Education volunteer Sevda Arslan (2): If we went to Pakistan again, we would love to live in Peshawar as a family

Education volunteer Sevda Arslan (1): I learned to live together in Pakistan without judging people
October 5, 2021
Education volunteer Sevda Arslan (3): My children wish their ties with Pakistan to continue, my daughter considers becoming a citizen there
October 7, 2021

Education volunteer Sevda Arslan (2): If we went to Pakistan again, we would love to live in Peshawar as a family

Sevda Arslan (second from left) at the opening of a kermis at the PakTurk School in Peshawar.

In the second part of our interview with Sevda Arslan, an education volunteer who lived in Pakistan for 13 years, we relate the memories in Lahore and Peshawar. Arslan narrates the effects of the social activities and reading programs they organized with Pakistani ladies.

How was your rapport with Pakistani ladies? What were you doing together?

Each culture has a different habit. We used to invite the ladies in our neighbourhood and around us to our homes. Everyone would help prepare the treats. While accepting guests to our homes, we prioritized helping one another with collective spirit and sense of cooperation. At first, most ladies we had invited did not come, I guess they were not used to being invited just on their own. Over time, we realized guests were invited in groups there. It was considered if a few people did not show up, the invitation would still be honoured by enough number of guests. Sometimes we as friends would feel bitter, saying, ‘Wonder why they didn’t come, though we had prepared so many treats!’ We kept our hopes alive and phoned each guest and invited them privately. We used to say, “I’m preparing something special for you today.” Our guests, invited in this way, responded to our invitations.

Turns out we didn’t know the right manner to invite; so, we learned it. We learned about the habits, cultural backgrounds and sensitive points of our guests. People routinely took naps on noon, and it was considered inappropriate to visit anyone at their homes around noon. Earlier, I would sometimes go at noon or invite my guests to lunches. One day, a friend asked, “Don’t you follow qaylula?” A nap is needed in that geography. We learned these over time. We got used to it as well. You have to get used to sleeping at noon to remain fit. Life gets tough in that hot climate. Markets are not always open. Those people can’t do some things because it’s hard to beat the heat. Climate, temperature, dust, and air pollution affect life a lot. They found solutions in their own style, but we were convinced we would disrupt their routine by trying to adapt them to our way of doing things.

We endeavoured to explain to the local people what they could do to support the schools and the students financially and morally. We thought, ‘We may ask for scholarships for poor students’. We had a hard time at first because our Pakistani friends were not used to that. We used to organize get-togethers and ask them “Would you consider giving scholarships to students with slim means?” but it would not bring much response. When we understood requesting in groups did not work, we made one-on-one home visits and asked them for scholarships to be given to deserving students in need. They responded positively and gave scholarships. Some said “I can sponsor 11 schoolchildren” and some said “I can support 7”. Teachers visited distant villages to find smart schoolchildren who had limited financial means but wished to have education. Even though they lived far from the city and technological means, those students were pure both in mind and character. We used to tell our acquaintances, “We meet the needs of deserving students in need, but there are times when our means are not enough. Would you like to support them and help them financially?” Our friends supported the students in true sense. That was how it all started. Ladies met the needs of student houses and dormitories with serious interest and dedication.

It turns out that was a period of preparation for the looming troubles. People acknowledged and supported educational services. I find it very significant when women provided financial and moral support to academic and wisdom activities. Pakistan is actually a matriarchal society. Ladies call the shots at homes. Although it looks patriarchal from the outside, I think it is not. Although in some regions girls are married as early as 17 or 18, they continue their education afterwards. There are those who graduate from the high school and university after they get married and have children. Even if they work nowhere, there are many who wish to complete their education. We have a lot to learn from them.


In the early days, our schools were not very prominent in the education sector. Our school buildings were repurposed from villa-type residences and – in terms of competition – there were many schools across the country with large campuses and recognition as high-quality institutions. Although they did not educate their children in our schools, there were ladies who provided financial and moral support to the students in our schools. Giving scholarships, they believed our schools breathed new life into the education system in Pakistan. I consider this a very valuable commendation.

How was their approach to the “Hizmet Movement” and the educational activities?

There were times we listened to the English-subtitled sermons of Fethullah Gülen Hodjaefendi with Pakistani ladies. They were aware of the discourse of a scholar in these sermons, succinctly explaining how problems in society could be solved. All were educated and experienced ladies. A friend had said: “You may not be aware of it, but this scholar is very different from the others. His perspective on matters is very different.”

Sevda Arslan (left first) at a picnic with the parents of PakTurk students.

I am an Imam Hatip High School graduate and I disliked the stereotypical and rote discourses there. The Hizmet Movement was manifestly distinctive. Whenever we visited the student houses, we would find even the decoration of those houses remarkable. They were modestly furnished and everything was in its place, clean and tidy. The fact the university students staying in those houses were students of applied sciences like physics and chemistry and the way they provided examples from those sciences while telling us the facts of our faith connected us there. They provided us the best guidance for our time, they instilled in us evergreen things. Maybe we also need to renew our understanding of guidance and counselling in this time. We tell to others as we were told, maybe that’s why we face occasional hardships.

Our looks seemed strange at first to some of our Pakistani friends. When we first met, some even asked, “Are you Muslim?” The fact our husbands went to Friday in suits roused reactions in some places, there were some who even said “You cannot do this way!” For those who considered the length of one’s beard directly proportional to the depth of his or her Islamic practice, it looked strange at first when our spouses had to step forward and lead the prayers. Later they accepted this, stopped being formalist and said, “It can be this way!” Some parents had removed their children from madrassas and enrolled them in our schools to protect them from extremist conduct. My husband had a student who studied at a madrasah for a while; his family, who learnt suicide bombing training was given in that madrasah run by people who espoused terrorist ideals, immediately removed him from there and enrolled him in our school.

People in Pakistan are Muslims in majority, but they have a different culture. How were your interactions with the people there in terms of religious living?

Actually, I noticed it later. No one had told anyone anything. In fact, we preached it to ourselves. We tried to remember the things we once had learnt. We tried to spend time with people. There was an older sister from Pakistan; she used to get up for the tahajjud prayer every night. How should I tell her something? In fact, you also come to notice your own shortcomings. Maybe this is the Hizmet itself, to make up for the deficiencies in oneself by synergizing with others. We do not currently live in a predominantly Muslim society, but we have learnt how disciplined and hardworking they are, how loyal and respectful they are. Back in Pakistan, it was actually a mistake. We did not preach those people anything. We simply tried to keep ourselves fresh, indeed. That’s why, I used to tell my friends, “Don’t worry about them!” For example, we would visit a house and I could see the changes of emotion on a friend’s face or how she turned down the local food. Frankly, I would get angry with my own friend. Even now, if someone talks negatively about Pakistan, if they say, “Pakistan is like this, people there are like that…” I feel insulted. I wish to leave that place when I can. “You should look at yourself instead!” I wish to say to them.


There were locals who used to have servants in their houses. Some of us found this outright strange. We seem to be a nation accustomed to summary judgment. The Hizmet actually tells us this: “Don’t judge, be with people, meet people to know them.” Allah Almighty declares in a Qur’anic verse, “We created you different…”. The manifestation of the HizmetMovement across the world must have originated from that verse. Hizmet is the reflection of that verse in the world. I tried to find this out there. No one has to live the same like us. I had a lot to learn from them. If they asked, there is a ‘sublime service’ about which I would tell them. That too has not been in our domain only anyway. Not to judge, not to take this as strange, to coexist. I learned these. They could coexist. I saw that in Africa too. There is no distinction between Muslims and Christians. They live side by side, without ever considering one another out of place. There are no differences between them. We may have learnt more from them than they from us.

Where did you live in Pakistan other than Islamabad?

We lived in Islamabad until 2013. We actually wished to migrate to another country. I was so used to Pakistan. That was a problem too. I thought I was no more prolific. Nine years is a long time. New ones have to come and find solutions with new perspectives. Knowing a place well becomes a disadvantage over time. You also become emotionally attached there. Actually, we wished to leave there earlier, but it was not meant to happen. In our ninth year, I insisted more. They appointed us to Lahore.

In fact, Lahore felt like a different country. We spent two good years there. Very nice achievements had been made before we went there. We endeavoured to add on that pedestal. Later, we moved to Peshawar in 2016. It is a very different place. I can say I spent my best years in Pakistan there. Peshawar is near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. Although the temperament of the people in Pakistan varies according to the provinces, Pakistanis are not a belligerent or negatively ambitious nation in general. In traffic and other places, I was surprised to see that no one was fighting but simply saying ‘Okay’ and moving on. Over time, I saw a significant part of people did not say no, but they also did not do the things that did not suit their minds.

I would witness the same among the students. I would set a study schedule for students, 15 would confirm but 2 would turn up in the end. In the conversations we had with the ladies and in the cooking classes, while we expected 30 participants, 6 or 7 would arrive. Some would say “I will come for sure!” and never said ‘no’, but something always cancelled their attendance at the last moment. When invited, they would not directly say ‘No’ or ‘I have a commitment elsewhere’ so as not to offend us.

I guess it was difficult to get used to these. What changes did you experience?

I am actually a hasty person. I’m not very flexible. I got used to these things over time, I learned. This was a characteristic in some and you respect them over time. These people could not say ‘no’, you would not be able to change that. You would get used to it, you would accept it, you would improve your guessing. There was no need to judge, blame or say “why didn’t you come?” You would say, “I had missed you and I waited for you to come” in compassionate insistence, but you would not promise to yourself, “I will not invite them again”. Actually, this is true everywhere. If you have an intention or a quest to reach people, to serve, you cannot cut things short, you are not allowed to cross out names. I learned this the most.

Yet, I found the people of Peshawar as the exact opposite. If they wish, they will do, and if they wish not, they will say it. Quarrels and fist fights do happen. The climate is harsh and the people are stern; they wear their hearts on their sleeves. They are of one colour inside out. They are bold. The living conditions were said to be difficult, yet it was so similar to Islamabad, two hours away by drive. Everything that was in Islamabad was also available in Peshawar.

A Pakistani deputy (second from the right) also attended the kermis held at the PakTurk School.

My husband was the principal of the school there. Until our arrival, no big fundraising bazaar or cultural festival had been held there. We organized such an event with my husband and colleagues. We were few, but we achieved organizing the same festivals as we had done in Islamabad. It was not the number of people that mattered, that is. Stalls for various delicacies included the ones for the Turkish large pancake and steak tartar a la turca. Our local colleagues always helped us. We achieved unity in that activity.


A younger friend I knew in Peshawar impressed me a lot. She arrived there from Afyon, Turkey. She had met and chatted with local ladies once a week. She made friends with the ladies around her. She offered them food, invited them to her home, and went to their homes. When I got there, I realized she had met many ladies. She also introduced me to her local circle of friends. We had mutual house visits and conversations. That friend pioneered most activities there, but she thought she had done nothing substantial. I was impressed with this sincerity. We met many more ladies in less than a year. Everything developed quickly. The local people were very supportive of the educational activities. I worked in the public relations department of the school. When I was asked to teach Turkish classes, I accepted it on the condition I taught Turkish to parents. It was necessary to define different activities to expand the cooperation between the school and the parents. We formed a group of 10-15 people and conducted parent-school association activities together. The parents also learned Turkish.

Before we went to Peshawar, we did not know our institutions did not have a girls’ school there. I have a daughter and she was supposed to start 6th grade that year. The school administration said, “Well, let’s open a girls’ school,” but this could not be done due to the aftermath of the coup attempt in Turkey. My daughter attended 6th and 7th grade with male students. Peshawar had different effects on all of us as a family. Our children started regular prayers and they fasted entirely during the month of Ramadan there. I used not to allow them to fast all day because Islamabad and Lahore were so hot. For the first time, they fasted on all days in Ramadan in Peshawar. If we went to Pakistan again, we would love to live in Peshawar. I lived in other big cities in Pakistan, but I consider Peshawar a distinctive place.

On the one hand, you raised your children, on the other hand, you grew up in Pakistan. What did you learn and what experiences did you have as compared to your first impression?

I could not learn the local languages. This pains me really. My husband learned the local language well, but even though I understood what people said, I could not reply in their language. I could not learn it because I could do my work with English, maybe because I did not need it. Actually, I tried to overcome that by requesting others to set up the conversations. Since my English was not enough to chat with the ladies, colleagues did the talks and friends developed themselves so fine. Their English also improved. A teacher friend had brought her students to my home and started a conversation in English that lasted for 10 minutes. Later, we requested other friends. They accepted, profound thanks to them. Those 10-minute conversations grew to talks that lasted 90 minutes. Sharing work is important. You shouldn’t do everything yourself. You have to be innovative and try to put yourself in the shoes of others. I am hasty by nature, but time moved slowly there. In that way, I learned to be flexible and to adjust my style. There might have been several people whom I hurt, but I learned to communicate effectively without speaking my mind directly. Because Pakistanis are not offensive. They say ‘yes’ to everything so as not to offend you. So don’t break them. You actually face your own character. You see the flaws in yourself. Because Pakistani people are compliant and you learn to love unconditionally anyway. They loved us so.

Didn’t they notice our bewildered looks when we first visited their houses? They loved us even so. They ate our food which did not suit their tastes, and they tried to learn about us. It was actually very ambitious for us to teach them how to cook, but we tried to save face by offering pastries and pies. Later we requested them, “Please, you teach us too”. It was an opening. I learned many Pakistani dishes such as ‘biryani, chicken karahi, and pakora’. I also learned hot and sour sauces. There were also things I did not like. There was chana chaat, a salad with chickpeas and everyone’s favourite. I didn’t like it, but I ate it. You also learn not to eat voluntarily. Just as in a Turkish proverbial phrase that says “You may eat raw chicken for an honoured friend’s sake!”, I learned that too. I noticed they too ate our meals for our sake. I witnessed some of our dishes, such as sarma or manti, tasted strange for some of our Pakistani friends.

To be continued…


Part One: Education volunteer Sevda Arslan (1): I learned to live together in Pakistan without judging people

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