Biology Teacher Züleyha Özşahin (2): If they said, ‘You can go to Pakistan again’, I would go there without a second thought

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Biology Teacher Züleyha Özşahin (2): If they said, ‘You can go to Pakistan again’, I would go there without a second thought

Züleyha Özşahin and her husband Mr. Zekeriya with their students.

We publish the second part of our interview with Züleyha Özşahin, a biology teacher who worked at the PakTurk Schools for 4.5 years. In this part, Özşahin narrated what Pakistan contributed to her world and what she went through during the leaving process.

In your opinion, what kind of a country is Pakistan in terms of its people, culture, food etc.? Can you tell us about the features that influenced you?

Pakistanis are very nice people by nature. They have a special love for us, that is, for everyone from Turkey. Moreover, by nature, they are very receptive for beauty. I love Pakistani people very much. I am very happy when I see someone from Pakistan or India here. They are very humble people. They are Muslims. When we tell them something about Islam, even if they know that better than we do, they never show it. They listen with interest as if they hear it for the first time. Whenever the azan was recited, I used to see people running to the mosque on the street. Women were always in traditional dress. I used to say, ‘What am I going to tell to these people? They already know everything’. They also had deep-seated social problems. Over time, you realized these as you lived there.

At first, we couldn’t get used to the bread and food in Pakistan. I baked bread at home for a year. Over time we got used to it all. Now I cook Pakistani food myself. For example, we used to go to eat nehari for breakfast. There is a snack called golkappa; my children loved it. Pakistan has really delicious and very good food, but it takes time for your taste buds to get used to it. Eventually, you become addicted to it. My kids want me to cook chicken cream handi. I bake nan or roti, which are like the Turkish lavaş bread, to go with the main course. We occasionally hold Pakistan evenings in this way. One of the things that surprised me was the way Pakistanis drank the tea with milk. One day, when I first went to the English course, the teacher prepared tea for all students. She added milk to that beautiful tea; I couldn’t believe it. It was the first time I saw milk being added to tea. I didn’t like milk anyway. I also didn’t like it when it was mixed with tea. I couldn’t say no to the offer and I forced myself to drink that first tea with milk. Afterwards, I requested my tea without milk. In time, my local friends got used to me too, they didn’t put milk in my tea.

How was your life in general? What did you experience that was challenging or felt good?

The most important thing that made life difficult there was the frequent power cuts. When the fan was not whirling, it was very difficult to live in that hot weather. At times the fans did not work during power cuts, we slept wrapped in wet sheets to cool off. I suffered more from the cold than the heat. In the first year, when we had just moved into our rented home, the weather was getting cold. Just then, the gas was cut. We could neither cook nor warm up. Houses in Pakistan are heated with natural gas heaters. Normally I am not bothered by the heat. I never complained about the heat there either. It was very difficult to stay in the cold. I asked local friends about how they were warming. They said when they turned off the fan, they felt warmer and they did not need a heater. It was very cold from November onwards. I don’t remember being so cold in my life.


We had a lot of trouble when there was no gas for a few days. I baked some food in the electric oven. I wrapped the kids in blankets to keep them warm. I will never forget that day. I suffered a lot and I was very sad. The children were cold and they were crying. On the one hand, they were saying, “Why on earth did we come here?” My husband came in the evening. On the way back from school, he bought a small gas cylinder and a burner head attached to it. When he turned the gas cylinder on, it turned into a virtual gas stove and heated the room. If my husband had given me a diamond ring at that moment, I would not have been so happy. It was worth the world for my husband to find such a solution in that desperation. I was really happy.

As four Turkish teacher families, we used to live in the upper and lower portions of two adjacent villas. Some gas arrived at a friend’s house and she had cooked soup. She called out to us, “Everybody come, I cooked soup!” We became so happy, because there was no gas and we could not cook soup in our homes. Later, we purchased small gas cylinders. We were cooking our food on one and warming up with another. During the orientation period, we didn’t know where to find what or how to solve our problems. Thankfully, our ordeals always passed somehow. The agony disappeared and the aftertaste remained.

What do you have of Pakistan with you? What did you learn there?

In Turkey, I taught at an exam prep and tutorial centre for years. My life had become routine. It was always clear what we were to do at what time of the year. There was no thrill in my Hizmet life anymore. You wish to be refreshed and undertake different tasks at different places. The first thing Pakistan gave me was enthusiasm. Even a million thanks do not come enough to express my gratitude for knowing the people of Pakistan and my students. I learned a lot of good things. I learned about the pure hearts of the Pakistani people. Getting to know the Pakistani culture and people has been one of the best things in my life. I thank Allah for that. I still love and miss my students very much. I am very happy when I talk to them. They share everything with me no different than sharing with their own mothers. I am grateful to be able to experience this warmth with them.

I also learned English there. It’s something that keeps my service going. I learned to drive. These are my personal achievements, but most importantly, I learned that the essence of Hizmet never ends, and that a person can serve under all circumstances, even in the most difficult times. Here, for example, when the corona pandemic struck and when it was said we would not be able to do anything anymore, I said “we can”. A person always finds a way to serve as long as he or she wishes.

If they said, ‘You can go back to Pakistan’, I would return there rushing. There’s a Paradise-like life there. Hizmet is the most exquisite and you take pleasure from the work you do. Now in Africa, I am not teaching. I and teacher colleagues jointly organize programs. I miss teaching.


When and how did you leave Pakistan? What did you experience during that difficult period?

In 2016, two weeks before the end of the semester, we were holding a meeting about the next summer vacation. Pakistani students were very nice, most of them liked to join the programs. That’s why we had a serious shortage of space. In the dormitory of the school, we were discussing heatedly with our teacher friends about whose students would come first and attend to the program. We were talking about the activities we would do. While we were in such a meeting environment, a parent phoned a friend in the meeting and said, “I’ve heard you are leaving. Are you leaving in three days?” “No!” replied our friend and said, “We are planning a program for your children. Why should we go somewhere?” Later, a parent called me and said she heard the same thing on the TV. I said, “It must be some fake news. We’re preparing for a program. When the lessons are over, we will hold activities to give the children some rest. We will show them around. We are not going anywhere, we are here.”

It turned out that such a decision had actually been taken. We were simply not aware of that. When the decision reached the school, everyone’s morale fell. Everyone was down and out. The weather in Pakistan is very beautiful and bright. Yet, it was as if everywhere around us went dark. That’s how I felt. I and my husband returned home, but we were confused. We could not eat. Our feelings were so mixed. We were extremely sad.

In the next morning, we went to the school. While getting out of the car, my husband sternly warned me, ‘You will never cry. You will stand upright’. I said ‘OK’, and I promised I would not cry. When I entered from the gate, my students left the assembly queue and started running towards me. When I saw them, I couldn’t help myself and I started to cry. They came to me. They hugged me and wept. I could not see around myself due to the students around me. “Teacher, don’t go! Don’t leave us!” they were saying. Of course, I was torn there. I couldn’t help myself and I burst into weeping. So did my colleagues. All the students went to their teachers, gathered in groups and cried. When our local colleagues saw us like this, they sent the students inside. This time, they hugged us and we wept together. We could not go upstairs. It was time to start the classes. We hugged and cried and entered the teachers’ room. We cried a little there too. When we wanted to wash our faces and go to the classrooms, we found the corridor was full. None of the students wanted to take the classes. Students cried and hugged us. Finally, we went to the classes. I wiped my tears and said, “Let’s start the lesson”. The students said, “What do you mean, ma’am? You are leaving!” “No, we will go when this lesson is over. Your exams will start in 1.5 weeks,” I said to them and we started the lesson. Meanwhile they wept and I shed tears as I taught.


Later, a student approached me and whispered to my ear, “My parents sent their greetings to you. Our village is far away. The police do not come there. We can hide you and your family there. My parents said, “They should never leave. They should never leave the country. We will hide them. They should never be afraid and feel worried.” I was torn there and I stopped the lecture. Soon, I gathered myself and continued. This time another student came and said to my ear, “Ma’am, my parents send their greetings. They say you should not leave. They say they will hide you and they do not wish to send you away.” I could not take it anymore. I collapsed and wept. The class wept with me.

None of our colleagues could teach on that day. We came out of our classes weeping. It was extremely agonizing, because I loved Pakistan a lot. Everyone loved Pakistan loved a lot. I never wished to be separated from my students and my colleagues. I love them all. In order not to affect students more and to let them study their exams, we never went to the school after a couple of days. We had to sell our household items within three days. Meanwhile, by a court decision, the three-day duration for our leave was extended to ten days.

How was the attitude of the people of Pakistan towards the incident?

On the second day we got the news, we got together with friends in the morning and tried to comfort one another. At that time, a student’s parents called me. When they heard the news, they travelled from their house 2.5 hours away and arrived in the school. I went to the school and the student’s mother hugged me. She said, “Ma’am, forgive us. This has not suited Pakistan. We shouldn’t have expelled our guests like that. Forgive us, may Allah forgive us!” and she wept. I said to her, “You have nothing to do with this, we know it. We are pleased with you and may Allah be pleased with you.” The woman suddenly took a ring off her finger and took my hand. She said, “Ma’am, accept this. All these things that happened has been weighing heavily on me. I am unable to do anything. If you do not take this, I will not forgive my personal rights on you.” She placed her gold ring on my finger. “We didn’t come here for this, please.” I said and I tried to give the ring back. “If you do not accept, I will be very upset. I will be offended,” she insisted. She did not allow me to take that ring off my finger. We said our goodbyes that way. Our students also prepared a program for us. We said goodbye to all of them. We left school after that. Shortly later, we were no longer allowed to enter the school premises.

We were trying to sell our belongings. Our local colleagues came and said, “We wish to buy your things.” Their status was obvious and their meagre salaries were obvious as well. May Allah be pleased with them. We sold everything even to the plates in the kitchen. In those days, a woman whom I did not know came to the house. She asked me why I was selling my household items. I explained what happened to us, starting with what had happened in Turkey. Thereupon, she said, “We heard from the news what was done to you. We are very sorry and we do not want you to leave. We sat down as a family, took a decision and found you.” She handed me an envelope. She turned to leave the house. I could not understand what happened. Confused, I opened the envelope. It was full of dollars. I called out to my husband, and he ran after them. He stopped their car. “Please take this envelope, we cannot accept this. We had not come here for this. May Allah accept your good deeds and intentions, but we cannot accept this” he said. The woman’s husband was in the car and he did not want to take the envelope back. My husband insisted on returning it and they did not accept it again. Eventually, my husband could drop the envelope into the car. They just left and never came back.

On the last day of the given period, the UNHCR’s one-year protection decision arrived and the means was there for us to stay in Pakistan for another year. We had already sold our items and our houses were empty. Our local colleagues, who heard that we were not leaving, brought back the things they had bought from us. “Ma’am, use these. You can give them back when you are about to leave,” they said.


You were suddenly unemployed. How did you deal with financial difficulties?

We tried to manage and economize the money we earned from the sold items. In those days, a parent came to me and said, “I need a Turkish teacher.” Actually, she did not need to learn Turkish, but since she knew we did not accept direct financial aid, she was trying to support me by taking lessons and paying me monthly. At that time, such things happened in terms of support. There were people who offered us their house and said, “You can stay here as long as you want without paying any rent” and there were those who cut the rent in half and offered their car for our use…

When it was certain we would not be immediately leaving, we bought the basic items as second-hand. Some items were brought back by those who had bought them from us.

You stayed there despite all the difficulties, but how did you finally decide to leave?

When we got up for the Prayer one morning, we learned that Mesut Kaçmaz and his family had been abducted. We were worried that those events would escalate. We also understood that we were under physical surveillance. There were people standing at the end of the street and watching us all the time. We were afraid of course, it was not clear what we would become, what harm they would do to us. One day, at noon, my friend, who lived in the same neighbourhood, called and said, “Six people came in three cars. They are waiting on us and forcing my husband. They are questioning him. Can Brother Zekeriya come?” My husband left to attend to the issue, but it turned out those men were actually looking for my husband.

That friend sent her children to my home. The children were not so young and they could understand everything. They kept on crying. I consoled them. Meanwhile, my son had gone and took the photos of the vehicles. The operatives told my husband, “We were searching for you indeed!” They not only handcuffed him from the back but also blindfolded and hooded him. I was outside the house and I saw my husband in that state. I had a prayer bead in my hand and I held it towards the men who were toting large guns in their hands and said, “You will surely meet your match!” I was hysterical and in shock. I was also praying under my breath, “O Allah! I trust him to You and I refer the oppressors to You!” I later learnt they had tortured my husband for five hours.

My elder son was lost and inconsolable in the house. He smashed things saying, “They took Dad! He will never come back. They left us fatherless!” He was furious and he started harming himself. Later, a brother came and took my sons along to spend some time with them. It felt as if a corpse had just left the house for its funeral. I did not know what to do. Later, we applied to the UNHCR for a legal counsel and went with her to the police department. I gave the police officers the numberplates of the abductors’ vehicles. The officers were extremely surprised. The person with whom we talked made us wait while he called some people. Later, he said, “They said they would bring your husband back.” Thereupon, we returned home. Just as we were about to enter the house, my husband got off from a vehicle. He could not stand or walk properly. He was aching everywhere. He was beaten on his body and head so much that every part of his body ached. He could resist the pain by medication. Later, he went to a hospital and received a battery-and-assault report. He also took the Ministry of Interior Affairs to court. He visited the UNHCR office and explained his ordeal to the officials there. Despite everything we had experienced, we did not wish to leave Pakistan. Yet, we had to leave in December 2017.

I can’t forget Pakistan. Our students were brilliant. Pakistanis are very nice people as well. They were very supportive to us. I told them, “You, the people of Pakistan, have passed a test. You won, but your leaders lost.” I am pleased, so may Allah be pleased with the people of Pakistan. I pray Allah protects them against torture and grants them beauty. Our students used to ask us, “Why did you come here? There are also schools in your own country, you could have worked there too.” Whenever they said so, we used to tell them that we came to Pakistan with a feeling of homage for the emotional support Allama Muhammad Iqbal gave to our country before and during the World War 1 by encouraging aid and financial support and as an homage to the people of the Subcontinent who donated all what they had for the benefit of their brothers and sisters in need. We used to tell our students, “We came here to pay homage to the generations envisioned by Muhammad Iqbal.” I think it is necessary to show the real trueheartedness and homage once this process is over. Indeed, the people of Pakistan deserved it. As soon as these stifling events are over and when it is possible for us to return to Pakistan, we need to display true loyalty by going there and restarting the services.



Part One: 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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