In this part of our interview, PakTurk Schools English teacher Fatma Öksüzer narrates the process of her departure from Pakistan, the ordeals they went through, where and how she continues her life now, and how she feels.
What kind of a country is Pakistan in terms of people, culture, food etc? Which aspects affected you the most?
Pakistan is a very colourful and beautiful country. People are humble, hospitable, kind-hearted and generous. I have never seen such generous people in my life. Allah has bestowed them with this trait. It is a very beautiful culture with its food, weddings, dances, different clothes and jewellery, and marketplaces. My daughter loved the local glass bracelets. It was a paradise for us. There is so much to see there. My dream is still to visit places in Pakistan I have not seen.
There we learned something new every day. It was a place where we rejoiced and which made our eyes sparkle. My husband cooked a Pakistani-style meal here one day. Kids loved it. Fortunately, we can find Pakistani food here. My husband also cooks if he finds the ingredients. He’s better and more curious about food than me. It’s like Pakistani food takes us straight there. When we smell those spices in Indian markets, we feel as if we got transported to Pakistan. When we see a Pakistani person, we are happy as if we saw someone from our own country. I had a hard time for 3-5 months until I got used to the English accent in Pakistan. Coming here, the accent here forced me. When I heard someone speaking with a Pakistani accent in the market, I wanted to know her immediately.
There is a snack called golgappa. A friend shared its photo. I said, ‘I wish we had it right now and here’ when I saw it. It was very spicy, but we got used to it and we loved it. We now look forward to have the foods we ate while shedding tears during our first six months. My kids wouldn’t go to school without drinking doodh patti (tea with milk) and eating paratha (a buttery and layered flatbread like katmer in Turkey) every morning. At school, they would eat paratha in the nursery with their caretakers. Even here they still want it, and I prepare it. They don’t forget Pakistan. We always have Pakistan in our house, in our talk, and on our table.
How were the repercussions of the oppression on the Hizmet Movement in Turkey after July 15, 2016 felt in Pakistan? What did you experience?
We initially felt little because the Pakistani officials used to tell us, “It’s okay, relax, go on with your job”. In the 2016-2017 academic year, we continued both with the academic and the counselling activities. We experienced no problems until the last stage. One day I did not go to school for the first time. I was sick, so I had taken leave to stay at home. My mother called, “Dear, there’s a ticker text on the TV saying, ‘Turkish teachers in Pakistan will be expelled from the country and the schools will be closed’.” I knew nothing. “Oh, come on! Everything’s okay and we continue” I replied. I even joked with my mother, “Even so, I’m sick and I can’t leave the house, how on earth will I be able to get out of the country?”
But an hour later, our school counsellor Mrs. Ayşegül came. She said the government ordered us to leave the country within three days. When everything was going well, this was a sudden bombshell. Suddenly, our lives were turned upside down. We didn’t know where we would go. Everyone tried to find a solution for themselves.
“THIS IS AN ASSISTANCE MY FATHER SENT TO ‘HIS SISTER’”
The next day I went to school. My students, whose classes I took for only one year, were weeping and I burst into tears. I attended the class, but I was not in the mood to teach. Those three days passed in weeping and sobbing. After school, we were going home and selling the household stuff. Parents and local teacher colleagues bought the items, from bed sheets to plates, to help us. The parents and students were very supportive all the way. Some were not financially strong and they didn’t visit our home to buy anything, but they brought fruits and rice. They supported not only us but other Turkish teacher families. We even sold and distributed our children’s toys. My daughter saw someone buying an old toy of hers. It was as if her world had collapsed. She cried so much, saying, “Did they buy my toy too?” While she was crying, her father and I cried too. My husband wept and kept on saying, “My dear, I will buy you a better one”. There were parents in our house. When they saw us in that state, they wept too. We all cried for an old toy that day with my daughter. We were so moved that, even if it was small or old, it was a part of our child’s world.
Those benevolent people bought our household items just to help us, even though they did not need them. They spread the message in their social circles and relatives so they could come and buy things. We visited the parents of a student taught by my husband. I saw that lady for the first time in my life. She brought me a bracelet. I wept and said, “No, please, I won’t take it,’ and she insisted, “No, you will.’ We wrangled like that for about an hour. She was a woman of dominant character. Finally, she said, “I’m older than you, and you will take this.” I said to her, “My husband won’t let me. I can’t accept it,” but in vain. “You are in a tough situation. It is not clear where you are going,” she said insistently. In another incident, the father of one student had sent me money in an envelope with his daughter. I did not receive it and I said, ‘I can’t accept it.’ The girl said, “This is an assistance sent by my father to his ‘sister’.” ☹
Maybe I couldn’t establish deep ties with them. I had just arrived in the country and I couldn’t meet them often. I couldn’t guide them enough, but people valued me even with that much.
Did you leave at the end of those three days?
We were told that we might consider going to Kenya first. I prepared a suitcase according to a hot country. Later, some said that we might be destined for Europe. This time I tried to prepare a suitcase suitable for the cold climate. Everything changed all the time. At the end of those three days, we visited the UNHCR to extend the deadline. They issued us a one-year UN-protection certificate, but we still lived as ready to leave. We didn’t buy new things unless they were necessary to replace the items we had sold. This was our psyche. We couldn’t settle in and we couldn’t leave. We couldn’t decide on anything. Some friends would leave in time and we would vacate their house and dispose their household items.
Later, the Kacmaz family was abducted. We were also cautioned to leave our homes. We took our essential things and left home, but we did not know where to go. We ended up in a farmhouse with 30 families. Some were weeping, some were in prayer, and some were in discussion … Everyone was busy in something. It was impossible to sleep in that crowd. We were told that we should perform the morning prayers and leave there. We called the parents around 5 in the morning. They said, “Most welcome, do come to us,” and we took another family along with us to there. After three days, we moved to another parent’s place. After a week like this, we returned home. Everyone was waiting. We thought, “Maybe the problems will be solved and we will not have to go.” My daughter’s passport would soon be expired. Even though we didn’t want to go anywhere else, we had to. It hurt our consciences we decided to leave by ourselves. Yet, we finally left Pakistan on October 1, 2017 and arrived in Africa.
WE HAD MANY THINGS TO DO; ALLAH WILL HAVE IT COMPLETED SOMEHOW
This time, my parents wanted us to return to Turkey. They were very upset about what happened. They heard much slander from people in the village against the participants of the Hizmet Movement. I heard my father had said, “I wish I hadn’t let her become educated so she could have stayed by my side”. I was very sad to hear these. My mother kept on saying, “I no longer consent for you being away. Come back! Instead of being a traitor, be locked in a jail in front of my eyes and I will be content!” It was as if she had lost her insight. “If your husband is not coming, leave him and come here,” she said. It was very sad to hear this. My mother wasn’t the type to say this. However, the influence of the community and the negative propaganda in the media also affected them.
You went to a difficult country like Pakistan to teach while your child suffered from health problems, but you had to leave in a short time. Can we say that your dreams are left unfulfilled?
What’s left unfinished and unfulfilled and what cuts us deep is not having taught longer. I still do my best to give those in my circle as much as I can, but my dream of teaching was left unfulfilled. I want to continue to develop myself with love, enthusiasm and eagerness.
My child was not sick when he went there. He was healed, but it was not clear how his development would be. Pakistan and Afghanistan were easy places for me. Pakistan was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It was a very beautiful place with its greenery, nature, people and culture. Hopefully I can go there again for sightseeing, if not for settling there.
I could teach there for only one year. When someone goes to a different country, they can only get used to it in such a short time. I started teaching at the school three days after my arrival there. You love it as you get used to it, and you get used to it as you love it. The first year passed like this. Our dreams were left half finished with the troubles we experienced and the fact that we had to leave. Something is left unfinished when someone leaves not by their own will but by the coercion of someone else. We had a lot to do, but our Lord Allah Almighty had bestowed us with this much of that favour. Maybe it was better and more auspicious this way, we don’t know. I still keep in touch with my students. Our local teacher colleagues were precious. Even if we spent little time with one another, still people call and ask about our well-being. Even if it is unfinished, Allah Almighty will make it completed somehow. I believe in this.
THEY NEVER MADE OURSELVES FEEL ALIEN OR REDUNDANT
I had only teaching as my aspiration in life. For us it was the profession of the prophets. It was like we could not breathe without teaching; this is what I’ve also been feeling for the last three years. I always worked; even when I was pregnant, during postpartum, and when my child was sick. Hence, I served. My children are grown now. One is 7 and the other is 10 years old. Staying at home when I would serve thoroughly and teach to the fullest, this is what’s left unfinished. This is my Lord’s grace for now. Yet, whenever I pass by a school or go to the children’s school to pick them up, I feel as if I am a teacher there; then, I see I am not. A tight lump sits in my throat and my eyes water. It’s a peculiar feeling.
Every morning, I was in a hurry to leave my daughter in the kindergarten and my son in the baby room. They would not want to leave me, so they used to cry. I miss even that rush. When I left the children, I would go down to the morning assembly. The whole school would start the day by reciting verses from the Qur’an. Later, the national anthems were sung. Those moments of pride felt like nothing else.
If you started a sentence by saying “What’s left in me from Pakistan”, what would you say to complete it?
It was very nice to witness that cultural richness. Even the top-ranked officials or people with coveted professions there were very humble and warm to everyone. It was something we did not observe everywhere. Our landlord and his family were very nice, elite, and humble people. The landlady would bring food and we would sit and chat. We never hesitated in relating to people there. We didn’t think if they got us wrong or got angry. We were comfortable. They were like us and we were like them. They never made us feel alien or redundant. It is very nice to continue the friendships we forged there. The best thing left in me from Pakistan is my students. One student is studying at a university in Islamabad and the other is studying in the UK. It makes me happy to see how far they have achieved.
We were happy when we made the students happy. We existed as we served them. This was a different emotion and ideal, a unique source of happiness. Even if we did something that seemed unimportant for us, it was very important in their realm. This was why they elevated us in their opinions and conducts. If I bought something for them, they would notice it if I hadn’t bought the same for myself. Whatever I explained to them, they would look me in the eye and listen with their hearts. When you witness these, you feel valued. We were there to serve. Yet, it was not clear whether we helped them or were being helped. It revealed they were actually our cure.
How are you living your life right now?
I am trying to continue teaching every day of my last 3.5 years by missing my students. I am at home, not working. As if school was my source of breathing, I appreciated it better when I lost it. It showed teaching was my source of happiness. I felt these so deeply. I cried a lot in the first year and I struggled to return to teaching. Allah Almighty blessed me with the favour to teach right after the university, but there was such a thing as not remaining a teacher. It’s a very peculiar feeling. I say ‘I am not a homemaker; I am a teacher’ but I cannot teach in person. I feel like my wings have been clipped. I’m a little used to it now. There are platforms where I volunteer as a teacher. I teach English on online channels. Even this motivates me so much.
I MISSED SITTING AND CHATTING IN THE PARK WITH MY STUDENTS
My husband tried to find jobs that could keep me busy. I attended fundraising bake sales and bazaars, and prepared Turkish-culture specific items like breakfasts and baklava etc. Nothing was as sweet and beautiful as teaching. I left them all halfway. This was because our objective in teaching is not just to make money. Since I chose this profession as the profession of the Prophet, I could put nothing in its place yet.
Even if I went to the most beautiful place in the world – and the country where I live is such a place – I considered myself as “useless” because I could not solve a student’s problem. Being a teacher made me feel valued.
Even though this country is a more beautiful and richer country, it is not a place where I feel comfortable like I did in Pakistan. It is not a place where I am happy, where I can comfortably go wherever I want, where I can chat comfortably, meet and think. I miss walking wherever I want, take a taxi and go wherever I want. I miss the relief of sitting and chatting with students or sisters in the park until the night. I miss being able to live without hesitation and fear.
As a person who lived in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I did not know what an insecure country was. This country is more insecure than there. I felt it here. For example, there is no walking place, everyone travels in their car. When I came here, my sister had said, “You’ve finally gone to a decent place.” I told her, “Pakistan was a thousand times more beautiful to me than here. I miss Pakistan so much.”
In Pakistan, we knew no harm would come from ordinary people. Even though people had meagre incomes, they had the fear of Allah in themselves. Here we have to constantly warn our children, “Don’t let go of my hand”. Lots of children are abducted here. Children grew up more comfortably in Pakistan. Even in the markets teeming with beggars, we would not need to protect children so much. Once when I insisted here to my daughter by saying, “Don’t let go of my hand”, she said, “Then why did we come here?” I can never forget that. All outlets are closed after 5 pm around here. We could be out until midnight in Pakistan. Joint iftars and dinners, performing the tarawih prayers with khatm-e-Qur’an… it was beautiful. That feeling of confidence and comfort was something else.