational activities. Politicians like Yalçın Topçu, Nur Serter, Tuğrul Türkeş, Cemil Çiçek, Hüseyin Çelik and others used to come from Turkey for visits and inaugurations… Lauding us and our schools, the then-President Abdullah Gül told the then-Pakistani President Zardari, “I vouch for these people.” During that visit, President Abdullah Gül had also brought food items from Turkey that had not been found in Pakistan and those items were distributed to the student residences.
– What did you experience during the process of leaving Pakistan? When did you leave?
We lived as a family in Islamabad until the time of our departure. Our two children were born there. Pakistani politicians assured us when the government’s pressures against the Hizmet Movement in Turkey started. They said, “We know you well, continue your educational activities”, but unknown to us they had already agreed with the Turkish government about the transference of the schools. Even during the week when our visas were cancelled, it was reported that the officials had said, “We stand by you”. Right after that assurance, on Monday, we received a letter stating that our visas had been cancelled. That meant the decision had already been made and the letters had already been in the post, while they kept on telling us things differently.
Against all odds, the people of Pakistan supported us. Our students and their parents stood by us and provided support. They wept with us. They tried their best to sustain us. I had a Pakistani acquaintance who was in the construction business. While saying goodbye to me, he wept and said, “Now you will be going, but I will always remember you and cherish that I knew people like you during a part of my life.” People loved us wholeheartedly. We felt it.
THEY MISTOOK ME FOR A PATHAN
Within three days, we both tried our best to sell our belongings and also sought shelter. We visited the embassies of the democratic countries, but the officials there told us they would not be able to do anything for us. We visited the UNHCR representation in Islamabad and elsewhere in Pakistan, and they issued one-year valid asylum-seeker certificates to us. Since Pakistan did not ratify any asylum treaty, the UNHCR certificate did not have any protective power, but we managed to stay for a little while more thanks to that document. We were not able to work. My son’s passport would expire soon. We had no further means to live in Pakistan. We first moved to Kosovo and to Germany later. Now, we try to make new friends here. While leaving Pakistan, my son was five and my daughter was one year old. Whenever someone asks them, ‘Where are you from?’ both of them reply, “We are from Pakistan.”
-What was the thing that impressed you the most in Pakistan?
The kindness of the people. They were far kinder to us than to one another. The poor and the rich were the same in this regard. The people of Pakistan deserve a better life under better circumstances. I am sorry that it is still a country with limited means.
While saying goodbye to friends, someone asked, “What will you miss when you leave?” I replied, “I will miss our Pakistani ‘elder brothers’.” I and my friends really miss each of those brothers. When we see a Pakistani here, it feels as if we have met a relative. It is so nice to meet and chat with them in Urdu about Pakistan. There is a tribe called “Pathans” in Pakistan. They speak Urdu with their particularly lilted accent. Those who did not know me used to mistake me for a Pathan, not a Turk or any other nationality. One day while I was trying to bargain in shopping, the vendor said, “You are a Pathan and I am a Pathan, why on earth are you bargaining with me?”
-Is there anything you say ‘I could have that in Pakistan only’?
I met my wife there. Our children were born there. I did not know if we were meant to find such sincere love and friendship in any other country, but we did find it in Pakistan. People in Kosovo were very nice too. People in Germany are very kind and considerate as well. Yet, the warmth of the Pakistani people is a notch distinctive.
The transference of the schools really hurt us. Each brick in those school buildings is made of sweat, hard work, and earnest prayer. Before the construction of the school buildings, we would go to the vacant plots and have picnics there. There were many other beautiful spots, but we were so happy with the dream of the upcoming school that we preferred having picnics there. We used to take our friends to the vacant plots and tell them, “We will build schools here.” The first-ever schools had been opened in the buildings converted from bungalows. In those days, we had a concept photo of the school building and we used to tell everyone, “We will build this school.” We lived with those dreams for years. While searching for the plot, we prayed and at last the dream came true. After laying the foundation of the school building, we would frequently go to the construction site. It made us so happy to see the progress of the construction. Days came and in different cities, we had better schools than we had seen in our dreams. We could not dare to stare long at them, for we feared bad eye; we were immensely thankful to Allah Almighty for bestowing us with those. We used to request material donations from the tradesmen, and I was very happy on the days when I managed to source donated construction sand and iron. When we learned that the schools would be seized from us, we retreated to a corner in the school garden and cried like children. We said, “Okay, if they do not want us here, let’s go but let our schools continue as they are.” It broke our hearts so much. It is very difficult for me to hear anything about Pakistan, because I directly remember our schools there. This situation agonizes me beyond words.