While still a high school student, Hacer Bahar Çokarslan had intended to become a teacher in Turkish schools abroad. Her parents were not even willing to allow their only daughter to leave her home city to study at the university, let alone send her abroad. However, first, Hacer got her family’s consent for her university education and went to Izmir from Kütahya. Later, the way to Pakistan was opened with mysterious synchronicities.
Had it not been for the troublesome phase started in 2016, she would never have thought of leaving Pakistan where she started teaching, got married, settled down and experienced motherhood. The first students to whom Teacher Hacer taught with enthusiasm and who celebrated her Mother’s Day when she was not even a mother and their truehearted families remained in Pakistan. Now, she continues to guide her students with new technological tools, while commemorating the old sweet days when she worked round the clock on the path of service in a different geography. In the first part of our interview, Teacher Hacer narrates her journey to Pakistan and her first year there.
-Can you briefly talk about your life before you went to Pakistan?
I was born on April 22, 1988 in Kütahya. We are two siblings. When I was in Class 8, I took admission in a private tutorial centre to prepare for the high school entrance exam. Hence, in September 2001 first, I set foot in a Hizmet-inspired institution. May my Lord not separate me and not break my bond with this service. I have always prayed “Let the day I leave Hizmet be my day of death!” I first heard about the schools abroad at that tutorial centre. As I got to know the Hizmet Movement, I wished to go abroad for teaching too. I am an Anatolian Teacher High School graduate. I could easily choose a faculty of education degree program at the university, but I wished to teach abroad. In order not to face hardship with teaching in English abroad, I – contrary to my father’s wishes – preferred the English-medium Mathematics degree program instead of the education faculty. I had a hard time at university. Since my father didn’t want me to choose that program, he used to ask me, “How now? You cannot understand the topics, can you?”. I took the university entrance exam two more times while I was still attending the university.
Since I did not want to leave Izmir, I applied for the degree programs in Izmir again. I had friends who had chosen the preschool teaching degree program. Their courses were easy. I thought I could study comfortably like them. And so, I would not leave Izmir either. Later I thought, “What am I doing, deviating from my intention?” I had difficulties because the courses were tough, but I always dreamed of going abroad. I used to pray, “O Allah, you brought me this far. You sure have a place to take me from now on. You know my intentions.” I asked my Lord to count my 6 years at the university school as my service overseas, by saying that “deeds are according to intentions”. I had such a wish. In February 2012, I graduated from Izmir Dokuz Eylul University, Department of Mathematics English-medium degree program, which I had started in 2006.
-What did your family say about your desire to go abroad?
My father’s motivation in sending me to Izmir was his trust in the Hizmet-inspired people. In my father’s words, “I took you to the university once for your admission, and 6 years later I came to your convocation. I would chaperon you to your car from home, and I would not be worried about you from then on.” There was such confidence. In a place like Izmir, he trusted without thinking about where I went, who I stayed with, or what I ate. My parents had come to Izmir for the graduation program. We went to the Hisar Mosque as a family. The time for the noon prayer was approaching. We took our ablutions and while we were sitting in the courtyard of the mosque, waiting for the prayer time, a man whom my father had not known came by. While speaking, he said “This year, we slaughter our sacrificial animals in Africa. Where are you going to sacrifice yours?” My father said, “We have a daughter who wishes to go there too!” and talked about me. When they entered the mosque for prayer, my father sat on a chair in the back because he could not pray standing up.
THEY SAID, ‘THINK TURKEY OF 30 YEARS AGO AND PREPARE YOURSELF ACCORDINGLY!’
The same person came and sat next to him. When it was the time for the prayer, he went to the front and joined the congregation. While waiting to leave after the prayer, that person came to my father and touched his hand saying, “You are very fortunate!” When we met in the courtyard after the prayer, my father was weeping. “Okay, go wherever you wish to go!” he told me. Normally he had not wanted me to go. Later, he still couldn’t help saying, “Don’t be under the influence of the ‘World of Secrets’ (a TV show on STV). If you won’t go, don’t go!” We exchanged jokes that way. Hence, my permission for teaching abroad came under the influence of a person we did not know.
-How was the path to Pakistan opened for you?
I had participated in the teacher interviews for the Turkish schools abroad and stated my intense wish. Since I had graduated in the semester, I had to wait until June for the final decision. Meanwhile, I attended the overseas teaching seminar held in Istanbul. I was saying to myself, “Let it be abroad, I don’t care where”. I didn’t necessarily say Pakistan. I was single, I did not express a special request for fear I would be tested on my own will. We were six ladies destined for Pakistan. Five of us were math teachers.
-What did you think when you first learned that?
We were very excited. It didn’t matter where. We had heard stories of fresh teachers drawing lots of their prospective overseas workplaces from a skullcap. We had that excitement. As those appointed to Pakistan, we met there immediately. A gentleman named Mr. Mehmet informed us about Pakistan. “Think of Turkey’s condition 30 years ago. Prepare yourself accordingly,” he said. When we first went to Pakistan, we went to a market across from the school. We looked at the products with amazement. “Oh, they have this! They have this as well!” Because we had reset our expectations when we left Turkey. We also saw Pakistan was not 30 years behind us. There was everything we needed. The people there also made a living, after all. There was nothing to exaggerate. One thing Hodjaefendi always emphasizes is ‘lack of expectation’. If we can do this, everything will make us happy. What we always saw in Turkey made us happy in Pakistan. We bought Nutella from the market and even that made us very happy.
-What did you know about Pakistan before you went there? What kind of preparations did you make?
Until then, Pakistan was only for me the land of the poet Muhammad Iqbal, whom Fethullah Gülen Hodjaefendi referred in his sermons. One of the first things I did at home after the seminar was watching the Pakistan episode of the STV’s Ayna (Mirror) travel show. Later, after spending the Eid al-Fitr with my family, on August 24, 2012, we 6 teachers and a friend of ours boarded a plane to Pakistan.
ON OUR FIRST MEETING, MR. KAMIL SAID ‘DON’T NEGLECT YOUR MUM!’
-What were your family’s comments when they heard you were going to Pakistan?
They just wished to meet the people to whom they would entrust me. They wanted to know who I would be with. Spontaneously, Mrs. Meral Kaçmaz and her husband Mr. Mesut were in Turkey. They are from Afyon province and I am from Kütahya province. They came to visit me and the family. When they saw and talked to them, my family felt a little more comfortable. My brother took the number of Mr. Kamil, who worked in Pakistan, at the airport. Since I did not have a phone number yet, my parents wanted a phone number to reach me from there. We would go to breakfast or dinner with one friend in Pakistan and we would receive the news through Mr. Kamil, “Let Hacer call her family.” I would call my mother immediately. While meeting with Mr. Kamil in person for the first time, he asked other friends about their hometowns and other things. When it was my turn, he simply advised me, “Don’t neglect your mum!”
My mother was like that when I was in Izmir. I always remember my mother as a mother who wept after me. No mother can get enough of her child, but my mother called me constantly in Pakistan. I saved up my phone airtime minutes too. I called her frequently. In my first year, a large part of the salary I received from school was spent to phone airtime bills. The Internet wasn’t that common back then. We used to talk on landlines and it was very expensive.
-Which city did you first land in? What were your impressions?
We first landed in Islamabad. As five friends from Turkey, we stayed in the same house. University life seemed to continue for us. We used to do most things together. We used to go to dinners and teas at senior teachers’ homes. They paired us with other teachers; as trainee teachers, we used to take classes with them. One of those first students came to America, we meet here. I used to stay at the dormitory sometimes and I used to braid her hair. I used to help out with mentoring programs. That’s how we interacted with students. Whenever they saw us, they would speak Turkish to practice. As I listened to them, I realized how irritating the first sentences I used while learning English were. “My name is Aisha, my parents are doctors, my teacher’s name is this, I love my teacher very much.” When I heard these in Turkish, it felt as if something scratched my brain. Whenever I visited the dormitory, the students used to address me as ‘Sister’, which was so beautiful. The first notes students wrote were theirs.
-What caught your attention about Pakistani society and culture?
We used to visit senior teachers. Some were Pakistani ladies married to Turks. It was possible to see the mixture of two cultures there. In most houses there, there is a bathroom in each room, or at least in the master bedroom. Whenever we visited the students at their homes, the mothers received us in the bedroom. It is something very special for them, but something we are not used to. A different country and hot as well.
We spent the first four months in Islamabad mostly with the worry of “What will we do next?” Winter had come. It did not snow, but it was cold. We bought sweaters from the second-hand market.
I cannot forget the Eid-al-Adha I experienced there during my first year. For the first time in contemporary history, as they said, three dates were announced to celebrate the Eid al-Adha. Turkey celebrated it first, the next day, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan celebrated the Eid al-Adha on the third day. Eids always arrived later like that anyway. We moved to our new house and were busy cleaning. The water flowing from the faucet decreased. We thought that the water supply was cut off. It turns out it was necessary to fill the roof or underground water tank. You had to press a button for the water pump to start. None of us knew. “Oh my, water’s finishing!” we said and filled the last running water into the pots. We also stopped the cleaning. On the one hand, we were fasting. We ate sehri (pre-dawn meal. Dishes piled up in the kitchen. We waited for the water to come. We used the available water sparingly for ablution. In between, the water came a little bit, then cut off again. When the Turkish sister living upstairs arrived, we learned the truth. Turns out our water supply had run out. We had been using the surplus water pumped to her floor. If that sister had not come, we would not have known how to operate our water pump and been left without water for days. This is how we learned such a system existed.
IF THERE WAS ANOTHER CITY, I’D SAY ‘I WON’T GO FOR THE SECOND YEAR’ BUT PAKISTAN DID NOT LEAVE ME
It was a problem whenever the power was cut off. We tried to support one another more because it was an emotional time in those difficult times. Rather than knowing Pakistan for more, we used to think, ‘Will we manage and hold on here?’ At that time, a friend had returned to Turkey. We tried to be family for one another. We studied Math and English. We were given scholarships. As teachers, we weren’t taking classes yet. We focused on our studies so we could deserve the scholarship we received. We were thinking about our next place of work. We had that excitement. I wore the skirt I had worn when I had gone to Izmir in 2006 and when I had first arrived in Pakistan, when I went to Karachi from Islamabad. Because those were my places of service and I wished my service clothes to be the same. I had such an ‘obsession’.
-Where did you start teaching?
After the workshops in Islamabad, I was appointed to Karachi and on January 5, 2013, I was to reach Karachi as a teacher. While waiting for the plane to take off, a delay announcement was made. It was delayed sometime later again. I kept on waiting at the airport. I called our school manager and asked, “Am I misunderstanding, or is my English not enough?” Finally, I reached Karachi and on January 7, I set foot in the PakTurk Gulshan-e-Iqbal Girls High School for the first time as a teacher.
-What kind of a city was Karachi for you? What did you experience as a single teacher?
Karachi felt bleak. As in a Turkish proverb, “Allah descends snow according to the mountain down below” I guess I had to be chiselled for some time. Such has been the will of my Lord. I know myself. If it were in another city, I might say, “I won’t go there for the second year”, but it meant that my Lord would put me to use and Pakistan did not leave me. It was especially difficult for a single woman that year. It was the election year and bombs frequently exploded in various parts of the city. Schools were closed. Crowds gathered and blocked the roads. One day, I got on a rickshaw with my mentor friends to take a 45-minute drive to a central market. A sister called and said, “Wherever you are, don’t go out! A bomb exploded near the marketplace!” We were near there. Too many had died.
We could predict how many days the schools would be closed by looking at the news and the number of people who lost their lives. A bomb exploded in Gulshan-e-Iqbal Block 4 once. I was at a senior teacher’s house in Block 6. The windows shook with the power of the explosion. It is impossible not to be afraid in that setting. People would take to the streets for demonstrations. Mourning processions would be organized. Since we did not know the local language, we did not understand what they were about. In such cases, shopping plazas and neighbourhood stores would be closed.
To be continued…