Mathematics teacher Tuğba Ünverdi (1): While teaching what I knew in Pakistan, I also learned what I did not know

Eating chicken after the first Eid al-Adha program in Manghirjee!
June 22, 2021
Maths Teacher Tuğba Ünverdi (2): Our Pakistani friends considered us no different than their own family members
June 24, 2021

Mathematics teacher Tuğba Ünverdi (1): While teaching what I knew in Pakistan, I also learned what I did not know

Tuğba Ünverdi (centre) prepares Turkish pickles with her Pakistani students.

Mrs. Tuğba was an idealist young teacher who had just graduated from a university in Turkey. She was full of love for service to humanity. While she was willing to migrate to the farthest corners of the world to educate generations with enlightened minds, hearts and souls, who were beneficial to humanity and who would expound goodness, her path crossed with Pakistan. Although the feeling of loneliness she experienced in the first days was testing, she endured, persevered and was soon acclimatized to the country.

We talked to Teacher Tuğba about Pakistan, where she got married, settled down, became a mother, and experienced the best feelings of being a teacher with her beloved students. PakTurk Schools’ Mathematics teacher Tuğba Ünverdi fondly remembers her students and friends, and her years in Pakistan about which she says, “We would not have thought about leaving there if we had not been compelled for that.”

Can you tell us about your life before you went to Pakistan?

I was born in a district of Kayseri. I lived there until my high school years. I attended to the high school in Yozgat as a boarding student on scholarship. I graduated from the Elementary Mathematics Teaching undergraduate degree program in 2006. I actually left home for education when I was 15.

How did you decide to teach abroad?

When I was at the university, I used to watch the Turkish Olympiad galas with great admiration. It was very nice to watch foreign children sing Turkish songs and recite poems in Turkish. It thrilled me to read the books chronicling the experiences of the pioneering education volunteers who migrated from Turkey to teach in the schools they founded in the Central Asian countries. As I read about the sacrifices of the teachers there, I wanted to go abroad to see if I could be as self-sacrificing as them too. I also feared, ‘If I insistently express my own will, I may be tested with it’. That’s why I didn’t tell anyone that I wanted to go abroad or that I could cope with it. In the final year of the university, we were invited to several career interviews to discuss our future plans. I also sat for an interview, but there was no certain outcome from that. After the graduation, I attended a two-week teaching workshop. Some in-service teachers from abroad told us about their experiences. Even though I studied English in the high school, I had no spoken English practice; so, I first thought I would not be able to teach in a foreign language. Yet, at the end of those two weeks, I decided to go to Pakistan, one of the countries that sought teachers to work in the private schools there. I had nearly 10 girlfriends who aspired to go to Pakistan with me. Eventually, not all of them could do that.

What did you know about Pakistan?

Actually, I had no idea about Pakistan. The Internet was not that common. I opened my first e-mail account during that teaching workshop. I didn’t feel any need to run a search about the country. I grew up in a small town. My family was engaged in animal husbandry. We used to take our animals to the plateaus during the summer holidays. We lived in tents for several months. In terms of physical conditions, I was a person who lived without electricity and who drew water from a well. I thought, ‘I can live in any place’. The only thing that scared me was the heat. Yet I thought, ‘If there are people who can live there, I can live there as well’.


How did your family react to this decision?

I returned home after the workshop. I had two weeks to tell my family and start the official proceedings. My family did not even know that I was thinking of going abroad. The results of the Public Personnel Selection Examination, which I had taken earlier after graduating from the university, were announced. I could not obtain a good score because I had never tried it. In that case, I talked to my family that I would not be appointed to teach in the public schools. I told my father that I wanted to go abroad to learn English. I explained that I could go to Pakistan for a year because it was an English-speaking country. My family was not too domineering anyway. Whenever I told what I wished to do, they would not object, but that was a serious decision. I explained that there were Turkish nationals in Pakistan too and that they were teachers in private schools. Finally, they consented.

Parents may react in terms of emotional outbursts rather than domineering attitude. They are usually sad about the prospect of being away from you for a long time. They worry about you as their daughter and what you would do alone and away…

Yes, it was a completely different situation. No one in the family had ever studied at the university. They also had aspirations of their own. They wished the youngest in the house to study, settle down and become a civil servant. There was no one in the family who had gone abroad. It was unprecedented for a girl to go to a country like Pakistan, and all by herself. Yet it showed Allah Almighty had bestowed them with relief and assurance as well. I said, ‘I’m going there for a year,’ and they let me go. My family did not know about the Hizmet Movement, but they had very positive views about my teachers and friends. That’s why I think they accepted it.

-Which city in Pakistan did you go to first? Can you tell us about your first impressions?

We landed in Islamabad on August 23, 2006, as a group of 6 teachers and the same number of female students who would both study at university and work as student mentors. It was close to morning and it was very hot. While the plane descended, I saw a city with roofless houses and high-rise buildings. It looked hazy in a cloud of dust, but Islamabad is actually a green city. That’s how it appeared to me in that heat. Many friends mentioned it before, but the same thing happened to me: I thought that first heatwave hitting my face the time I got off the plane was from the engines 😊

I never thought the weather could be that hot. There was also an odour I noticed when we landed. It was not only outside, but was also felt indoors at the dormitory and elsewhere. We had arrived in Pakistan during the wet spell known as the monsoon. At first, I asked myself, “How will I able to live with this?” but, within a week, I got used to the odour and the rest.


How were your first days? Did you start teaching right away?

The first day was spent resting in the dormitory. The next day we went to the school where I was going to work. I cannot forget my first day at the school. Everything was so different and so new. After getting through the first day, the rest would be easy, I knew. The first day was difficult, though. I can’t forget the first time I went to school from the dormitory. In the morning, we set off with an experienced friend who had been there for a few years as a mentor. Since the school was 6-8 minutes away from the dormitory, we would be taking a shortcut on foot. There were huts and tents where the homeless lived along the road. The other side of the road was like a wooded forest. We walked on a dirt road. A small stream flowed along the edge. We skipped over it and arrived at the school building.

I was the only Turkish female teacher in the teachers’ room. I met the principal and fellow teachers. Everyone was curious about a single, lonely, young teacher who had just arrived from Turkey. They were asking questions and I was trying to understand them. Their English pronunciations were different. I had difficulty in understanding, even I was trying to answer the words by writing them on paper and looking at the meaning of the words I did not know in the dictionary. Since I didn’t have spoken English practice, we would still communicate by writing. I never let go of my English dictionary.

The principal said I should start taking classes from the next day. I thought I would be told to attend to a language school for about six months while attending to the classes in the school as an observer to get used to teaching abroad. I guess the school administrators had thought, ‘Let the teachers learn the profession by immersion’, so they wanted us to go directly to our classes. I started taking classes on the third day after my arrival in Pakistan.

Tuğba Ünverdi and her students…

On the first day, while sitting alone in the teachers’ room, I was thinking, “How will it be? How on earth will I be able to cope?” Maybe I would have accepted if someone had said to me at that moment, “There is a plane back home in the evening. Would you like to board on that and leave?” I went there with ideals, but that lonely feeling of the first day was very tough. According to the experiences of those who had first migrated there in the beginning of 1990s, ours was not that difficult. We had schools where we would teach, we had places to stay, and our students were ready in the classrooms. There was none of these for the pioneers. Compared to what they had gone through, ours would not even be called a ‘hardship’.


At the end of the first day, I was to return to the dormitory, but I did not know the way back. I would not be able to go alone on the path from where I had come in the morning. A friend described the location of the dormitory by its street number. I started walking but I was also weeping. I was alone and I feared I might not find the place and get lost instead. Finally, I found the dormitory without having to ask anyone.

I was teaching Turkish and Maths to the grades 3-5 in the primary school. I had weekly 17 periods:12 periods of Turkish and 5 periods of Maths. I went to the school in the morning and improved my English at a language school in the afternoon.

We had a young friend about our age from whom we took English lessons. Sometimes we went shopping together. One day, while in a taxi, a beggar approached to our vehicle in that congested traffic. She was saying something in Urdu but I was not able to understand her. I asked my friend about that and she replied, “She prays for you and says, ‘May Allah send you to America and England!’” At that time, I thought, “People here wish to leave for the United States and England, even the beggars pray for that, but here we are. We have come to this country to educate students who love their homeland and nation and are beneficial to humanity.” It is an unforgettable incident for me to understand people’s perspectives on life and to see the ideals of students and parents.

You experienced the first of many things there. Your first teaching, your first students, a country you visited for the first time and a completely different culture… How did you communicate with the students?

My biggest fear was not being able to understand and communicate with the students in terms of language. When we had asked about this issue at the teaching workshop, the resource person had said, “Let them understand what we can say from our words and what we cannot say from our eyes”. We set out with that intention. We receive education at universities, but I think the most important part of teaching is gaining experience. That’s why I can say Pakistan is where I learned to teach. Very innocent kids in the primary school… They looked you in the eye. They were very affectionate. They were happy to learn Turkish songs. It was a good feeling to be a teacher to such students.

I feel lucky that I got through the language learning process there. Children started learning English from the kindergarten. We had graduated from the university, but we were trying to learn English anew and teach in a foreign language. My students never said to me, “Miss, you used a wrong word” or “You mispronounced such-and-such word” etc. Our local colleagues were also very supportive. They were very kind about this issue. They motivated me and showed me their love and affection. After getting through the first week, it wasn’t too hard anymore.


What was the first thing that caught your attention culturally?

Not knowing the local language was very frustrating at first. Since most of the mothers did not speak English, I could not contact them personally. Even though the parents in Islamabad could speak English, my English was occasionally lacking. Even though I couldn’t eat from the local cuisine at first, I got used to it over time. Rather, the climate forced me. It was there that I saw how essential the ‘Qaylulah‘, the afternoon nap, was. This habit is not common in Turkey, but people in Pakistan rest by taking a powernap during the hot hours of the afternoon. The first year I needed that nap to withstand the climate too, but later on I did not need it that much.

There were frequent power cuts. I did not know exactly why it had started, but it must have been for economic reasons. It was seriously challenging for living comfort; because when the fans did not whirl, it was not possible to sleep in that heat. Moreover, the mosquitoes filled the room whenever we had to open the windows for some cool breeze. Lizards would freely roam the ceilings and we occasionally encountered mice in the dormitory.

How long did you stay in Islamabad?

I stayed for a year. I met my husband in the same year and we got married in Turkey during the summer vacation. My family had actually allowed me to go to Pakistan for only one year. They did not insist I should return when I got married. My husband had been teaching at the PakTurk School in Khairpur Mirs for four years then. Khairpur Mirs was one of the smallest cities where we had schools. It was difficult to get used to there after living in the capital of Pakistan. On our way back from Turkey, we could only take our basic needs, as there was a certain weight allowance on board. First, we landed in Karachi. From there we took the train to Khairpur Mirs. That was the first train ride in my life. When we got off the train, we were greeted with flowers. Both local and Turkish friends of my husband had come to the station. They placed garlands on our necks according to the regional traditions. They had also arranged a car for us. At that time, no one working at our school had a car. We stayed at Mrs. Rüveyda’s residence for a fortnight until we managed to rent a house of our own.

What was Khairpur Mirs like? People, beliefs and cultures change a lot according to geography, don’t they?

The weather and people are warmer there. “You weep when you come to Khairpur Mirs and you also weep while leaving!” they say. When you arrive there, you weep and say, “How will I be able to live here?”, and when it is time to leave, it is very hard to say goodbye. It really was so. The power outages there lasted longer than in other cities. It was getting harder and harder to hold on. Whenever the electricity went out, we used to wrap the frozen water bottles in towels and placed them on our faces to cool off even a bit.


The warmth of the climate was also reflected on the people; our students loved us very much. I took Math classes in the primary and the secondary school. I was also the form teacher and counsellor for the high school students. I never had a Hindu student before. I had two Hindu students in that school. One day, I invited my grade 10 students to my home for dinner. I had cooked a meat dish. The Hindu students asked me what meat it was; beef or mutton? They did not eat beef because they considered cows sacred. I was stunned at first as it was the first time I encountered that situation. I really did not know whether it was beef or mutton. I had roasted the meat purchased on that day. At my next receptions, I cooked vegetable-based dishes for those students. They were very smart kids. Both of them became medical doctors. They also showed great understanding with us. They never said, ‘Why are you eating something that is sacred to us?’ They participated in our mentoring programs. We had an atmosphere of tolerance. One of them loved to read. She even participated in the seerah reading competitions we used to organize in the school and got high scores.

How was your communication with students and parents? Do you have any memories of that warmth?

We had very sincere rapport with the students, but we could not have that with the parents. I had difficulties in communicating with parents because I did not know the local language. The parents mostly spoke Sindhi. I and Teacher Rüveyda would visit parents at their homes. I also understood the importance of the local language in reaching people there.

I was alone on one of those days when I was also new to Khairpur Mirs. Around 1 am, someone started knocking at the door loudly. I was afraid. I called my husband and asked him if he was expecting someone. ‘No,’ he said. Although the people there slept late at night since they slept during the day, it was a normal hour for them. Turned out, a local friend of my husband had gone to Karachi. He had bought pizza for us from there and brought it without waiting for the morning. There was no pizzeria in Khairpur Mirs. The locals were very considerate. They tried to alleviate our hardships and the challenges we faced in the city.

A mother who had enrolled all four of her children in our school when PakTurk Schools first opened in Khairpur Mirs said to us: “At first, I researched everything about the school. I checked my children daily and asked them what their teachers had told or asked them on any given day at the school. One day, when I went to pick up the children from school, I saw the Turkish teachers drinking something red from small glasses. I was shattered and said to myself in regret, “Oh my! How could I entrust my children to these teachers?” Turned out it was tea they were drinking. Later, when I met the principal’s wife, I learnt the fact about it from her.” We still have lasting friendships. The parents supported us by giving interviews to TV channels in our troubled times.

We were four families from Turkey and our interaction was impeccable. If one of the families had a guest, we would all try to host the guest by helping in cooking, baking or other arrangements. After working in Khairpur Mirs for a year, we moved to Lahore to work at the PakTurk Schools there. It was difficult for me to leave my friends in Khairpur Mirs, but for my husband, who had lived there for five years, it was more difficult to leave Khairpur Mirs and his colleagues behind.

To be continued…

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