Hacer Bahar Çokarslan, who worked as a Mathematics teacher at the PakTurk Schools, narrated her experiences while she was preparing to leave Pakistan, the support given by the parents during that tough period, and what her years in Pakistan contributed to her.
-What did you experience after you learned you had to leave Pakistan?
Everyone working in schools had been issued two-year visas, and the visas would be expiring in the last months of 2016. We thought our visas would be extended in time. We were relieved as Pakistani state officials had said, “You go on with your work, we’ll take care of the issue” until the last day. We had no wall-to-wall carpeting in our house. Our son had just started to crawl. We had planned to have our residence carpeted. We were to choose and buy the carpet that weekend. I and my husband used to say to each other, “Let’s buy things for the house so it should become a token of prayer for us to stay here permanently, Let’s never leave Pakistan!” We couldn’t buy the carpet that weekend because I had noted a room’s measurement wrong. I will never forget, we had meetings at school on Monday, November 17, 2016. We planned to organize reading programs the next weekend. We set new goals. The month of Muharram was around the corner and we planned exclusive programs for students during that period.
I came home after that meeting. A friend from Lahore phoned and asked, “News say we have to leave Pakistan in three days. Is that true?” I said, “There is no such thing, I just left a meeting. If there was such a thing, it would come up for discussion.” Shortly later, we were given the same bleak news. First thing, we sold our household items, but we still expected things would soon change for better. Later, after additional meetings, the deadline for our departure was extended for another ten days, until November 30, 2016. Tough days they were for sure.
We sold the household items but agreed to hand over the electronics on the last day. A parent had bought our car. We tried to prepare to leave for a European Union country. We had chosen a place where we could find jobs. Shortly later, the UNHCR issued asylee certificates assuring us protection for a year. Some Turkish educationist families had to stay under the same roof. There were those who could not leave Pakistan even though they had sold their belongings and vacated their houses. We also hosted a family for 12 days. Later, they rented a house for themselves. We didn’t have many items either. The man to whom we had sold our bed phoned one day and said, “I heard you didn’t leave. Where do you sleep?” We asked him to return our bed for some time. We managed in our residence for two months that way. The landlord took no rent may Allah be pleased with him. After some time, we moved to another neighbourhood where we found a house with a lower rent. Other friends and colleagues had likewise moved to houses near us. During that time of trouble, we spent two months of Ramadan in Pakistan.
-How was the attitude of the parents after these developments? Did you receive any support from them?
We met some parents regularly. They tried to support us as much as they could. Since we had sold utensils and plates, we used to manage with plastic picnic containers. Afterwards, we bought inexpensive items from the markets again. In Ramadan, I invited a local friend and her family to iftar. Since the crockery was few, I rushed to the kitchen after the iftar while they prayed and washed the crockery for the next serving. After the prayer, we would continue with the main course. They had also noticed the situation. They had brought a box of cake plate set as an Eid gift. Actually, we could have bought that too, but there was no point in setting our house anew due to the uncertainty in our status. We had bought the essentials and managed with what we had. Before buying anything, we would reckon “Can we sell this on the go?” Some parents wanted to gift us their jewellery for financial support. We did not accept, but they insisted so much. We accepted some of those as souvenirs.
‘IF YOU WISH I’LL GIVE THE MONEY BUT YOU KEEP THE CAR’
Something fascinating happened with our car. We had sold it and received the amount in Euros, thinking we would go to Europe at first. The person who had bought the car left it to us for use until we left Pakistan. It took nearly two years. We were among the last to leave. Had we stayed four more months, it would have been exactly two years. We wanted to stay if we could, as we did not have a problem with passport renewal. When it became clear we would not be leaving Pakistan soon, we handed the money back to the person who had bought the car. We did not feel comfortable that way because we continued to use the car. That person used to call us sometimes and our hearts would always leap thinking, “Will he want the car now?” Yet, the man said one day, “What do you live on? I can give you your money whenever you wish. You may keep the car.” During that time, we may have worn out the car even more and maybe it lost value. No matter what, when leaving, he received the car without asking anything. May Allah bless him.
-When exactly did you leave?
We wished to stay in Pakistan as long as we could, but on the other hand, we also looked for alternatives in our next destination. We sent CVs to educational institutions in several countries and charter schools in the United States. When we didn’t get any response, we forgot we even had applied. We used to think, ‘We should go to an African country and continue teaching there’. In March 2018, a year after our first application, we received an e-mail from a school in the United States. “We need a Computer Science teacher. Would you be interested for the opening?” they asked. Shortly later, we applied for visas and appeared in a visa interview on July 5. The authorities issued us visas without asking too many questions. When I left Pakistan, I left everything as they were. I didn’t wish to reexperience the hassle of selling things once again. We arrived in the United States on July 15, 2018.
After the abduction of the Kaçmaz family, everyone left somehow. Security risks peaked. We were all afraid of likely abduction. I will never forget: My husband had gone out for iftar with his students on a Ramadan day. I was at home with my toddler son. Back then, a newly married couple had moved upstairs. I had not met them yet. The doorbell rang. I was nervous, but I opened the door. The upstairs neighbour had left something to eat and drink at the door. He left saying nothing. Normally anyone would be happy someone shared their meal this way, but I got scared and did not eat that food. I thought, ‘Maybe he knew my husband was not home. Did they lace the food with something?’ Back then, our psychology was in tatters. Whenever I looked at the ordeals suffered in Turkey, I was thankful that at least I was with my family. When I came here, I realized better the difficulties we had in Pakistan during that time of trouble. “It looks we had been through tough times too!” I said to myself. It was a tough phase. Wherever we are, may Allah not change our intentions and may He grant us to keep our intentions sincere. May Allah grant us the opportunity to raise our children well in this country.
-Do you see the influence of the Pakistani culture on your children?
The Pakistani culture and spiritual atmosphere had a great influence on the children growing up there. Even the ‘nannies’ who looked after our children would always greet them by saying “As salaam alaikum!”. Our children grew up hearing this greeting. Our first son İhsan was born in Pakistan, and our second son Abdullah Taha was born in the United States. A student from Pakistan dreamed of me when I was pregnant to Abdullah Taha. “I saw you would have a son. He was a cute and light-skinned baby, and his name was Abdullah.” she told me. When she said that, I had not known my baby’s gender yet. It was known to my student. I wished Abdullah Taha to have a share in Pakistan and requested my Pakistani students to recite the Holy Qur’an before my delivery. I intended he should at least receive the prayers from Pakistan from the mouths of my students.
STUDENTS SHARE PICTURES AND SAY ‘THOSE WERE THE DAYS!’
-What do you have from the years you lived in Pakistan?
Foremost, I have “As salaam alaikum!” with me. I still greet everyone this way. I am keen on working in the kitchen. Normally, I do not post the pictures of the food I prepare. I do not consider this right. I believe everyone have their due when they see it. Yet, whenever I prepare something related to Pakistan, like milk tea or pakora in Ramadan, I share the photos with friends who had a past in Pakistan. I wish to cheer them at least. They also share the same. In this way, we sustain the days in Pakistan among ourselves.
Our students remained in Pakistan; their trueheartedness remained there. The question, “When will you return?” remains and I am bashful about it. When I look at myself, I feel I no have the same clarity and purity in the past. It’s sad but true. I wish to go back, but – as one Turkish idiom goes – much water has run under the bridge. Even if I return one day, the same students and the same environment will not be there. Students share our photos from school on social media and say “Those were the days!” Some students share our old photos on every Teacher’s Day. I feel myself honoured by these.
I love teaching. It was my dream job. The students had strong memories and could learn things quick. I had many students who could recite the Holy Qur’an by heart. With that skill, they could memorize math and solve the problems easily. In centralized exams, the same questions used to be asked from the same books. As a Maths teacher, I spent more time with my students as compared to the teachers of other subjects because we had to arrange extra classes. I also like guidance and counselling, but students are always the same age while I’m getting older. It is a little more challenging for our generation to tune in with new generations. I don’t know how I can teach under these conditions here.
– How did Pakistan change you? What aspect did it add to your life?
Pakistan is where my firsts were. The place where I attained my maturity. My first teaching experience and my married life started there. I also learned much about education services. We all grew up there. It was a great relief for me to go to Pakistan from Izmir. It was such a blessing. Everyone observed the hijab and paid attention to their clothing. My first holiday there was an Eid al-Adha. My friends and I had bought ourselves shalwar kameezzes. Over the years, we observed a change in the traditional dress sense. Kameez sleeves got shorter and girls started wearing tights instead of shalwar. Following the fashion, it seems. Cultural sense changes and generations undergo deep-rooted changes. I can notice these from the students’ posts on social media.
I am glad I lived in Pakistan. I had been single and got married there. I savoured most aspects of the country. I guess Allah Almighty made me experience several things for me to learn. Pakistan is one thing I am happy to have experienced in life. I am glad I did not go directly to a European country from Turkey or to a country like the United States of America where the living conditions are better than Turkey. You know the Arabic word ‘insan’ (human) originates from ‘nisyan’ (forgetfulness) and I too can forget things quickly. There is no doubt we have a self which always demands more and against which we are in constant struggle. Pakistan prominently helped me to attain victories in this struggle and remember our main purpose in life by saying, “Things are appreciated according to their opposites”. Pakistan was where I appreciated every circumstance through the lens of serving humanity as a means of joy and bliss. For all these right reasons, Pakistan matured me. For six years, she prepared me for a life full of tests I encountered once I came out of the sheltered life in a glass bell jar. It was a process I learned how to serve no matter if one was single or married, or if one was expelled from their homeland.
I WISH MY SON BORN TO VISIT PAKISTAN ONE DAY
What’s more, Pakistan is my ‘second home’ where I left my firsts. August 14, Pakistan’s Independence Day, is a special day for us too. At least I join in the celebrations on social media with my messages.
-How did it feel to go to the United States from Pakistan?
When I came here from Pakistan, it felt as if ‘I freshly arrived from the village’. We couldn’t find everything we wished in Pakistan. Here you can go to the market and get anything you want. For example, there was no feta cheese there, but there are many varieties of it in the markets here. We buy them after checking if they are halal or what ingredients they have. One day I saw we had several types of cheese at home. I said to my husband, “What are we doing? We may be tested by this extravagance.” It reminded me of Hazrat Abu Bakr (r.a) taking himself to accounts when he was served cold water to drink. Similar things happened later and I said, “I will return to Pakistan.” I would really love to have my first son born in Pakistan go back there one day. Let him see those places once again. His place of birth is Islamabad as written on his ID card. I also recommend to my friends while chatting: If you can, travel to Muslim countries with your children. At least let they hear the call to prayer. Most things remain abstract in terms of Islamic awareness here. There are Indian markets here where we sometimes go and buy spices, etc. When our son entered one market for the first time, he said, “Mom, it smells bad in here, let’s leave quick!” In Turkey, it is proverbially said, ‘the tortoise hates its shell’. “You were born amidst that scent, my son” I said to him. The home we called ‘world’ is a place where we become ‘earth-bound’ with the worldly bounties. That sincerity we had as we rushed while single and students, unfortunately, does not survive later.
-They call this ‘the test’, isn’t it? Life goes on somehow, and we are tested at every moment by our choices.
If I get up and say, “I’m going back to Pakistan,” will new generations follow me? Or will they say, “Where did we come to?” and bait me there? I do not know. When we first arrived here, İhsan saw the churches and said, “Oh, look! Here’s a mosque!” Now he even forgot how a mosque looks like. We coexist with a challenging generation and this is a test for all of us. I think I am being tested here, not in Pakistan. Scarcities and so on were not a big deal. We already knew it would be like that when we were leaving Turkey. You must have heard this parable: Angels visited a saint and asked, “We are here to test you with abundance and lack, which one would you like to have first?” “First, let me have abundance,” said the scholar. He knew abundance would cease after five years and the time for lack would begin, so he lived accordingly. After five years, the angels came and said, “Allah will not test you with lack because you have succeeded. You used that property knowing it was bestowed by Allah. You expressed your gratitude, gave your zakat, and you will endure any lack already. So, the abundance bestowed to you will be sustained.” Pakistan is such a place. May Allah Almighty not let us forget this and may He grant us the facility to serve humanity.
We went to Pakistan for providing educational services, but we came here due to security concerns and to get rid of hardships and dire circumstances. Allah knows, it has always been this way. During the Hegira, Rasulullah – sallAllahu alayhi wa sallam – had looked back at Mecca and said, “O Mecca! If I had not been forced out, I would not have left you!” We had no expectations like moving to the United States. We had no intention of leaving Pakistan. We had not said ‘we should buy a house and a car in Pakistan’ for the whims of settling there forever. Involved with our students and their parents and following the guidance and counselling goals besides the academic works, we had very busy lives there. We could not do these during the last phase before our departure. We observed some parents and students distancing from us. They politely came up with excuses. Despite everything, there were those who kept on meeting us. We are still in touch with some.