Biology teacher Züleyha Özşahin (1): Getting to know Pakistani culture and people was one of the best things in my life

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Biology teacher Züleyha Özşahin (1): Getting to know Pakistani culture and people was one of the best things in my life

Züleyha Özşahin (third from left) and her beloved students.

Züleyha Özşahin is a teacher in love with her profession. When she was still a high school student, she dreamed of going abroad for teaching, but she had to wait many years for that. After teaching in Turkey for 15 years, she finally arrived in Pakistan. Yet, there was one big obstacle between her and her students: English! Teacher Züleyha worked hard day and night to learn English and meet her students as soon as possible.

She became a student again and within a year she learned English well enough to teach in that language. She embraced her students with great enthusiasm and love, as if she were just starting her career. We talked to Züleyha Özşahin about her 4.5 years of life in Pakistan, the students she never could forget and what she went through during the coerced separation process.

Biology teacher Züleyha Özşahin (1):

Getting to know Pakistani culture and people was one of the best things in my life

Züleyha Özşahin is a teacher in love with her profession. When she was still a high school student, she dreamed of going abroad for teaching, but she had to wait many years for that. After teaching in Turkey for 15 years, she finally arrived in Pakistan. Yet, there was one big obstacle between her and her students: English! Teacher Züleyha worked hard day and night to learn English and meet her students as soon as possible.

She became a student again and within a year she learned English well enough to teach in that language. She embraced her students with great enthusiasm and love, as if she were just starting her career. We talked to Züleyha Özşahin about her 4.5 years of life in Pakistan, the students she never could forget and what she went through during the coerced separation process.

Şemsinur Özdemir

-May you briefly describe your life before going to Pakistan? Where are you from? How was your education life?

In the early 1990s, when I was attending to the Bafra High School, I decided to wear a headscarf. Together with my sister and a friend, we were three students at the school who wore headscarves. It was not possible to attend to the high school while wearing a headscarf in those days. We used to remove our headscarves before entering the school premises, but we still were subjected to an investigation. Bafra High School was known for its very strict stance in that respect. We could not enter the school premises with our heads covered. Teachers were very strict. At that time, I started to hear about the private Turkish schools  abroad. At that time, I had a desire to teach abroad. In 1993, I qualified in the university exam to be placed in the Teaching of Biology undergraduate degree program at the Erzurum Atatürk University. I spent the best years of my life in Erzurum. We used to organize spiritual programs in very beautiful places. It was like I was living in a different world. I would not wish to go home even on holidays.

Towards the end of my university education, the February 28 phase started in Turkey and we suffered a lot. The dormitories where we stayed were raided by officials in the middle of the night. I graduated from the university in 1997.

-Where did you start teaching?

After graduation, I worked in a primary school for a year. Later, I got married. I started teaching at a tutorial and university preparation course. Our first place of duty with my husband was Artvin. I was both an administrator and a teacher. For 15 years, I worked in different cities, always in private tutorial and university preparation courses. We were in Istanbul for five years before leaving for Pakistan.

I USED TO WEEP WHILE WATCHING THE TURKISH OLYMPIADS

-This duration surprised me as you were a person who very much wished to go abroad. Why didn’t you go abroad before?

I used to weep loudly while watching the Turkish Olympiads every year. Yes, I wanted to go abroad and I would always insist on this to my husband. Nobody came to us and asked, ‘Do you want to go abroad?’ I listened to an older sister who came from a far country. She was telling about that country and saying, “There is no flour, no salt, and no sugar there!” She spoke of other difficulties she had experienced. I’m also an avid tea drinker. I also used to drink it with sugar back then. I cried while listening to those stories. “How will I ever go and live there if there is no sugar!” I asked myself. However, there was no plan at all. My desire to go abroad was truly an unstoppable feeling, though.

When we came to Istanbul, we heard that there were annual interviews held by overseas schools every year and they would employ those who wished to go abroad. We also attended one of such interviews in our first year in Istanbul. We were also accepted by a chain of schools from a country, but the director of our institution in Istanbul did not let us leave. We were also not allowed in the following years either. I was even told, ‘If you’re bored, let’s change your place of duty’. I just wanted to teach abroad. On the other hand, I was mentoring my students who decided to have their higher education abroad. I was telling them how lucky they were. I used to say to them, ‘I can’t go even if I wish to.’ We used to sit and weep together.

-How did you finally convince the administration?

In 2013, during our fifth year in Istanbul, we applied again for an overseas teaching post. The director general of our institution did not give permission again. We were driving home in the car when my husband told me this. I wept so much that I said, ‘Why on earth am I found not worth for that?’ My husband could not bear to see me like that, took a U-turn, and drove back to talk to the director general again. I was waiting in the car crying. My husband told the director general, “Do something, I am no longer able to stop my wife!”

All my friends knew I wished to go abroad very much and that I always had that dream. They used to say to us, ‘You are so delusional. What can they do with you there? You don’t know English. How will you teach? It is not possible for you to go abroad.’ That day, while I was waiting for my husband, I received a text from a friend of mine. She texted me one of Hazrat Usman (r.a)’s words: “Allah does not put in anyone’s heart the love of what He will not bestow,” it read. It was pure synchronicity. I thought Allah Almighty was telling me, Keep asking, I will grant it to you’. At that moment, my sadness was gone. I was very happy. A week later, we received the news that we were going to Pakistan.

-What kind of preparations did you make before you set off? Did you do any search on the country?

My husband and I were so happy. I was browsing the Internet to search what kind of place Pakistan was, images of bombing events would show everywhere. It’s actually a very nice place, but there’s always bad news on the Internet. We tried not to show the children that negative information, but it was not possible. They had access to the computer and made their own searches. We told them that there were beautiful houses and villas there, and they got a little more excited. I have three sons. They were 7, 9, and 13 years old respectively when we were bound for Pakistan.

-When did you go to Pakistan? What were your first impressions?

We landed in Islamabad at the end of August 2013. It was a very hot period. The first thing that caught my attention was the steam hitting my face and the smell of spices that prevailed everywhere. Years later, when I was walking down an alley and felt that smell, I was so happy that I said, “My God, it smells like Pakistan!”. Turns out there was a Pakistani family living nearby. There was a grassy place near the airport. I’ve seen men sleeping in the open. You could see people sleeping in the open; in parks, streets, roadsides, etc. in Pakistan.

I SAID ‘I WON’T LET THE DEVIL PUT THOSE FEELING INTO MY HEART’

We were going to learn English during our first year anyway. There was such a project that year. My husband had undergone a surgery two weeks before we left. We had to leave before he was fully recovered. We stayed in the school’s guesthouse until we found a house in Pakistan. We could not eat the local food. Now we are used to it, we eat it very fondly, even here we go to the Pakistani restaurants. At the first time, it seemed different to us.

When we got to our own house, we went shopping to the marketplace. My husband went to buy something and I was waiting for him alone. I looked around; it was a place full of different people whose language I could not understand. For a moment, a very negative feeling passed through me. ‘It’s like an open-air prison, you are stuck here.’ I was filled with a terrible feeling that I would never be able to leave that country. I immediately recited salawaat and said to myself, “O Allah! I wished to go abroad so much and I will not allow the devil to put these involuntary thoughts in my heart.” I gathered myself.

We rented a house and started to buy household items. My husband was not fully healed and his wound had inflammation. When it started to bleed, he was taken to the hospital and operated on again. After we settled in our house, I and my husband started our English course. We were all students at home. The children were taking additional classes at school. We were all trying to learn English together.

-Did your children have difficulty in adapting?

The children had a lot of trouble both because they did not know English and because of some general practices; they had a hard time getting used to it. For example, there was a water dispenser at the school. Next to it was a glass. All children would use the same glass. Our kids were not used to it. They were thirsty during the day. I bought them plastic cups. They carried it in their bags. A boy came and wanted to take the glass from his hand. My son did not give it, but he also could not say ‘this is my glass’ because he could not speak English. At first, they were upset about such things.

-What kind of study techniques did you apply to learn English at an advanced level to use in teaching?

I am in love with the teaching profession. Before I arrived in Pakistan, they had told me that I had to learn English to be eligible for teaching to a class. “You send me abroad, I will study and learn,” I had said to them. I actually studied at nights until the morning after the children went to bed. Later, I started sitting in actual classes at the school like a student. Friends would lecture up to 21 periods a day, I would listen to lectures for 25 hours. I was observing all Biology and English classes. I used to sit in the canteen, study and practice teaching. I would go into the Biology Lab and teach there for hours as if I was teaching to a class full of students. I remember teaching the same subject to an empty class dozens of times. At first, my English proficiency was low and I was not able to teach something even for 10 minutes consecutively. A time came and I was able to teach for 40 minutes without an interruption. There was a Pakistani teacher at the school. He was an elderly retired person who received his education in England, wrote a textbook and even served in senior positions at local education institutions. He observed my teaching for evaluation. In the last lesson, he said, “I saw that you strived really hard. Now you are ready to take classes.”

THEY ASSIGNED ME 52 STUDENTS, WHO WERE ALL SWEET LIKE HONEY

I was on cloud nine, my feet would not touch the ground: ‘I have succeeded, now I am a teacher!’ I was going to teach at the Girls College in Islamabad but they did not give me a class right away. I was told that I needed to work a little more. It was the end of the first semester. All the teachers and administrators of the school came to listen to me for the last time. Finally, it was said, “Okay, you can take classes”. While everyone had 35 students, they assigned me 52 students from the 7th grade. They were so sweet, like honey, I loved them so much. They still call me on the phone.

-How was your communication with your students? Can you tell us about your unforgettable memories?

I was trying to spend time with all 52 students in turns and to have one-on-one meetings. All my breaks were dedicated to my students. The students were learning Turkish very well at the school. We had no communication problems. We did not speak English except for lessons so that their Turkish could improve. When I was going to suggest them a book, I used to ask them in which language they wanted to read it. They wanted Turkish books. We used to organize programs by dividing them into groups four days a week apart from the lessons. It had become a routine with the students. Whenever I stepped into the school premises, they all used to run towards me and embrace me. We really had a very differently intimate relationship. I loved them like my own daughters. I learned how to write ‘shaabash’, the Urdu equivalent of ‘well done’, from a friend. Whenever I used to check the students’ notebooks, I used to write ‘shaabash’. They all would say. ‘Ma’am, write on my copy too!’. They used to keep those as mementos. One day, I wore their traditional dress, the shalwar kameez, and went to school. When I entered the classroom, they greeted me with an applause and cheered. They really liked things like this. I used to hold competitions in class and say ‘if you are successful, I will take you home’. This motivated them a lot, they competed to visit my house and spend time together. One day I took three of my students to my home. “Let’s prepare dessert together,” I said to them. They were very happy, but they messed up the kitchen by throwing flour at each other. I just let them be happy. They both kneaded dough and made desserts and had fun. When they came to visit when we were about to leave Pakistan, they said, “Ma’am, we cannot forget that day in the kitchen!”

We used to recite the tasbihat (voluntary supplications) with the children after the Prayer. They said to me, ‘Ma’am, we also have supplications which we recite after each Prayer. They used to recite the Asma-e-Husna, the 99 Divine Names of Allah, then. I used to say, “It’s wonderful, let’s recite it again,” and we would recite it again. They liked it very much.

I had a Buddhist student. She would participate in all our activities and attend to our spiritual programs. She was a very pure natured girl. She told me one day, “I don’t believe in an invisible God like you. Our god is in a room inside our house,” and asked, “But if you come to visit, will you eat at our house?” I replied, “Of course, I’ll come to you and I’ll have dinner with you too.” Even hearing this was very important to her, she became very happy. When we had to leave soon after that conversation, I was not able to visit her at her house.

I ALSO TAUGHT STUDENTS HOW TO BAKE BÖREK

When we were to hold a program after school, that girl insisted on participating. I told her we would both read books and worship according to our own faith. She still wished to come. She was involved in all our activities; we recited the Qur’an and talked about spiritual matters, and she listened to all of those. I heard that Nepali girl later left the school, but I still pray for her.

The students loved eating börek, the Turkish-style flat pastry or pie. One day at school, they wanted to bake mince pies with me. Of course, when you have 52 students, you have to make a lot of baking. I prepared the mince filling in a large pot. I bought many packets of phyllo dough. I also taught the kids how to make börek. Since she did not eat meat, I also prepared cheese pies for my Buddhist student, and all students ate together. Later that student said, “Teacher, I do not eat meat, but I have a brother. We feed him meat because he needs it. Can I have some börek for him?” “Of course!” I said and packed some for her.

One of the things that impressed me the most was greeting the children by saying ‘as-salaam alaikum!‘ when I entered the class. They would always respond in unison by saying ‘wa alaikum as-salaam!‘ and we would start the day by reading some verses from the Qur’an in the assembly. For five minutes, the inside of the school would resonate with the voice of the Qur’an recitation. We would start the day by listening to the Qur’an every morning and with that motivation. This greeting and recitation of the Qur’an had a very good effect on the atmosphere of the class.

There is the phrase ‘Khuda-e-Zuljalal’ (denoting Allah with His Divine Name ‘Zuljalal’) at the end of the Pakistani national anthem and, when the anthem gets there, everyone bows their heads in respect. The students would do the same thing at the end of the Turkish national anthem. When I asked them why, they said, “Doesn’t the word ‘Allah’ appear in your anthem?” I said it was mentioned in the earlier lines.

-There were Pakistani teachers at the school as well, right? Were you able to do joint activities with them outside the school?

We had great friendships with the local teachers. Sometimes we had one-on-one meetings, sometimes collectively. In my first year, it was difficult for me to chat with them on common topics because my English needed improvement. I wanted to be able to talk when we got together. I found a book on spirituality in English for that. From there, I would choose certain segments and memorize them. Later I would go to my friends and ask, ‘I’m going to tell you about a subject. May you listen to me and point at the places where I am wrong?’ At last, I would tell the teachers the story I memorized. They would listen to me and at the end they would say, ‘Ma’am, we really need to observe the Prayer’. 😊 I would become so happy. I was trying to find different ways of explaining issues in that way.

Sometimes I invited them to my house. They loved Turkish food; they would all attend to my invitations. We used to make Turkish-style ravioli together. We would chat afterwards. When it was time for them to leave, I used to tell them about the Turkish tradition of ‘tooth rent’ and would give them small gifts for their visit. Good things were happening really. However, all my friends were doing similar things; it was nothing special to me. This is why these do not seem to me as extra favours done to others.

-Were you able to communicate with the parents of the students?

We were in close contact with the parents. I once invited three parents to my house. We went into the kitchen together. I did not treat them like guests. It was a natural environment: We prepared and cooked everything together. We chatted together while the dishes were baking in the oven. We opened a book and read the First Word, from The Words of the Risale-i Nur Collection. They loved the theme so much. They said, ‘We wish we could read these too’. We prayed together, we held our hands in prayer, and we recited supplications. In fact, one of them was very impressed; she wept and said, “I wish to learn about these truths too.” I gifted them prayer booklets. We continued such meetings in the following weeks. Our numbers also increased, but it did not last long. When troubles arose, we had to leave the country.

Sometimes I visited them at their houses. They had a tradition which I found very interesting. They used to receive me in the bedroom. At first, I found that strange, but in fact, that was considered as an indication that they valued the guest. They received you as a guest at the privy chambers of their houses.

To be continued…

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